Because I actually don’t like thinking about you when I get dressed.
[trigger warning: street harassment, victim blaming]
If you took a close look at any of my skirts, from the shortest to the longest, you’d find the fissures of tugging them down, the countless stress fractures from my thumb and forefinger pinching the fabric, pleading with it, “Please, be longer. Please, hide me.” I beg my hips—“Disappear!”—so that maybe I’ll look neutral enough not to tempt the jeers and cheers from the bunch of nobodies who seem to congregate daily on my way to work or school or the bar.
Maybe if I am just graceless enough, maybe if I make my face look a little tougher, no one will talk at me.
I walk down the street practicing conversations with my harassers, gesticulating in real time, saying the words in an escalating whisper until I snap out of it and realize I’m just talking to myself, and people are staring. Always with the idea that I’ll be ready for the next one, ready with a biting retort that might force my harasser to rethink his behavior, but will more than likely end in my flushed face and their fading shouts of “Bitch!” “Whore!” “Dyke!” as I quicken my pace.
“All of those things add up to a culture of fear,” says Britni Clark, one of the women who run Hollaback! Boston, a website devoted to smashing street harassment through raised awareness. “It’s not about sex; it’s about power.”
This power struggle follows us, stays with us like tennis balls on Velcro. In June, Clark published her street harassment diary—a seven-day record of her street harassment experiences. She reflects that her week was relatively light on incidents, but that her cumulative experiences have altered her interaction with the world.
“There is an underlying fear, anxiety, and sense of uneasiness that permeates every minute that I’m in the world,” she writes. “I’m constantly reminded that my body is not my own every time that I’m touched or ogled without my consent.”
That’s the culture we live in. We are immersed in it. And so many people are clinging to it. Should we choose to react to our oppressor, to hollaback, we are met with any number of apparent justifications to put the blame back on us. Our sense of humor is brought into question. We’re charged with wearing something that is too provocative, or maintaining an appearance that is not “straight” enough. We’re supposed to take our harassment as a compliment.
People are really fighting to maintain culture in a way that is consistently mind-boggling and infuriating. When a 20-year-old who injured her hand punching a male who had joked about raping a women posted about the experience on her Tumblr, she received comments like “Hey you crazy bitch, he was joking about rape, not raping the drunk bimbo, not even plotting on raping her, he was JOKING,” and threats like, “Wow. And you seem proud of what you did. Seriously, you’re the one who deserves to get raped.” She received so many of these kinds of messages that she had to deactivate her Tumblr account.
I look at these kinds of comments and their lesser versions that I encounter in the real world, and I see it as the easy way out. Like when you make a joke at a party and someone tries to tell you why it’s tasteless, and you blurt, “It was just a joke!” just to shut them up, because you don’t want to hear about how shitty the world is (it’s heavy stuff), and you really don’t want to hear about how you’ve just made it a little shittier.
If you are one of those people who calls out to people on the street or the subway or any other public or private place, well, I’m going to be honest: My first instinct is to just say, “FUCK YOU,” because I’ve always wanted to say something to that effect to my harassers, and, you know, it’s a lot easier to do that when they aren’t sitting right there.
But instead, I’m just going to say: Stop it. Don’t do it. I want you to imagine punching your mother/sister/queer friends in the stomach. I want you to imagine how that feels. Because that’s what you’re doing when yell at strangers like that.
It’s not a compliment. It’s violence. It’s a punch in the gut that follows us home.