It hardly bothers me anymore. And that’s what bothers me.
Does every woman know that particular feeling of walking briskly down the street, heart pounding, willing yourself not to look back, wondering if you’re about to be assaulted and praying you’ll get to where you’re going safely?
It had been a little while since I’d been in that particular place, but when it happened a couple of weeks ago, the feeling settled right into me, resonating down to my bones and taking me right back to every time it’s ever happened before.
It wasn’t anything, really. Just a man suddenly appearing beside me as I turned the corner toward home on one of those Winter evenings when darkness falls earlier and faster than you’re ready for.
“Hey, beautiful, ” he said under his breath, a slightly threatening note in his voice.
I kept my eyes forward and picked up my pace slightly, pretending I hadn’t heard him. I heard his footsteps behind me for a block or so, trying not to panic and quietly calculating how long it would take me to get to the next busy intersection, where I would, I hoped, be safe.
The next day, I was on my way to the train when I passed a man raking leaves in the yard next door. He stopped and leaned on his rake, slowly looking me up and down. “Niiice,” he said, drawing the word out and smiling at me. It was a smile that said, I could do whatever I want to you. I hurried past, again pretending I hadn’t heard, again not looking back.
It’s not like these incidents are remarkable in any way. They’re just the two most recent ones; the ones that made my heart beat fast and my palms sweat. Usually, I’m unfazed by the “Hey baby” and the “Come over here, mama” that are a routine part of any woman’s day – at least any woman who walks around in the city. The difference was, these two times, I was alone on a quiet street. Being catcalled in a crowd can still feel awful, but generally, it doesn’t feel dangerous. When you’re alone, all bets are off.
In case you’re not convinced of the pervasiveness of street harassment, watch this video that went viral a while back, of a woman walking in New York City for 10 hours.
Like most women, I can reel off a list of times I’ve been sexually harassed. There was the time I was walking out of the gym after yoga class and a man in a car shouted at me that I was a whore. The time I was waiting to cross the street with my daughter, when a man standing in the doorway of the corner store taunted “Be careful crossing that street, mama.” And then there are the men who tell women to smile – something that never really bothered me, especially given that most of the time, I’m already smiling.
Most of the time, it doesn’t bother me. And that’s what bothers me. When did I get so used to being sexually harassed?
It started when I was young – younger than my daughters are now. I remember my mother frowning at me when I was about 10 years old, telling me not to sashay my hips when I walked around in front of my stepfather, who leered at me. “It’s not appropriate,” she said, by way of explanation. Defiantly, I narrowed my eyes at her, swinging my hips even more as I sauntered away.
But I got the message. If I was going to act sexy, I deserved what I got. It wasn’t up to my stepfather to behave appropriately toward a child; it was up to me not to behave inappropriately. Years later, I didn’t report being raped, because part of me thought I had it coming.
There aren’t a lot of statistics on street harassment. Most women experience it on a regular basis; many of us don’t talk about it very often, if at all. Do we think that if we ignore it, it will go away?
Two years ago, a nonprofit called Stop Street Harassment commissioned a study that found 65 per cent of American women have experienced street harassment. Besides being catcalled, 23 per cent of women said they’d experienced an unwanted sexual touch, 20 per cent had been followed, and nine per cent had been forced to perform some type of sexual act.
Here’s anther thing about sexual harassment: it happens whether you’re all dressed up in your highest heels and brightest lipstick, taking the trash out in your pajamas with a serious case of bedhead, or coming home from a hard workout, sweaty and stinky. It’s not about how alluring you look.
That’s because sexual harassment isn’t about sex: it’s about power. As illustrator Suzy X noted, “It’s not as simple as men harassing women; it’s one’s special way to remind you who the bosses are in this world – and those bosses exist across gender, race and class lines.”.
Why then, is it almost always men harassing women, and not the other way around? California State University, Long Beach professor Shira Tarrant explains, “Our culture sends chronic messages to boys and men that they are entitled to access other people’s bodies, invade personal space, and even to violate our most intimate realms with impunity or lack of awareness if that other person is perceived to be less powerful.”.
So, how do we fight back? My friend Emily is a big supporter of yelling. She says women should get comfortable with using our voices – to speaking up, and being loud. “I heard what you said!” and “Don’t talk to me that way!” are just a couple of ideas for things you can yell back at a street harasser.
Yelling back might feel strange at first – and embarrassing – but maybe it’s a good first step. Or maybe the very first step is to stop accepting sexual harassment as normal in the first place.
Women do have power. Let’s use it.
GIF via wifflegif.com.
Comment: How do you deal with sexual harassment?