I have been taught to be fearful of men who pass me on the street since childhood – not wary, fearful.
The warnings begin with, “don’t talk to strangers.” Once we enter adolescence, it shifts to, “Don’t walk home alone” because you’ll get kidnapped and raped. I watched enough Lifetime movies and Law & Order: SVU in my early teens to develop a database in my brain of all the different ways I could be violently assaulted at any given moment. It can seem crazy, but these warnings are not exaggerations. Those scenarios play out in real life all the time. Young girls are told to carry pepper spray, travel in numbers, and listen to music only in one ear if we feel we need to at all. We are trained to be looking out for creeps at all times.
The first time I remember feeling like I was being sexually harassed in public was during my sophomore year of college. I was walking alone at night; just the short distance from my bus stop to where I was meeting people in downtown Minneapolis. A few people (two men and one woman) walked out of a parking garage and followed behind me. I assumed they were going to the same area.
One of the men began calling for my attention. He asked where I was headed dressed the way I was. I was wearing jean shorts and a tank top. After a minute or so of comments of the same nature, he hadn’t stopped, so I turned around and flashed the pepper spray I kept on my keychain. They turned the corner.
Later that year, I was on the way to visit friends in Chicago and it happened again. My dad didn’t feel I would be safe traveling in the outfit I had planned for the party, so I changed into something a bit more ‘modest’ and put different clothes in my backpack for later. On the ride in, a middle-aged business-casual looking man sat down across the car. After a few minutes I noticed that his phone pointing a little too directly toward me. I saw a bright flash and heard the standard phone camera ‘click’. I realized that the man had been trying to get a good angle to take photos of me.
My stomach fell into my butt and I made eye contact with another girl on the train. The look on her face told me, “Yep. That’s really happening.” I pretended that I didn’t notice, but made a bee-line out of the car as soon as we stopped. The flashes and clicks continued and sped up as I shuffled out. When I got on the next train, I made sure I sat near women.
I worried I was being dramatic, but I felt sick. What was he going to do with those pictures? Would they be on the internet? Was he going to masturbate to them? Am I the only one he’s done this to?
Similar things have happened on occasion since then, although smaller aggressions are more frequent. I very recently saw a whole penis on the street! (It wasn’t directed toward me; more of a general ‘fuck you’ to all those opposed to casually and publicly exposed genitals. Still not okay.)
When men scoff at complaints about street harassment of any kind, I am dumbfounded. After all, the men in my life are the ones doing most of the warning. That sense of urgency seems to disappear when the person being bothered isn’t a relative or close friend.
What reason do I have to believe that the man who feels the compulsion to yell at me from across the street won’t also feel a compulsion to follow me or do something worse? What about the guy who needs his face an inch and a half away from mine to tell me how pretty I look today? The guy who calls me a bitch when I don’t respond?
I’m not worried about being called obnoxious or oversensitive. I know how to take a compliment when I hear one, and this kind of attention is not complimentary. It is unsettling and disruptive. It feels malicious. If my and other women’s general discomfort (and at times, fear of physical harm) in public space aren’t enough to warrant consideration and concern from men, then I think we’ve got some other issues to discuss.