I get harassed on the street — a lot. It’s one of the curses of being both a woman and a pedestrian.
When I was 9, my 10-year-old cousin and I couldn’t walk down the street in Atlanta without men gawking. They would roll down their windows, telling us how good we looked and offering us rides. I would shout back that if they could drive, they were too old to hit on me. They would drive away, laughing like pedophilia is amusing.
I’m not alone, of course. According to stopstreetharassment.org, 80 percent of women will endure street harassment during their lifetime. And it’s been going on for generations: In the early 1920s the “Anti-Flirt Club” was founded in D.C. by Alice Reighly. Its mission? To help “young women and girls who have been embarrassed by men in
automobiles and on street corners” to avoid harassment in the future.
Today, women and men are speaking out more than ever. Just recently a woman who was groped by a biker in Dupont Circle blogged about the assault and hundreds of women responded by sharing similar stories online. The anti-street harassment movement has evolved, with summits dedicated to fighting it and documentaries and blogs on the subject all over the Web.
While this progress is encouraging, the message isn’t reaching those who need it most: the harassers. Often the men who attend summits and read about the problem aren’t the sidewalk perverts.
So, I vote for women taking the message to the harassers.
Why? Because I refuse to be made a victim every time I walk to my neighborhood CVS. Recently I stopped to calmly explain to a man who was following me why I felt threatened. I’ve also chastised men old enough to be my father for making lewd comments as I passed them. I’ve also told a harasser that I am not a prostitute, so I don’t answer drive-by catcalls.
It’s disappointing to think the burden of ending street harassment lies with women. But as long as some men think this is the norm, we will be continuously stalked, taunted, sexually harassed, groped, flashed, honked at and catcalled.
Admittedly, I have been a little reckless while “educating” a man on the street. I have shouted obscenities at an entire crowd of people after I was groped by a coward in Adams Morgan. When a worker at my school insulted me after I ignored his comments about a pair of shorts I wore on a 90-degree day, I unleashed every bit of my wrath on him.
It felt good, but we were alone on an isolated street. Although he apologized, and may have actually gotten my point, it was a risky move. I should have been more careful.
For that reason, my friends tell me to ignore the harassers’ calls. But ignoring them makes me feel powerless, and it doesn’t always work.
Speaking up makes some harassers angry, but more often than not, they apologize. The problem is that many of these men were taught that the harassing behavior is acceptable. When I explain exactly why their behavior is wrong, it has opened their eyes to a new world of human decency.
Any men out there think I’m exaggerating? Go for a walk with a woman one day. Stay a few paces behind her, and keep a tally of how many times she’s harassed on each block. Give two points for the especially vivid/disgusting comments. It’ll make you thank your lucky stars you were born with that y-chromosome.
I can already predict that a few male commenters will feel the need to stand up for their perverted brethren. (And for the men who think your catcalling is “different,” well it’s you, too.) So, allow me to knock down some of your arguments.
1. We don’t like the attention. Often men say harassment should boost a woman’s self-esteem. It actually does the complete opposite. It makes you feel like something negative about you is attracting this unwanted attention.
2. It’s never a woman’s fault. It doesn’t matter what the woman has on, or how attractive she is. Women get harassed just for being women.
3. No one owes a complete stranger more than a hello.
What upsets me most is the look on a harasser’s face when he’s said something hurtful. When I look past his sexually aggressive stare and see a self-entitled sneer. This isn’t flirting. It is verbal abuse. They aren’t interested in me, or any of the women they taunt. They do this because they think they can. They believe that women are defenseless, and are amused by our embarrassment and disgust. Every time I shut one of them up, I take a bit of my power back.
Lauren McEwen is a regular contributor to The RootDC.
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