“Hey Baby/Bitch/Slut-” or, I Wish I Could Say Hello To Strangers (Part 1)*triggers*
The first part of this section will address sexual street harassment itself. The second will address solutions to this problem, particularly artistic ones.
I just moved to a real, live city! It’s wonderful to be here, I’m going to a great school, and the city has a lovely old downtown. I love meeting new people and connecting with strangers (and let me say now that nothing will keep me from striking up conversations with the lady on the bus carrying a huge flowering plant, or the boy reading the same book as me!).
But I can’t go exploring. I can’t go on a long walk to new places unless I carefully plan my route first and ask around to see what other womens’ experiences have been walking in that part of town, I can’t cheerfully greet strangers with a “Good morning!” and I can’t return a “Hi,” from a man, because it’s nearly always followed with “Baby” “Bitch” or “Slut”. Because I was reminded last Saturday that, quite simply, there are places I can’t go, because I will be sexually harassed by strangers to within an inch of my dignity. I won’t go into the details of what happened; suffice it to say that it was completely terrifying, involved several different men or groups of men, and lasted for a solid fifteen minutes until I got out of that neighborhood. When I returned to my dorm, I was so emotionally exhausted that I slept for four hours, right in the middle of the day. I woke up shaking.
This is by no means the first time I have been sexually harassed on the street. Last summer, I attended an art program for aspiring art students in Boston, and I got my fair share of catcalls and obscene propositions, but it was usually in a situation where I could make a smartass retort, which made me feel better. Last Saturday, there were no other women on the street, and I was just too scared. Even in the little Ohio town where I grew up, I would sometimes get horns honked at me or cowardly vague obscenities from the windows of speeding cars.
The first time I was harassed was at the age of twelve; I have since learned that this is the average age for harassment against women to begin. I became separated from my mother at a local shopping plaza around Christmastime, and a herd of frat boys (I remember the greek letter tshirts some of them were wearing) began to follow me, barking (not howling; barking, as a reference to my apparent canine appearance). This lasted for about three minutes, until I began to cry. Then they got bored of harassing a little girl and moved off. And you know what? That was the moment when I realized that I was growing up, and I remember so clearly that terrible, sinking feeling, “oh, God, is this what it’ll always be like, now?” Yes, sweetie, it will. But you will grow a hard shell; you will learn not to trust strangers. Most of all, you will learn to be “careful” (which more often than not is a euphemism for “chronically afraid”).
No, it’s not as bad as all that. I’m no more traumatized than any other woman going about her daily, or nightly, business, and God knows that this is the tip of the iceberg, as far as nasty things that happen to women because we’re women go. We have to take it in stride, right? Furthermore, I am privileged enough to be white (thus lessening the statistical probability of being harassed) and live in relatively harassment-free vicinity. I put it out of my mind and I learn to be practical. But the fact is that this is part of rape culture- this is one more way, in the hundreds of little insidious ways, in which women are constantly belittled, reminded by our society that we are second-class citizens, that we are not safe in our own cities. in our own houses. in our own bodies.
Last year, during my senior year of high school, I made the apparent error of mentioning the phrase “male privilege” in a class of white, upper-middle-class young men (plus me and one other girl). The boys immediately denied any kind of privilege that I myself did not receive, and demanded to be given an on-the-spot list of examples of male privilege. I was tempted to refer them to this list (http://sap.mit.edu/content/pdf/male_privilege.pdf), particularly the last item, but instead rattled off a few of my favorites- starting with “you can walk down any street without the fear or reality of being sexually harassed.” I was shouted down. ”We get harassed!” they said. ”Bums and panhandlers harass us! One guy followed me down the street, yelling at me to give him money!”
Where do I even begin? Where do we even start with people who are so completely unaware, so totally disconnected from what it means to be verbally attacked in such an impersonal, and yet somehow disgustingly intimate, way? How can I show them how it feels? I can’t really put it into words. The best I can do is draw a picture (see the sketch at the top of this post). Personally, I think that the most significant impact sexual harassment has had on me is that it has made me afraid of men. There! I said it! And accordingly, it makes me feel vulnerable to their assaults. It makes me defensive, and I don’t want to be defensive and scared. There ARE so many good, or even just decent, men! I know so many wonderful ones! And yet…
Every woman and girl I have ever talked to about this has their own “this was the worst time” story. We talk it over, we joke about it (oh, how we joke about it!) and the solidarity makes us feel stronger- we go out in packs. We laugh out loud and we open ourselves up to people passing by, because we won’t let the threat of those words, and that look, take us over. And yet…
To be continued.