The first time I was publicly harassed by a strange man I was around 5 years old. My older sister and I were sitting in the front seat of our Grandmother’s 1976 Lincoln Continental, waiting for her return from inside the grocery store. The window was cracked because it was summertime, and our legs were bare for the same reason. My sister was around 8 or 9, and we were both as innocent as newborns and had no idea what was happening when it did. A man approached the passenger door and tried to open it, and thankfully it was locked. He told us to unlock it and we ignored him, staring straight ahead. We were both beyond terrified and speechless. He then proceeded to compliment our “pretty little legs” and told us he would like to “make love with us sometime and would we like that?” I vividly remember trembling with fear and praying that my Grandmother would walk outside. He finally gave up and wandered off and neither of us told our Grandma when she did come back to the car. We were confused, embarrassed, and too uncomfortable to discuss it even with each other. I didn’t even know what the phrase “make love” meant yet so I remember my young psyche puzzling over it for weeks.
Fast forward a few years. I’m around 9 years old, and my sister is 12. My grandma had left us at home to go to the store and we were playing Donkey Kong on our Super Nintendo (bless up). The doorbell rang, and it was about six of the neighborhood boys standing on our porch. They were our age or maybe a little older, but we had grown up playing with them and so we weren’t afraid to answer the door. When we did, they began saying “Hey baby” and calling us sexy and just being awkwardly creepy in general. I don’t remember everything they said, I just remember standing there while six boys took turns “hitting on us” like it was some kind of dare or game. I looked down at my shoes, my face red and hot. I tried to shut the door, but my sister wouldn’t let me. Maybe her budding pubescent hormones found something flattering in this display, but I can’t imagine enjoying such uncomfortable attention from the boys we’d grown up playing kickball and cops and robbers with. These we our childhood friends, and they were here treating us like sexual objects all of a sudden. Ultimately I had to assume the role of the older sister, and I told the boys to fuck off and slammed the door in their face. That’s the first time I ever remember saying the F curse out loud. I’ve been channeling that inner bad bitch ever since.
There were many more incidents of creepery throughout my middle school/high school years, mostly guys commenting on my boobs or actually attempting to grab them. I could go on and on to infinity about incidents that have gone on throughout my life, from the much older guy (15) who lived across the street asking me if he could finger me when I was 7 years old to being sexually assaulted when I was passed out drunk this summer. My teenage years also let me see the other side of the coin, because I was very overweight and subject to a lot of name calling and fat shaming by my male peers. I cannot remember one incident of a girl bullying me for my weight, but being called fatass by some guy was a daily ritual throughout middle school and much of high school. Once I lost most the weight and became a version of “sexy” the insults turned to compliments, but it all tasted the same. My body was public property, to be mocked, sexualised, and objectified without my consent.
For the last few months, I’ve been keeping a running tally of catcalling/grabassing/verbal abuse/street harassment that my friends and I have experienced on a daily basis. Because this is a constant, daily thing, it is easy to lose track and just let the harassment melt into your psyche and become part of your subconscious. Why do I feel nauseous anytime I go inside a gas station or Wal-Mart? Why do I dress as frumpy as possible to go to the laundromat? Why do I cringe when I’m approaching a door and there is a man in front of me, knowing he will make some big display of opening it for me and then I will obligated to thank him for the gesture? Why when I walk the streets of my hometown, day or night, do I instinctively have my keys gripped like a knife in my hand? It is all learned behavior, from a lifetime of being treated like something other than a human being. Sometimes it is veiled as “chivalry,” but the veil is thin and I see through it. The same guys who bullied me for my weight in middle school have slid into my DM’s to try and romance me once I became “attractive.” We are treated like delicate sex kittens, and when we don’t act accordingly, we are Feminazi whores. There seems to be no in between.
For the sake of example, here is just *some* of the bullshit we have experienced in the last few months:
-Every single day, often multiple times a day, we get cat called, whistled at, or honked at. This just depends on how much time we spend outside of our homes. If we are out and about, it will inevitably happen and usually multiple times a day.
-Almost every time I go out to the bars, which is often, some rando guy puts his hands on me without permission. I don’t mean an unwanted hug. I mean a guy I don’t know or have barely spoken to, grabbing my ass in passing. This casual sexual assault in public stuff baffles me.
-I was walking into the gas station the other day and a man said, “Hey what’s up girl?” and I ignored him, so he started screaming at me. He said “You don’t have to be a snobby bitch about it!” which further validated my intuition to not speak to him in the first place.
