You know what’s awful? That I can’t tell if I think that street harassment is actually getting worse or if I’m just expecting harassment to come from more places.
On a scale of obnoxious to really threatening, most of the incidents I’ve personally experienced have luckily been “not that bad.” I’m not saying I’m ok with any of it, but if my options are a “Hello Beautiful” from some teenager on the street or being followed home by someone in a car, than I think the choice is obvious. (For those of you wondering, yes both of those examples are real ones.) The thing is though, I shouldn’t have to put up with either of them. I shouldn’t have to wonder whether that “Hello Beautiful” is going to escalate into something dangerous. I shouldn’t have to be suspicious of people that I make eye-contact with on the subway and I shouldn’t have to wonder if its OK to walk home from my own corner store after dark.
Yet because of bad experiences that I’ve had in the past I’ve learnt to expect potential threats from all around me. I anticipate danger, even if there actually isn’t any because I am female and that is what society has taught me to do. I’ve been told to wear modest dress, to walk home in groups if I do so at all, and to listen for the sounds of anyone following me after dark. Because of all that I don’t wear earbuds at night (or if I do, it’s a fake out with no actual music playing). I walk with my keys clutched between my fingers if I come home after dark. I walk my friends home if I think it’s too late at night and I’ll pay for a cab even if I live only a few blocks away. I do all of these things to make sure that I feel as safe as possible. This is what I have been taught to do so that I can protect myself. These are the precautions that I have to take as a woman.
But the real kicker is that I feel guilty for doing it sometimes. I feel guilty that society has taught me to feel unsafe. If that’s not the definition of unfair, than I don’t know what is. I don’t smile at people in elevators if I’m alone with them. I don’t tell people the time if I think it’s just a rouse to steal my phone. I wear my hair up after a night on the town because someone once told me it makes you look older (and therefore less appealing) to potential harassers. I feel guilty for being rude when I should feel angry for being made to feel like that in the first place.
Why should I have to take extra precautions when people have a responsibility to be in control themselves? Why should I be made to feel unsafe and uncomfortable because of a few people’s inability to do so? My dress and my appearance should not make someone lose control of their ability to function humanely. I cannot and should not be held responsible for “provoking” them no matter what time of day it is, what I’m wearing, or who I’m with. I don’t have a target painted on my back or the word victim on my forehead. I am not responsible for someone else’s actions and yet society tells me, and not my harassers, to be safe, to be cautious, and to expect trouble.
I bring all of this up now because a recent video has gone viral in which one girl was harassed 108 times during one ten-hour walk through New York City. She was harassed in broad daylight by men of all ages and ethnicities, while wearing a pair of jeans and a crew neck shirt, just like any other person at any other time of day. (If you haven’t seen that video, yet, click here to watch it now.) It’s a brilliant video and its done its job by stirring conversation again. It’s getting people talking about an issue which affects women every single day. But I personally feel that the harassment itself is only half of the problem. It’s bad and it shouldn’t happen, but because it does women are being taught to expect it. We’re learning overcautious behavior when really, we shouldn’t have to in the first place.
It is not our fault that we are harassed.
Note: This article was inspired by a recent video entitled, “Why Catcalling Sucks” posted on Haley G. Hoover’s YouTube channel. In the video she recounts her own feelings of guilt and anger about street harassment through the lens of her own recent experiences.