After sharing a story of street harassment and learning how commonplace it is, it’s become clear to me that it’s time to address this pervasive and widely accepted form of violence.
Before last week, I experienced only mild annoyance at street harassment. I understood and acknowledged it as a problem that women around the world faced daily, but save for the threatening or particularly obscene catcalls, my personal response has typically been that of a friendly nature.
For the past year and a half, I’ve taken almost-daily walks around the neighborhood where I work in downtown Pasadena. Our building is situated between a gas station and a lumberyard, so although we’re less than a mile from Pasadena’s historic and well-kept Old Town district, we’re aware that a certain “element” exists in our neighboring streets. We’re familiar with the Latino laborers, who smile appreciatively when we walk by during their games of quarters. I’ve come to look forward to my occasional sightings of an older Black man with thick dreadlocks and bushy, greying beard, hunched over an overflowing shopping cart that he pushes merrily down the street. “Whassup, Soul Sister?” he’ll shout at me. “Hey, you got any change?” The request is almost an afterthought. We understand that they are harmless.
There have been men who have called out to me, one even darting out of his house to shout at me from the middle of the street, only raising his arms in an overly confident shrug when I turned around. Perhaps it’s also because they’re often younger than me, I can chuckle and cross my fingers that they’ll grow out of it or learn better.
I couldn’t find my headphones, so for the last few days, I’d taken to walking around without my cell phone, enjoying that it forced me to take in my surroundings. I liked to think of it as a walking meditation. I counted the different colors in the foliage around me and noted the architecture of the old, historic homes, some of them protected landmarks. I took deep, belly breaths, and let my shoulders relax down my back.
I had just passed the Smart & Final parking lot when a white passenger van pulled alongside me. I had noticed him at the stop sign, but he’d been driving the opposite direction. I didn’t even glance at him as he idled beside me, focusing only on quickening my pace, my eyes discreetly surveying the streets for allies.
“Hey beautiful, you need a ride?” he called out to me. I waved my hand as though shooing a fly, my gaze still straight. He paused for another moment before driving off.
With wider strides, I craned my neck to look around me. I didn’t see another person until I reached the post office, a full two blocks from where I’d seen the van.
Truthfully, if that had been the extent of my experience, I doubt I’d have been too rattled. I knew that the Smart & Final was behind me, the Post Office in front of me, and I would have ran like hell if I’d heard his car door even start to open.
By the time I rounded the block, I’d shaken off most of my frazzled nerves. I didn’t want to ruin the rest of my walk wondering what could have happened. I attempted to resume my meditative observations. Plush green grass in the lawn to my right, mango-colored bellflowers hanging from trees and coloring the sidewalk. An older (but not old enough to be cool) navy Mustang parked on the street, a uniformed man inside. I thought about how funny it was that I still thought of internet technicians as “cable guys.”
When he pulled alongside me, I thought that maybe he needed directions. I turned to peer inside his car, but quickly recoiled when I saw that he was waggling a half-erect penis outside of his pants, barely registered it when he asked me, “Do you wanna suck it?”
I shooed another imaginary fly. “No!” I stumbled further away from him on the sidewalk. “Please leave me alone!”
The few seconds he drove alongside of me felt like hours. “Please!” My voice cracked with hysteria and I hated how weak I felt, how helpless. What if he doesn’t listen? The question flickered in my mind, my feet poised to flight.
“Okay,” his voice was placating, perhaps embarrassed? His car sped away.
Sweat pooled at the small of my back and my heart beat frantically in my chest. “What the fuck?” I cried out to no one.
I was momentarily comforted when I saw that a woman with a stroller was less than a block in front of me. I quickly lapped her, assuming from her seemingly nonplussed demeanor that my assailant hadn’t bothered her. In a less panic-driven moment, I might have asked, or at the very least warned her, but I had a singular goal of safety: enclosed walls and my boyfriend’s reassuring voice in my ear.
