I am walking down the street, headed to work, wearing a loosely fitting dress and high heels. I know that the light breeze will cling to my body at times, but I feel good. Confident even, and ready to take on the week. I see them before they see me: five men, some shirtless because of the oppressive summer heat, all ranging in age. It is too warm to remain indoors, so they have decided to take their conversation to the corner, a common ritualistic display in my neighborhood of brotherhood and machismo.
My steps become slower as I weigh my options: I can walk straight past them, eyes forward, and pray that I will be invisible. I can smile and say ‘thank you’ if they do acknowledge me with compliments, hoping that this will not lead to an open invitation to be followed. I can cross the street, quickly, tune out my ears to whatever may be yelled from across the street, and continue on my way. Or, I can respond, the way my mind has often warned me not to, with an angry tirade, and risk being verbally or even physically assaulted.
These are the type of decisions that I and many other women must make on a daily basis by simply walking outside.
Recently, a colleague of mine took to Twitter to describe her experience with being sexually harassed in public. After telling a man on the bus that he was holding up the line, he proceeded to pull his penis out and told her to suck it. The bus driver’s response was to ask the man to leave. The bus patrons’ reactions were largely silent, an all-too-often occurrence on New York City public transit.
Like this woman, I have been harassed on many occasions, in locations that stretch from Brooklyn, NY all the way to Madrid, Spain. Idle minds and hands know no boundaries. The brazen shouts of “Hey sexy,” “Smile, girl,” “Psssst, let me feel it” and even “B*tch!” that result from ignoring anything other than my name happens far too often. And I wonder how many of these men can shout these vulgarities, knowing deep in their guts that I look just like their sister or mother, and am worthy of the same kind of respect.
Public sexual harassment against women is an all too common occurrence. By the age of 12, 1 in 4 girls will experience street harassment in the form of unwanted attention in public and by the age of 19 that number is nearly 90 percent. The public sexualization of women can result in a type of vulnerability that is both hurtful and harmful — hurtful because we are so much more than just a body, and harmful because there are some young women who, after constant reinforcement about how they are perceived, may come to see themselves as just that.
We have witnessed the destruction caused by being silent about mental illnesses in our community, but, there is a not-so-silent attack occurring against women and girls for simply walking down the street. Similar to the humiliation of the ‘stop and frisk’ policy that many Black and Latino men experience, street harassment against women is also an epidemic that we must stand up against. Harassment in our communities is that often inevitable incident, that sometimes harmless but sometimes not verbal exchange on the way to work, the public disrobing of our clothes by a stranger’s eyes, the belittling of our very existence in front of a crowd if we do not heed a calling. It is a mental dismantling that can easily cause one to snap. There have been many occasions where after a long day, I have experienced such harassment, only to come home to collapse on my bed in tears, steaming with fury and even resentment for my brothers. I do not want to feel this way. My sisters do not want to feel this way. We are already up against too much in this country to be against each other as well.
I have seen first hand what Black men stand to lose in this world, and oftentimes that very thing is their lives. I have a boyfriend, a brother, and family of other men that face a different kind of dangerous vulnerability in the streets, but would still lay down their lives to protect me from any form of mental and physical degradation. I know that there are a number of factors that influence those who do perpetuate street harassment in our communities, including broken homes, restlessness and resentment due to economic disparities, and even insecurities and societal conditioning that translate into the desire to prove one’s manliness and power.
But, here is what I also know. Nothing can ever really changed until we speak up collectively. No wound can ever truly heal unless we take a look at how it got there in the first place. If you witness a woman being mentally or physically violated, speak up. It is far more powerful to defend what is right than ignore it. If you are a parent raising a young man, teach them how to respect their counterparts by leading by example and having open, candid conversations about how they can verbalize their emotions and impulses in a respectful way. If you are a teacher, implement sexual harassment education into your curriculum. Our children need a new model of communication. If you are a woman, consider taking a self-defense class and organizing an escort service in your community. These are the precautions we must take to keep ourselves safe.
Ultimately, a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants, walk out in public and not fear being harassed. Sadly, this is not always the case. Despite this fact, I do not believe it is impossible for us to take the steps necessary to stop public harassment. I refuse to believe it is impossible because a woman’s very life may be at risk.
This truth should be enough for us all to be vocal about street harassment, and willing to do whatever it takes to make it safe for a woman to simply walk down the street, unharmed.