Back on the street.

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.)

6 thoughts on “Back on the street.

  1. Great post, and very brave of you to share this traumatic stuff publicly. I was furious about the way that complaint was dismissed, and notice NOW the nightly news is showing another photo of a perv taken by another disgusted train passenger. The definition of trauma (PTSD) didn’t even apply to women initially, b/c it was meant to refer to an event “outside the range of ordinary experience”–like war, or a car accident. But the truth is, women experience trauma every day from repeated interactions and assaults in the home, at work, and getting to and from both. I’m both glad you’ve learned to fight back, but also scared for you b/c you’re right–there can be deadly consequences if you rebuff the wrong jerk. I realize I’ve had to change my movements in order to avoid conflict with certain males–just b/c it’s easier than getting into it with them *every* day, which is exactly what they want. It’s not about sex or desire or beauty–it’s about POWER. My friend wrote an essay about harassment and home training–how so many men, especially elders, prey upon our disinclination to be rude…we MUST smile and nod and return their greeting, acknowledge them in some polite way even when they’re leering at or otherwise objectifying us. I better stop…just meant to say I admire your courage.


    1. I was so angry about that cop saying street/subway harassment wasn’t a police matter. I’ll bet he’d have thought it was a police matter if some man had masturbated at his wife! It reminded me of so many experiences I’ve had when I’ve tried to get someone to help me — or even just respond — and have gotten nothing. In the incident I wrote about in the survey, I was on a crowded subway and when I asked the man next to me (an elderly, very gentlemanly-looking man) to switch places with me because the man behind me was touching me, he refused. He said he was happy standing where he was. And he gave a little chuckle. Yeah, really maintaining my faith in the kindness of strangers.

      The fighting back thing is completely problematic. I’m not a fighter. Not even close. But I was willing enough to kick that man. I doubt I could have punched the second man in the face, and I’d never have pushed him down the escalator because that would have hurt the people behind him. And, too, it’s really scary to be aggressive with strangers because you don’t know what you’re dealing with. I tend to think most men who harass women are cowards, there are other men, and there’s no way to know which one you’re dealing with.

      Of course, yes, street harassment is about power. And my move toward violence is about power, too, about showing that they can’t just take power away from me because they are men. But it’s just not a workable solution.


  2. Wow, excellent, interesting post. It made me think of a million things; I’ll try not to say them all. First, I was enraged by what that camp counselor did. I wish you could go back in time and get him in serious trouble. What he did was cruel and hateful and beyond wrong. I agree with Zetta that it is about one thing, power. I don’t attract a huge amount of attention on the street, but some, and generally assume that a group of men arrayed along my path will be looking at me as if I’m a thing. I’ve gotten in the habit of looking each one in the eye as I pass, or as many of them as possible. Well, I don’t actually end up looking them in the eye, because trying to do this makes them look at the ground instantly, which is fine with me. I loved your empowerment stories. I think, and I hope I am correct in saying, that the people who do these disrespectful, intrusive, absolutely incorrect things are simply looking for an easy, small exercise of what they think is their rightful power and not for a major tragedy. I think, and hope I am correct in saying, that 99.999999 percent of them will back off when met with a firm “NO” of one type or another. I have confronted many, many people angrily in my role as bike rider (as opposed to my role as female piece of meat), never stop to think “What if this person has a gun?” and have not had a cell of my body harmed so far. I hope the same is always true for you, and all women. If only it could be so. Last but not least, I had a friend who, long ago in L.A., perceived some sort of threat from a guy at a bus stop at night. To be on the safe side, she broke a glass bottle, and, holding it in her hand, started to carry on as if she were insane. She arrived home without incident (well, except for the spectacle of herself holding a dangerous weapon and acting like a crazy person). Not sure I’m exactly recommending this course of action, but it’s an option in the right situation.


    1. As for the camp counselor, I wonder why I didn’t tell someone. There were plenty of people I could have talked to. My aunt worked at that camp and would surely have skinned that man alive had a told her. My parents were there that day, and I know they would have taken action. But I said not a word. That’s another thing that makes me think that wasn’t the first time I was harassed. Somewhere along the line I must have learned to keep that sort of thing to myself.

      Your friend’s broken bottle story scares me! I just think that, if I have a weapon, someone’s going to feel the need to see if I can use it. I’m glad she got home without any trouble.


  3. Oh, shoot, sorry; forgot to say that it ENRAGES me when random men, often one who appear to be homeless, say, “How about a smile?”, as I’m a smile-producing, ego-bolstering machine that produces results upon command. I haven’t yet asked such a person, “So, do you ever say that to a man?” Not that I don’t already know the answer: “What, do you think I’m gay?”


    1. I should start a count of how many times in a week some man tells me to smile. This drives me nuts. How dare someone think I am on the street to look appealing to him, to negate everything that may be true about me in that moment just so you can see a woman smile. So maddening. I like your question, though, and might start using it. I’ll keep you posted.


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