I wrote about street harassment recently, after a friend went on a text tirade about how he didn’t understand why people didn’t always respond when he said hello. He called them rude, among other choice complaints. This was one specific instance, but I’ve heard my (male, exclusively) friends talk about this enough times that I wanted to write a public response in addition to our private conversation, because it’s not just him. And, it’s also #NotAllMen (and that I have to qualify this makes me sad). But it is #YesAllWomen.
I’m writing about it again because of the responses I got to that post. And because there’s more to say.
Street harassment sucks. And, yes, it colors the way I interact with the world (something a number of my dear guy friends have said to me in varying levels of frustration/bitterness/sadness/impotence/something-I-can’t-identify over the years). I suspect this is true for most folks who regularly experience street harassment. It makes me more wary. It means feel like I have to be on alert. All. The. Time. It means that I’m blamed for moving through and existing in the world (usually in the form of “Well, what did you expect…?”). It means that the shuttle driver who transports students from one campus to another, near where I work, tells me to smile on an almost daily basis as I hurry from one job to the next because he feels entitled to tell me how to behave. It means I was unlocking my bike this morning, from my front porch, and a man slowed in his RV to “compliment” me, and then idled there for a full minute. It means that a random dude asked me to make out with him on the sidewalk of a busy street earlier this summer because I responded to the first question he asked me. It means I’ve been followed, more than once, while running. It means men have commented on my body while I’m running, or biking, or just walking. Or standing in line at the grocery store. It means I’m wary when a car slows down beside me. It means I flat-out avoid groups of men who are out drinking — especially if they’re hanging out just outside a bar — because there have been too many bad experiences of skirting their crowd. It means that a man, who says “Hello,” when I’m walking my dog in the evening after work — probably completely innocuous and friendly — is met with some level of fatigue and wariness on my part. It means that, a few weeks ago, a young man asked me where the hospital was — we were standing nearly in front of it — and I made a point of putting my dog between him and me because I couldn’t tell if he was in distress and not able to determine our proximity to the hospital or looking to distract me and it was dark and there was no one else nearby.
And because we cannot exist separate from the culture in which we’re steeped, it means that I’m always aware that violence could result based on my interactions with strangers. And I’m also well-versed in the fact that most violence against women is perpetrated by people women know (though this is not my current fear, for myself). For the folks who don’t experience the constant (though possibly shadow) threat of violence, imagine how exhausting this is. At Slate Phil Plait wrote:
[T]his is important, so listen carefully—when a woman is walking down the street, or on a blind date, or, yes, in an elevator alone, she doesn’t know which group you’re in. You might be the potential best guy ever in the history of history, but there’s no way for her to know that. A fraction of men out there are most definitely not in that group. Which are you? Inside your head you know, but outside your head it’s impossible to.
This is the reality women deal with all the time.
It exhausts me when men hear women speak up about street harassment and then become defensive. We’re not saying it’s you (though maybe it is, because this is the internet and this is a public blog). We’re saying, this shit happens to us all the time. Once you become defensive, you’ve stopped listening because you’re too busy thinking about your next rebuttal, your next defense. You’re too busy thinking about the ways you’ve been brushed aside, or hurt, by women who are acting defensively to hear us speak to our pain about being constantly made to be on the defensive just to maintain our bodily integrity, to maintain our emotional and psychological selves.
I know it’s hard to hear that women are reacting defensively to you because of something a few of your fellow men are doing. I know it’s hard to hear that women are reacting defensively to you even though you’ve probably done nothing to them and maybe haven’t even made eye contact or said hello and may even speak up when you see other people engaging in street harassment. I know, even, that it’s sometimes hard to hear and believe women’s experiences with street harassment, because you largely don’t witness it happening to us. I’m asking you to please, listen to us. Please, when you hear your fellow men harassing women — or talking about harassment they’ve committed — speak up or, at the very least, don’t laugh along with them. Please, believe us.