-While leaving Wal-Mart my friend and I passed two guys who started raving about how gorgeous we are and when we ignored they got louder and were actually shouting at us, causing a scene and making us feel embarrassed and objectified.
– While walking the Frisco Trail, some guys started honking and whistling at us and we flipped them off so they yelled “Maybe later” as they drove off. (lol ok this one is so dumb I just had to include it)
-While walking through a parking lot to my car, some guys rode up on me and we driving next to me so I couldn’t cross to my car, They were commenting on my butt and saying “sup mami” and I kept trying to walk faster so I could cross, but they would speed up their car when I did. I started to worry they were actually going to hit me with their car, so I stopped walking and went behind their car.
-I walk to work as often as possible and inevitably a guy stops traffic to offer me a ride, (seriously this happens so frequently) and when I refuse, they usually offer some form of verbal assault and then zoom off to tend to their wounds, shocked that a woman wouldn’t take a ride from a strange man. Nevermind that I have headphones in, it’s nice weather, I don’t have my thumb out. Somehow I’m an ungrateful bitch for not needing or wanting a ride.
-Last night my girlfriends were walking and a man drove by and screamed “I LOVE NIPPLES” at us. I don’t even know what to say about that one lol. Around 5 minutes later a truck stopped to whistle at us. My boy Josh was with us for these incidents and he was like “Holy fuck I can’t believe this actually happens.”
-Today I was walking towards downtown and a man catcalled me from his porch, and when I ignored, he got up and started following me. Just like that. He followed me like 8 blocks, while I zig zagged and power walked trying to get away from him. At one point I crossed the street so we were parallel, stopped walking, and texted my friend in a panic. He kept walking but kept looking back at me, and eventually he turned around and started walking back towards me very quickly. I almost sprinted down the street in the coffee shop and then he disappeared.
Like I said, these are just a few of the incidents we have experienced in the last few months. It is maddening and depressing to be always forever on edge and afraid. Many of the “nice guys” I know who don’t participate in such shenanigans still find it puzzling that we wouldn’t be flattered by being whistled or hollered at. The best way I can explain it is, whistling is a gateway drug to rape. Objectifying a woman on the street is essentially taking her power away. It’s saying “you are here to be ogled and admired, and rather you like it or not, I’m going to remind you of that.” Men that verbally harass women in public aren’t going to get a phone number or date out of it, and they know that. It is ultimately a power grab, a reminder of our place in society. Women are complex human beings with thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories, dreams, and families. All of that is thrown out when a man screams “nice titties” out of his car window. It makes me feel deflated and infuriated and violated and numb all at once.
Now, to be fair, I understand that even the guys who participate in street harassment may think they are being funny and cute and even nice. Why wouldn’t a woman want a compliment? They have grown up in a society where whistling at women is the norm and often times they aren’t coming from a bad place. The problem is, they haven’t thought out how women might feel about it. They haven’t considered the psychology behind the compulsion. When a man harasses me, I often feel like that scared innocent little girl being creeped on by a strange man. I go back to all the times I’ve been assaulted and made to feel like nothing but a vagina and tits. If men don’t realize how they are making us feel, it’s high fucking time they did. Street harassment contributes to rape culture and if that seems like a jump, why don’t women offer strange men rides on the street? They would be afraid to let a strange man in their car. Why don’t women stalk men on the street? Because throughout history, men have been the threat to women and it is so rarely vice versa. While a man might be following me to admire my ass, which seems harmless enough, the whole time my heart is in my throat and I’m wondering if I’m about to be attacked. It is not fair for the oppressor to decide what he is doing is “harmless” or “all in good fun,” and disregard the feelings of the person being oppressed and objectified. YOU don’t get to decide how you make ME feel.
To be honest, I don’t know what can really be done to stop street harassment. It seems to be happening more frequently now than it ever has. And this is Joplin, not New York City. I think there is something in the air these days and I dare not speak its name. (jk its trump) I get kinda depressed thinking about ways to stop this abuse, because what can we do but flip them off and hope they don’t murder us? I think the only light we can bring to this issue is by talking about it, and often. It may be a few generations before street harassment is seen for what it is, obscene and offensive and unacceptable. So we keep talking about it, calling it out, and having those uncomfortable conversations with guys who think it’s no big deal. We change one mind at a time. And if you’re brave enough, tell them to fuck off every chance you get.