Last year I wrote about taking a survey on street harassment that I found on Holla Back. H, the woman who conducted the survey asked if she could follow up with additional questions about my survey responses, and I agreed. I got the questions last week and spent some time thinking about them, thinking about my experiences of street harassment, remembering the upsetting experience of completing the survey last year and wondering if writing out more of my experiences would be equally or more upsetting.
With a big grant due this week, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the questions, so my day hasn’t been disrupted the way it was when I filled out the survey … but then I started trying to jot down my answers to H’s questions. My experience wasn’t the same as last year, but it was still a little derailing. Pushing myself to really think back — carefully — about so many unpleasant experiences is difficult. But it’s also interesting. I discovered some things that I think that I had no idea I thought until they spilled out on the paper.¹
Here are some excerpts from my response:
In the survey I checked off that I first experienced harassment in the 0-12 age range, and H wanted to know more:
This is the first experience I remember, but I have a feeling there were other incidents before this one. This memory upsets me so much, it makes me think there were other, more upsetting ones that I’ve pushed back and kept myself from remembering. I was 12 and at summer camp. A counselor gave me a very you-are-a-piece-of-meat look, and made it clear he wanted me to see that he was giving me that look. He came to stand beside me and asked, “Do you sell it, too?” And I know I didn’t exactly understand what he meant, but I knew he was talking about my body, and it made me completely uncomfortable and frightened me.
It’s interesting to me how easily I wrote that down, how easily I can decide to post it here. When I first remembered that incident (about 10 years ago), it made me cry, shut me down for days. I had so completely shoved it out of my consciousness and when I remembered it, I didn’t know how to process it. This was a man I liked and trusted, a man who was supposed to be a caretaker — for me and all the other girls at camp. This was a story I never told anyone. But today when I thought of it, it just made me ANGRY. No tears, just a flash of fury and a feeling of compassion for 12-year-old me.
In the survey I had written about an experience I’d had years ago on an overly crowded 4 train. H asked if there were other incidents I’d like to share, and I wrote these:
Two somewhat empowered incidents: 1) Another crowded, I-can’t-move-away-from-him subway ride. When I confront the man, he laughed and said it was the movement of the train and I just needed to get over myself. He kept touching me, so I turned and kicked him in the shin. When he got angry, I said, “What? It’s just the movement of the train.” 2) Going up the long escalator at the Lexington Avenue F stop. The man behind me put his hand on my ass. I turned around and said that since he clearly believed he had the right to touch me inappropriately, that meant I had the same right, so it would be ok for me to punch him in the face and shove him down the stairs. He didn’t touch me again.
And I still think of those experiences as being more empowered … but they upset me as much as any of the others. I followed them up with:
I don’t like that I have to resort to violence or the threat of violence to stop someone from harassing me. Not only do I just not want to be that person, violence isn’t going to help me in every situation. My size maybe makes some men think twice about calling my bluff, but there are plenty of men who wouldn’t think twice about taking me on, and I wouldn’t come out of such a confrontation well. But there has to be something I can do that will help me feel safe and stop men from accosting me. As long as there are still people on the train who won’t help when asked [part of the story I told in the survey about my 4-train experience], as long as there are police officers who tell a woman that street harassment isn’t a police matter [as happened on August 7th in Harlem²], I’m on my own, and that doesn’t feel good at all.
I don’t want to be put in the position of having to threaten violence, of having to commit violence just so I can stand on a subway or ride an escalator or walk up the hill to work.
One of the last questions: Generally, what impact has/does street harassment have on your life?
I would love to write Street harassment has no impact on my life. Unfortunately, it’s not true. It’s one of the reasons I often wear headphones when I’m on the street — they give me the ability to pretend I haven’t heard anything. If I take the subway to work instead of the bus (which is most days), I have to pass through the gauntlet of station crew congregate by the exit rating the women who pass (the primary reason I started wearing my headphones … although I haven’t noticed them so much in recent weeks, maybe all the complaints to the station manager have finally accomplished something?). I realized when I thought about this question that I’m always on the lookout for harassment, that expecting the worst from men I see on the street has become second nature, and it definitely colors the way I interact with strangers.
That surprised me — to realize that I see men on the street and automatically assume they will be smarmy. Yes, I am still able to have great conversations with strangers and even trust a strange man enough to accept a ride in his car, but the more common truth is that I don’t trust, that the comments, the invasions of privacy, the unwanted hands on my body have stolen something from me.
Obviously I have a lot to say about this … and I have a lot more to think and say about this. For now I’m stopping, happy in the realization that none of this (writing it all out again for this post) upset me, that I didn’t feel the same sick-to-my-stomach feeling I had after the survey or the disquieted feeling I had when I first read the follow-up questions and tried to jot down answers. That’s something.
¹ Which reminds me of a quote a friend shared years ago: Writing is thinking, not thinking written down.
² The officer told the woman — who had taken a good, clear photo of a creepy subway masturbator with her cell phone — that she should call 311, which is the general New York City services and information number. I call 311 when a street light is out or when I’m trying to find out if the Board of Ed is still offering Spanish GED classes in Sunset Park. It’s not an emergency line. When the officer was later tracked down, he claimed that he’d meant to say she should call 911, the emergency number. Yeah, what? She was standing in a precinct, talking to him. Why on earth would she leave the police station to call 911? Fortunately, a few of our local papers took that cell phone photo and printed it on their front pages and the man was caught almost immediately. (He claims, incidentally, that he is innocent. He told the arresting officers: “It just popped out! My private parts fell out. I looked down and it was out. It just popped out! I was trying to put it back.” Oh. Well then. Ok.)