July 25 was a particularly bad day for me.
Like most women, I have grown accustomed to various forms of harassment by men on the street. I have learned to brace myself before walking in front of a construction site or a car full of rowdy men.
But on July 25, I found that I could not make the 15-minute walk from my apartment to Union Station and back without being the target of insults, sexually loaded remarks and even physical threats from four men I encountered on my path. One man was even accompanied by a woman. When I passed him and did not respond to his implicit come-on, he yelled his opinion of me to my back. His companion said nothing. By the time I got home, I was shaken and frightened.
I come from from the South. Where I'm from, black men and women address each other on the street. Those who don't are considered rude, ill-bred and hateful of black tradition. So I once had no qualms about speaking to men on the street.
But in the past few months of living in Washington, I have lost the ability to discriminate between men who are being friendly and those who wish to do me harm. Now I view all gestures from men on the street as potential threats. All the car honks and "hey-baby" comments that I once considered just annoying are now ominous and alarming.
Last night a female friend and I couldn't even enjoy dessert at a restaurant in Dupont Circle without being approached. We asked the man to leave us alone, but we were only safe after his wife appeared. Ironically, we had ducked into the restaurant to evade two men who had almost knocked us down on the street minutes earlier. After they had banged into us, we had instinctively told them to watch where they were going, but when we saw the hate in their eyes, we realized that our encounter had been no accident.
By the time the man in the restaurant approached us, we were both shaking with anger. Why didn't we yell and call for the manager? Because we have both learned through experience that responding angrily only invites more trouble from men who like to harass women. And as two relatively small women, we were not equipped to back up hostile words with action. So we swallowed our rage and commiserated over our ice cream.
I can understand that these men are responding in the only way they know how to their sense of isolation in this society. I see that unemployed black men, in particular, feel abandoned by the world and, in a typically human response, they try to oppress those they see as weaker -- often a black woman. At the root of their efforts to get my attention may be a simple need to remind me that they are here, alive in the world, although the world often seems to forget it. Powerless and ignored, they are saying, "not only am I here, but I can hurt you."
It is easy to discuss these ideas sympathetically over dinner or on paper, but when a woman unexpectedly encounters a man on the street who, she feels instinctively, would like to harm her, she suddenly loses her interest in theory. Survival becomes the overriding issue. She learns eventually that the only men she is safe from are the ones who smile and keep walking.