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Navigating street harassment in DC: not always fun!

July 20, 2010

So, Becky posted on this topic a while back but I thought I’d put in my two cents.  Are you ready for the topic?  Are you sure?  I’m going to write a really, really long post on it because it is all up in my business and generally has me in a sour mood.  Okay, here goes.

I’m talking street harassment.  Whoo boy, street harassment.  Day or night, no matter what I’m wearing or how purposefully I’m walking or how many people are around I have to deal with the damned hissing, the kissing noises, the barking, the car horns, the nasty comments, the blatant eyefucks and perhaps most alarmingly, the unsolicited approach.  And it turns out that, after a month or so of that a couple of times a day every day that I step outside of my house, I get angry and defensive.  Shocking, I know!  Reading Holla Back DC has given me some validation on this front—that I’m not being irrational and that my experience is shared—but it doesn’t make me feel any better about weathering the commute every day.

When a friend visited over the weekend, I casually mentioned that the street harassment really bothered me.  Okay, I maybe not-so-casually mentioned it several times.  Her response?  “The world is making you so bitter.  I hate to see you so bitter.  You should just ignore it; that’s what I do.”  This really, really irritated me, but I couldn’t pinpoint a rational reason for the irritation so my response was something dumb like, “I’m not bitter, I’m snarky!  And I just don’t like harassment.  And I do ignore them.  And I want some cake.”  And that was the end of it.  Don’t want to wear my Angry Feminist hat all the time, right?

The thing is, I have digested this comment some and have, at last, come to some conclusions.  With all due respect to my friend, what she said to me is some serious bullshit.  First thing, bitterness: there’s this whole thing where women are supposed to be really sweet and passive and accommodating all the time, even when we frankly have a right to be pissed off.  So I guess I failed the ladyhood test when I got pissed off about people who refuse to respect my right to go about my day without a healthy portion of sexual intimidation and fear.

But they’re just being nice, you might say!  They’re paying you a compliment!  Well, here’s the thing.  I am a woman.  And as a woman who is ever-so-aware of the realities of sexual violence, I register every one of these encounters as a potential sexual assault or rape.

But that’s so paranoid, you say!  …Not really, actually!

A guy jerked off next to me on the metro a few weeks ago.  I was in the seat against the window, so I couldn’t leave unless I moved across his lap—and I was too afraid to tell him to stop so he finished and got off at his metro stop without me saying anything.  The only time that I have walked home from the metro at night, a woman walking in the same direction, similarly nervous, told me tips to fend off attackers if I were to be jumped in the last two blocks of my walk after we parted.  I don’t go out after sundown unless I know that I will be able to both meet with friends in a crowded location and afford a taxi home.  I have my keys ready within a block of my house because I don’t want to be vulnerable as I dig through my purse on the porch and the guys who linger in the parking lot a block down and bark at me may walk by, or the guy who tried to grab my ass at the bus stop may have followed me home.

This is my reality.  This is the reality of women living in a rape culture, of a society in which women’s bodies are public property.  Maybe I’m hurting the feelings of some actually really nice dudes who genuinely want to tell me that, well, you look absolutely lovely in that dress, thank you, ma’am—but I am willing to take that chance over the chance of engaging with a potential rapist.  If I am on the street, do NOT fucking approach me, random dudes.  I don’t care if you’re charming or good-looking or sweet or really well-versed in feminist theory and want to talk with me about gendered oppression, if I am alone on the street and you come up to me, my alarm bells go off.  Because you could rape me!  Because dudes do that, even sweet, charming, good-looking dudes who may be very knowledgeable about gender studies!

So, back to the point, I am not bitter.  I am angry.  I don’t want to spend all of my time worrying about my safety, but living in my circumstances, in my society, makes it happen.  And there’s no quick fix for me or other women, no matter what strategies we try.  And it’s a class thing, too– women who can’t afford cushy homes in the suburbs or personal cars have to deal with shit like this constantly, maybe even forever and ever because any time a woman moves through a public space it’s like her body is, more than ever, public property.  And that’s really, really not okay.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    July 21, 2010 8:36 PM

    Yes. To all of this. For me, one of the worst aspects of street harassment is this Schrodinger’s Rapist idea you’ve linked to. When I’m having a particularly harassment-filled week, even when people approach me for the time, or directions, or whatever, I’m instantly on edge. Even though I want to help those people and to contribute to a public culture where people feel more responsibility for each other’s happiness and all that, I just can’t do it.

  2. Jane Doe permalink
    July 22, 2010 3:09 PM

    I agree to all of this, however it is not just men who are the abusers. I would say yes, the majority of the time they are, but there are thousands of lesbians in abusive relationships right now. Where they are verbally, sexually, emotionally and psychologically abused. Do be careful in big cities at night though, no matter what your gender is. Keeping your cellphone handy and your keys is a good idea.

  3. Katherine permalink
    July 22, 2010 7:51 PM

    It doesn’t stop when you have a vehicle. I regularly (almost daily) drive up and down the length of Lake Street, a busy east west thoroughfare which cuts across Minneapolis. About once a week, I am given the kissing sound, the upward nod or straight out hollering from the car next to me, asking for my phone number or how I’m doing, honey. Not that what I wear should ever invite this kind of harassment, but I am never driving half naked, or in a swimsuit, or in sexy clothes. I am simply going to and from work. I am driving while having a vagina, I guess. I can only shake my head and roll up my window so many times. The next one who invades my space and injects their bullshit into my vehicle is getting an earful. And maybe a dent.

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