Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Street Harassment

I don't make eye contact with people I don't know. At least, I try really hard not to. About a month and a half ago, I was at a club/bar with two friends of mine, accidentally met eyes with a guy as I scanned the crowd, and then looked away. I was drunk, and didn't quite realize what was happening when he took hold of my arm and started pulling me toward the exit. I couldn't pull myself out of his grip. Nor could my friends hear me when I cried out, owing to the fact that the band we were there to see was playing. I managed to whack at my sober friend's arm, who had the presence of mind to grab me. What ensued was a short tug of war, and that ended with my head slamming into the bar and my friend's victory. That, in short, is why I tend not to make eye contact with people I don't know.

I stopped making eye contact with people when I started realizing that eye contact initiated comments. I realized that the same tactic my father taught me when I was little of not making contact with pamphleteers and crazy people worked, about 50% of the time, for men. Normally, men don't try to grab me and cart me away when eye contact occurs (though the bar scene wasn't the first time that has happened, and it probably won't be the last); but the comments eye contact started to elicit when I was about 12 haven't exactly been pleasant.

Twelve was how old I was the first time I was cat called. I remember it vividly. I was walking downtown to the library to drop off some books and pick up some new ones. I was walking past the soft serve ice cream shop, and a guy in a pick up truck asked if I wanted to suck his dick. I really didn't.

I also didn't go anywhere alone again that summer. If I wanted to go to the library, I bribed one of my friends into walking with me or I waited until someone could drive me. The next summer, I biked more. But that didn't stop passersby from honking or shouting at me, and I still preferred to go places in tandem.

Going somewhere with someone else, by the way, doesn't stop street harassment. My walking/biking companion didn't stop the honks, the shouts, the "hey baby"s, the requests that I sit on, suck, lick, "take", fuck, etc. guys' dicks. What it did do was provide another warrior. It allowed for a better sense of bravado. It took away some of the vulnerability.

Just this weekend, I was Hey Baby'd while I was out with a friend. On the scale of cat calling, this was admittedly low. However, my friend was seemingly horrified, and said the guy was creepy. "No", I corrected him. "That guy's a creep. He's not creepy."

I've dealt with creepy. Creepy doesn't shout "Hey, baby" from 5 feet away. Creepy is the security systems guy who gave me a slow thrice over and then leaned way in to ask my chest if I was the new secretary. Creepy is the old man who asked me to teach him how to dance, and who, after I refused, continued to come around to dance with me and my friends, and then leaned in to tell me that I looked sad and should try to smile more. Creepy is the guy at the bar who grabbed me. Creepy is the guy who pulled me around the video store when I was 14, talking to me about his ex-girlfriend and trying to get me further and further to the back of the store (in that instance, I nearly garroted my best friend with her hoodie in my insistence she not leave me alone with Creepy 20-Something). Creepy is the guys who come up to me and make sexual comments when I'm trying to pump my gas.

When I first heard of Rape Culture, probably early on in college, I was put off. "I'm not one of those feminists", I thought. "That kind of thing is what gives feminism a bad name." But more and more, it occurs to me that the changes I make in my behavior in order to not be cat called, to not be subjected to dehumanizing harassment, is a product of a culture that does make it so men can ask 12 year olds, jokingly or not, to suck their dicks.

It means I try not to wear skirts if I know I need to get gas. It means I try to get the pump closest to the convenience store when I do get gas, and that I try to get fill up my tank in the morning before work rather than in the evening after work. It means that I don't make eye contact with people, and don't go out alone very much. It means that I've developed a 'radar' for 'sussing out who is creepy and who is just a creep. Admittedly, as evidenced by Bar Guy, the radar is more of a coping mechanism than any true method of discerning who may be an actual threat and who isn't.

I'm lucky in that I haven't been subject to anything worse than street harassment. I'm lucky that, aside from the odd grope, my physical person has never been truly violated. But that doesn't meant that street harassment isn't a Big Problem. For me, and for others.

Probably the worst thing about it is the fact that it is so prevalent I don't truly notice the minor stuff anymore. Stuff that would have freaked out 12 year old me now doesn't make a dent unless someone else points it out - like the "Hey baby". Without my friend being there and reacting -reacting the way I used to react, the way I wish I would still be able to react - I probably wouldn't have acknowledged it. It would have just flown right over my head, and it wouldn't have sparked this post. I've become desensitized to it; I've become desensitized to the fact that men - not all of them, but more than enough of them - think that I'm in some way public property; that as public property, I can be commented on and touched. And I shouldn't be. I shouldn't be desensitized to it, and I certainly shouldn't be subjected to 'hey baby' or anything else. Because, hey, it does lend to an atmosphere of fear. It does lend to the feeling that the public sphere is still not a safe place for women - for me. It does lend to feeling humiliated, feeling small, and feeling vulnerable.

There have been times I've been tempted to yell back, to do something - anything. But I stop. Because the last thing I want is an angry man on my hands who can actually take things further than a "Wanna take a ride on my dick?", who can actually, you know, press the dick-riding issue. And that just adds to everything else, because it creates a feeling of impotency, along with an actual need for someone else to be there in that space with you, to bear witness to the attack (verbal, physical) and to offer a bit more security against a possible escalation. What street harassment does, aside from leaving me off-balance, is to threaten my very autonomy. So.

I don't make eye contact with strangers. I wear sunglasses. Like, all the time. I travel in twos or more. I don't wear skirts often if I'm out alone. I wear shoes I can run in if I'm out alone. I drive places I could easily walk to. Street harassment slowly steals from me my ability to fully be me, in public. And that's why street harassment, catcalling, whatever, is not a compliment.

Related readings:


jjfs85 said...

It must be so frightening. I could never understand exactly how this makes you and other women feel. More reasons to buy mace, take defence classes, etc, I suppose, but I'm sure all that preparation doesn't keep the fear that something may happen out of your mind. It doesn't seem fair that I can go to a concert or bar alone and not worry about making eye contact with strangers, but you can't. Not fair at all.

MediaMaven said...

This is very sad.

I refuse to give in to the fear of my safety--hence, the thought, always in the back of my head, that I could get raped, harrasssed, etc. There's not always another person available to escort me places, and I'd much rather go alone and get stuff done, and yes, walk, if I can.

Emily said...

This is a great post. It's frustrating to read, but I can totally relate. Having to think about what to wear, what not to wear, places to go or places not to go because of the comments it will bring is just maddening and wrong. It upsets me so much to hear accounts like this, which are all too common.

It really makes me wonder if there will ever be a truly safe place for women.

petpluto said...

Thanks guys.

It really makes me wonder if there will ever be a truly safe place for women.

I want to say yes, but I'm not that hopeful.

sally said...

Thank you for this! You should check out Hollaback! - it's a movement to end street harassment through online activism as well as in person trainings and community building. I'm on the board and we are always looking for more participants and ideas! We believe street harassment CAN end - fifty years ago women just put up with getting grabbed, insulted, and often assaulted in the workplace. Right now the streets are the last place where men feel entitled to treat women like dirt, but that will change too!