As I replayed the events over and over, asking myself a million impossible questions, a car horn blared out at me. Tears gathered in the corners of my eyes as I beat back the urge to yell it again: “Leave me alone!” Instead, I power-walked the remaining 100 yards to our building.
In hindsight, I’m surprised that it took so long for the seething rage to seep in. I was too busy stewing in disbelief. It wasn’t until I realized what that man had taken from me, what was being taken from women every day in every city in the world, that the anger began to take over.
I’m an independent, strong-willed woman who prides herself on never doing anything I don’t have an intention to do. For the most part I’ve managed to validate those qualities, and the people I surround myself with help immensely. It enraged me that this stranger had managed to take a speck of that away from me. I hated that he had forced me to see that, and that it made me fear what else men could force me to do. I wondered what it might be like for a woman with previous sexual trauma to experience something like that.
To be honest, that rage hasn’t dissipated in the days following the incident. Later that night with my boyfriend, only one glass of wine had me heaving an hour-long tirade about what bullshit it was that such behavior was so commonplace so as to be expected, and that my own mother, though appropriately disgusted, hadn’t been surprised or shocked by what had happened to me. The consensus was that it happens to all of us.
And yea, it makes it a lot harder to be friendly or polite when faced with less threatening, but still unwanted, attention. Determined not to let some creep keep me indoors, I decided to take another walk at work two days later. This time equipped with both my cell phone and pepper spray, I decided to stick to the busy avenue, but still grew jumpy when cars slowed beside me.
On Friday, I went out in Hollywood with a few girlfriends. Attempting to walk several blocks from the bar to a late-night diner felt like being thrust unknowingly into a Crash Bandicoot game, constantly jumping and darting to avoid rogue hands and looming figures with sinister grins. One man reached around and palmed my friend’s crotch over her jeans.
“I kinda wanna go back there and punch that guy,” she told me.
“I’ll back you up,” I promised.
Two identical figures leaning against a wall, glaring forward, unfazed. With a sigh, we walked away from them, only to turn a corner and have an older man inform me that I’d be, “pretty if ya got rid of the glasses!”
Another set of men blocked the sidewalk in front of us, their arms outstretched, teeth bared into a smile. Not once during our stroll did anyone besides us object to this behavior.
Street harassment should not be treated like some cringe-worthy right of passage for women. We need to stop acting like this is the behavior of the minority, and start taking accountability for a culture that feels entitled to women, that feels ownership over our gaze, bodies, and time.
It means that the nice guys who are “just saying hi” will have to find somewhere more appropriate to approach us. Most critical thinking adults should be able to discern the difference. For those unable to do so, they should muffle their ego when a woman chooses not to respond.
I, like everyone, get angry sometimes. I don’t want to be an angry person though. I don’t want to glower through the streets with my guard up, constantly anticipating casual violence from men.
They think it makes us weak. They see us jump back, hands flying up to cover gaping mouths, high-pitched squeals, maybe even tears, and they read weakness. What they don’t know is that after each encounter we grow a little bit more resolved, hardened, and fed up. We’re also talking to each other, and talking about our experiences in public, and while they underestimate us, we’re only growing stronger.
I spoke to a few men about my experience, and although they were vaguely aware of street harassment as a general annoyance, they couldn’t believe how widely accepted the behavior was or that women were terrorized to that degree. I hope that hearing my story encourages them to speak up, to tell their friends to back off when they see them being obnoxious or threatening towards women.
I think the best way to advance any cause is to create awareness. The more we tell our stories, and get others involved, the sooner women will be able to exist in peace.
When I was looking into resources beyond pepper spray, I stumbled upon Hollaback!, a nonprofit organization that is working towards ending street and online harassment. Hollaback! empowers individuals through a mobile app that allows them to document, map, and share incidents of harassment that they’ve experienced or witnessed. Now used in over 50 cities and 20 countries, Hollaback! proves that street harassment is a worldwide issue that deserves attention from policymakers. Check out iHollaback.org for more information!