I was walking to the coffee shop a few blocks from home when I heard “Hey!” coming from the car next to me. “Hey! Hello!”
I had the immediate knee-jerk response that other women know well: some fight-or-flight mixed with an eye roll. Here we go again. What line is he going to use? Does this guy really think he’s getting a date? Will he follow me in his car? My first harasser of the day and I haven’t even had coffee yet.
Keeping my head down, I side-eyed a glance at the car.
“Mikki! Hi!” came the voice from a Prius. It was my friend, Seth, stopped at the intersection on his way to work. Seth lives near me and he likes to plan outings and play chess. We double date with our partners once a month. Clearly, there was no need for fighting, fleeing, or eye rolls here, but this is what street harassment has done to my reflexes. I assume the worst and breathe a sigh of relief when I don’t get it. I’m so used to being catcalled, hissed at, sworn at, ogled, proposed to, or “blessed” that the exception to the rule — a friend greeting me on his way to work — catches me completely off guard.
Like so many women, I have more catcalling stories than I can remember, and some I wish I could forget. I was once harassed by a man on a bicycle as I walked down the street in Brooklyn. I was never good at math but found myself calculating whether it would be faster to duck into the falafel shop or run for the subway given the variable of a man on a ten-speed. I tried to ignore Bicycle Romeo but that just made him angry. His “Thank God for you” quickly turned to “You think you’re better than me, bitch?” which apparently I deserved for not smiling more when he told me to.
Another time, I was approached by two very large young men on the corner of my block. After taking a few steps towards me, they said things like, “Yo, I’d tear that pussy up. I mean, those titties, right?” As I continued on, trying to suppress my sense of panic, I heard more. “Wow. Ass, too! Ugh! I’d be all over that.” Despite being hungry and tired, I decided not to go to my apartment just in case they might follow me and find out my address. I felt especially cautious on that block for months afterwards and sometimes took alternate routes home.
Let’s not forget the charmer who spat “Mmm. Nice feet,” as I passed him on the stairs. Or the man on the train who smiled unabashedly and made full eye contact after his hand brushed my breast. Or questions about my tattoos that are a little too intimate and include the stranger touching my ink. Or the countless hisses and “God bless you’s” and overt stares at my body that come from men of all ages and races in all neighborhoods. I have so many examples, and of course, these experiences are nothing new and certainly not just mine. Women everywhere now are filming, photographing, and sidewalk-chalking their own harassment stories, though we’ve shared them amongst ourselves in sadness and solidarity for years.
We know that harassment doesn’t always happen in public, or on streets for that matter. It happens in offices, arenas, restaurants, and hotels. It even happens in taxis. An attorney friend, traveling from the airport for business, was told by her cab driver that she ought to get married. He proceeded to ask for her number and wanted to find out where she lived. She tried to change the subject but he was persistent and literally in the driver’s seat, so her strategy was to continue polite and unspecific conversation until he dropped her off. Though she wanted to tell him to mind his own business or to get in a different taxi, she did what many women instinctively do: avoid confrontation and de-escalate tension, because our lives may actually depend on it.
This mix of contradictory feelings and impulses is painfully familiar. Though generally I do my best to feign deafness and move on, sometimes I’m so incensed that I confront harassers. I’ve screamed at them, told them how much women hate that nonsense. I ask them if they’ve ever gotten laid this way. When they ask if I’m married, I tell them it’s none of their fucking business, sure to swear as loudly as possible without even knowing why. My outrage has always been met with shock and defensiveness, with accusations of not being able to take a compliment or of having a bad day. Sometimes, they tell me I’m much less attractive now that I’m being such a bitch — -they don’t want “it” any anymore because I’m so ugly. I’m lucky my outrage hasn’t been met with violence and I’ve gone home shaking, grateful not to have been grabbed or punched or shot but without any sense of resolution or satisfaction.
This is the repetitive strain of harassment: the onus has been on women to take care of ourselves, over and over again. These exchanges are rarely witnessed by people who might advocate for us. We might shake off one incident only to experience another the next time we leave the house, never really escaping this creepy merry-go-round. Like so many women, I’ve been told to get a thicker skin, speak up, ignore or laugh at it, wear a wedding band, take a self-defense class, and buy a gun. None of these tactics addresses the root of the problem — male behavior — and none can fully heal emotional injuries like trauma, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and unresolved anger.
The more I read about the ubiquity of street harassment and in light of #metoo, it’s clear that perpetrators are not looking for romance: they’re exerting dominance. This is a vital distinction, one that’s lost on men who wonder how they’re supposed to be romantic these days. Whether someone is catcalled on the street or propositioned in a board room, targets of harassment know that it feels inherently threatening to be on the receiving end of a power play, even one that’s labeled a compliment.
This bid for dominance means that women and LGBTQIA individuals are harassed when they’re in any space that’s perceived as hetero male territory, which unfortunately, seems to be everywhere. Men seem to have an unspoken ownership of streets, businesses, hospitals, and even homes. In these spaces, women and marginalized people are often treated as though they are interlopers or visitors, only there by the permission or invitation of men. It’s as if our presence is a favor granted by those who hold power and we ought to be grateful (“You should smile more, baby!”). Our words aren’t taken seriously, our outrage is brushed off or seen as an affront to our “hosts,” and we are chastised for not playing along with male entitlement to jobs, bodies, and public spaces.
Famously, Margaret Atwood wrote that “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Though I have tried to minimize and rename it, I feel this fear in moments of harassment. Then I feel betrayed when no one steps in to assist or advocate for me, or when I’m disbelieved. I feel betrayed again when harassment is normalized in families, workplaces, and our government, indicating that it’s not only tolerable but right. Most tragically, I betray myself when I deny my outrage, thinking I provoked the harassment or somehow deserved it for wearing something as flirtatious as sweatpants or daring to go get coffee.
Like many women, I victim-blame myself. This, at least, is something I can begin to shift.
“Hi! Where are you off to? Let’s grab dinner soon!” I waved to Seth as he drove on, and felt myself exhale. I wondered if I owed him an apology for the side eye and skepticism, as though maybe I should have smiled more.