I was walking home from school, something that I had done hundreds of times before, and many times alone. I was about fifteen years old, or just shy of being sixteen. I remember that I was wearing my favourite black flared jeans, a blue peasant blouse, waiting to cross the busy highway and walk down the street that led to the subdivision where I lived.
I had done this so many times before.
As I waited to cross the street, I made eye contact with a man who was driving by. Not for any reason in particular, our eyes just happened to meet as I looked across the street. He was older than me, but not by much. Maybe in his early twenties. He wore a white ball cap, backwards, and drove a black Sunfire (or something like it). I don’t know what possessed me to keep watching him, maybe it was because our eyes had met, but I watched him as he drove past me, feeling unnerved – he kept looking in his rear view mirror, looking at me. My heart beat a little faster as he turned into a nearby parking lot.
The walk signal came on.
He had turned and was coming back toward me.
I have asthma, so I remember my lungs burning as I ran down the hill, running as fast as I could. I had a messenger bag and I recall it flying behind me as I ran, threatening to choke me if I didn’t keep my hand on the strap. My feet were slamming against the pavement. I wasn’t light on my feet at all (I’m still not). I had to stop running – my hips and knees hurt too much and I couldn’t breathe. I hadn’t bothered to look back since I had started running – was he still following me? Had he ever been? Had I imagined the whole thing?
I jumped. The car, the black Sunfire, pulled up alongside me. I put on my brave face and fought to keep from crying. I didn’t say anything, I just looked at him.
“Need a lift?” he asked, driving the car beside me as I kept walking.
“No,” I replied, still out of breath.
“Are you sure? I don’t mind. It wouldn’t be out of my way.”
I remember thinking how ridiculous that all was. Clearly, I was sure, I’d been running away from him. Had he not realized that? Had he cared? And of course it was out of his way, he’d had to turn around. The obviousness of these things made me even more uncomfortable. I was still walking, his car still moving alongside me.
“I’m sure,” I finally replied, lungs beginning to fill with much needed air.
I think he may have asked me more questions, I can’t remember. I do remember telling him that I didn’t live far (we were just off my street), but I’m not sure when I divulged that information. I can’t recall how he reacted, if he was angry, annoyed, or simply accepted that this girl had rejected him and his advances. Either way, he drove off, and I speed-walked the rest of the way home. When I got home and my mother asked how my day was, I just fell into her arms and cried, the fear and adrenaline from the past few minutes finally bubbling over.
I’ve replayed that day a lot in my head – what could I have done differently? Why did he follow me? What did I do wrong?
That was the first time I can recall being made to feel unsafe by a man simply because I was a woman. There would be many more incidents over the years and it still occurs once in a while. Suffice to say, I’m a lot less meek and polite when approached by strange men these days.
But it came from a terrible place. Being made to feel like I was in danger when I was a girl because men thought that my body was for them. I was fifteen. In that stretch of road in my hometown, the one that is required to walk along to commute basically anywhere, I’ve been honked at, hollered at, followed, and propositioned. All before I was eighteen. My sister, who is about that age now, still lives in that area. I wonder how many times gross, creepy men and boys have harassed her, harassed her friends.
It doesn’t get any easier, you just learn to deal.
But why do we have to?
Why do women just have to learn to deal with the behaviours of gross men? Why is it us who need to change and learn behaviours in order to feel just a little bit safer? Has any woman ever responded positively to being followed by a car by someone that she didn’t know?
It’s all just so exhausting. Fifteen years already I’ve been experiencing this nonsense. Does it ever really stop?
While I’ve grown more confident in dealing with these kinds of men in recent years, sometimes all I can do is smile and nod. I don’t always have the strength to deal with them, and quite often I’m a little scared. I think back to that day when that man followed me, went out of his way, to offer me a ride in his car. That could’ve played out so differently. Strong as I am now, sometimes I’m still that young girl.
What do we have to do? What do we have to do to get creeps to leave us alone? Because I’ll do it. I’ll do virtually anything to be able to go through my days without being harassed anymore. I don’t want young women growing up thinking that their bodies are a commodity. I don’t want to read any more stories about women being harassed by men.
Just do us a favour and leave us alone.