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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

This Is Street Harassment

My daughter wrote this and asked that I post it. I think it's terrific, and important, so I'm proud to have it on my site. If you agree, feel free to share it.

14th street, one block away from an NYU dorm. 1:00am.

I'm walking in a form-fitting skirt and a loose blouse and flats, having just come back from a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I'm clutching my purse tightly to me, frowning slightly, and walking on the well-lit side of the street. Everything mom and dad always told me to do.

Maybe twenty feet ahead of me is a forty-something man talking on his cell phone. As I draw nearer, I begin to veer around him as anyone would. But instead of letting me pass, he closes his (flip) cell, grabs my arm, and says, “You're really f---in' beautiful. Lemme get your number.”

“Sorry, I don't give out my number.”

“F--- you!”

I yank my arm free and start walking rapidly towards my building.

Footsteps behind me. He's following me. I start to run.

“F--- you! You f---ing c--t!” He starts running after me.

Filled with adrenaline, I am able to pull ahead of him and dash into my building, where the security guard asks me what's wrong. I tell him someone was following me, and he goes outside to check. The man is gone.

Now, tell me. Was I asking for that? Did I “have it coming” because I was wearing clothing in which I felt comfortable and confident? Or was it -- just maybe -- not my fault?

Street harassment is a big problem. It's not all fun and games; it's scary. Really, really scary. How do I know when those guys whistle at me and tell me to come over that they're not going to physically assault me? I don’t know. And even if that's not their intention, it may as well be.

Catcalling is alienating and isolating, and it makes me feel like I don't have control over myself. It's as if those men are taking my body into their own hands, so to speak, and playing with it while my mind sits back and watches. And I can't do anything to stop it. I can't tell them to f--k off because I'm afraid they'll get violent. But if I ignore them, they'll keep doing it to others. Catch-22.

I should not be scared to walk though my own campus at night. I should not fear for my life when I hear footsteps behind me. I should not have to stay at my friend's dorm because I am afraid of walking through Union Square at 11pm. I should not have to ask male friends to walk me home. I should not have to preemptively dial 9-1-1 and have it at the ready just in case. I should not have to dip my polished fingernails in my drink to make sure it's not roofied! When I go out, I should not have to pick out shoes I can run in and take a long jacket with me so I can cover up to avoid “tempting” those men who “just can’t help themselves.”

(By the way, that’s the lamest excuse ever. It implies that all men have absolutely no control over their emotions and urges, and that’s beyond insulting.)

But I do have to do all these things. And not because I'm unusually paranoid -- this mindset is more than common. All the females I know -- and some males -- can tell me stories about specific times they have been harassed on the street.

For the most part, men with whom I've spoken don't have these anxieties. They might be wary of strangers who could potentially overpower them, but fear does not hold them captive. One friend told me that he walks alone at 2am with headphones on and feels totally comfortable. Another told me that he is aware of the problem, and that when he finds himself walking behind a woman, he makes noise to let her know he's there and then speeds up to walk in front of her so she doesn't see him as a threat. That’s good, but I hate that it’s necessary. And yet another said that he had no idea that women don't feel safe in these same scenarios. The only thing he knew was that catcalling happens pretty often and that it's “not really a big deal.”

Wrong. It is a big deal. Catcalling is not a compliment. It’s an attempt by insecure individuals to gain control and dominance over others in a pathetic effort to make themselves feel better.

You may be thinking, “Why focus on eliminating catcalling? It’s just words, and we should be focusing on larger matters that cause harm to women, like rape and domestic violence around the world.” But the issues are so intensely intertwined that it is impossible to view them through separate lenses. If we brush off something like catcalling as inconsequential, then what’s to stop us from trivializing those bigger issues?

It's not okay that as a woman, I feel the need to guard myself against predators. It's not okay that we are teaching “don't get raped” rather than “don't rape.” And it's not okay that I can't be myself here. Of course it's not only people who identify as female that get harassed, abused, violated, and raped. I don’t mean to trivialize what others go through. There are many, many victims: those who identify as LGBTQ and people of color, to name a couple. But the vast majority of cases like this happen to females.

And it's not okay.

This is my campus, my city, my world. So why don't I feel at home?