Walking is one of my favorite ways of getting around town. I don’t drive and while public transportation doesn’t bother me, I prefer to walk about the city as much as possible. It makes me feel like a real resident of Chicago. The experience seems personal and I know how to get to the smaller, unusual, more interesting places because I avoid major streets and intersections. I try to walk to and from work almost every day. It’s about an hour long each way and creates a sense of accomplishment at the start of the day.
This isn’t a new hobby of mine. During my teenage years I would take long walks around town either alone or with friends. I suppose that was the best way to get a feeling of independence before any of us could drive but I remember going all over the place and appreciating the general sites of my every day world. While this sounds super nice and semi romantic there was an ulterior motivation that gave birth to my walking habit: male attention. Back then, my friends and I would wander around getting honked and hollered at experiencing a rush whenever the taunts came. (I hope you are all appreciating how embarrassing this is to admit.) I think that is what men expect women to feel when they shout at them on the streets. It should be taken as a form of flattery: “Hey, I’m noticing you!” Sometimes, that is true. But, as you get older and the taunts become personal space violations, and instead of invigoration you feel small and afraid, you realize it’s more of a power issue than anything related to flirting or feeling good.
When I moved to Chicago for college one of the first things I noticed was girls complaining about riding the “L” or walking around the neighborhood alone and having men say and do inappropriate things to them. One girl had a man flash his penis at her and she was so upset about it she ended up leaving school. It was hard for me to sympathize because I had never had anything like that happen to me. In fact, I thought it was an overreaction. It’s a penis! Get over it. I would get frustrated because these girls wouldn’t report the incidents. If it bothers you so much, why haven’t you called the police or told the CTA?? That’s what I would do, right?
One day, on the 5 block walk to the swimming pool from campus, my best friend Jenny and I experienced an incident that still gives me the creeps. As we turned down the side street toward the pool’s entrance, I felt like someone was staring at me. Looking to my left, I saw a man had pulled over in a black car and was completely naked, masturbating and giving me the most disgusting look I’ve ever seen. Instantly, I said “Keep walking!” to Jenny, who then also saw what was happening. We hurried as quickly as possible to the gym and once inside felt relief but also shock. We sort of laughed it off and then went for our swim. Neither of us called anyone or reported the incident.
After it happened to me on an elevated level I finally realized how truly scary street harassment can be. What amazes me about that experience is that guy had to have driven around naked for a while before finding a perfect spot to pull over and terrify some women all in the name of getting off. I’m sure the level of fear I had was plastered across my face, so that makes me think that that was what he was looking for. He wanted to scare us. I was incredibly afraid, a feeling that surprised me for a long time. He hadn’t shouted at us or even exited his vehicle. But the fact that he had the audacity to do something like that is what bothers me the most. It’s incredibly upsetting to think that someone can use you against your will for their own purposes. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in an “L” car with someone doing that or to be physically assaulted. The experience also taught me that I would in fact not report an incident that should be documented. We talked ourselves out of the feelings that we had because it could have been worse and we decided that it was silly. That same idiot may be out there driving around doing this to other women which makes me feel guilty. Since this first time, I can count maybe a dozen other times that I have been groped, flashed, and even urinated on. Never once filing an official complaint. Having the opportunity to do something doesn't overcome the fact that it is easier to do nothing.
Lisa Robinson took a dramatically different approach to her experience with street harassment. Aboard a Welsh train, she heard some men taunting another woman. She stepped in to tell the men to leave the woman alone and they turned on her. They were using incredibly explicit language that prompted Lisa to ask the train operator to call the police. After his refusal to do anything about the abuse, she stepped off the train and onto the tracks. She stopped service and the police were called. Thankfully the authorities are on Ms. Robinson’s side and have said that no member of the public deserves to be subjected to such abuse. In statements she made to the press she expressed her desire to live in a community where women are free to live without sexualized bullying.
I can in no way shape or form imagine myself being as brave as Lisa. She was confronted by the men in a way that made it clear they felt they had the power to publicly humiliate her and other females. She decided to reject this assumed authority by stopping the service of an entire transportation system. Clearly, one does not go against a basic understanding of safety to address a one-time incident. Her extreme actions are incredibly understandable when you account for the fact that she initially tried to get the men to stop taunting the other woman and then asked a trained professional to help. Her level of frustration must have been through the roof.
Typically, what we do as women to cope with this problem is to put our heads down and keep walking. A tactic that can backfire if the perpetrators don’t get their anticipated reaction. If you ignore them, the harassment turns from “compliments” to insults in a heartbeat. It’s almost like you are rejecting them. They want you to smile or be appreciative and when that doesn’t happen they respond as though you’ve harshly turned them down for a date. They decide that they are the only ones that have been humiliated and therefore have the right to retaliate. This is what makes it a power issue. They have the right to feelings and reactions. You are an object that is less than and therefore have to take it.
In India the problem is so bad that there are several approaches to fighting back. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, some women are organizing gangs that violently beat and humiliate any male that harasses or assaults another person. Their rationale is that there are no authorities that are looking out for the poor and that they have to take matters into their own hands. While, I’m not sure this is necessarily positive, it is a great example of the lengths some are willing to take to combat the problem. Other groups are putting up signs and making public service announcements informing women of their worth and their ability to reject subjection to sexual bullying. This is the best way to organize and encourage females that they have rights when walking around in public.
Below are some of the PSA's used in combating Indian street harassment.
Another solution to this problem that has popped up in Mexico is to have a women only taxi service. There is an entire fleet of pink cabs driven by females that do not stop for men (the cabs have “beauty kits“ in the back as well). The idea is to keep women safe from male drivers and to also give them more options for getting around without being approached or hassled. While this can be considered a temporary band aid, we all know that separation is not a solution and if a problem requires such actions, the right form of prevention is not being applied. Also, “pinking”* a problem is not the only way to help women.
*Pinking: The use of the color pink as a solution in and of itself or to aid in assuaging any and all issues pertaining to the female gender.
Reading about how bad it can be for women in underdeveloped countries really makes me appreciate our system a lot more. That being said, it’s clear that there isn’t a nation in the world that doesn’t have the issue of street harassment to some degree. Lisa Robinson’s incident happened in the United Kingdom and the fact that the train operator did nothing even when asked illustrates how there are cracks in even the most developed systems.
The following cartoon dramatizes what can potentially be a female’s experience but also highlights what I believe to be the root of the problem: we’re supposed to take it all as compliments.
And like I said earlier sometimes we do. I remember in high school I would wear miniskirts that boys would put their hands up when we were walking up the stairs to class. Of course I would swat their hands away, but it was always done in a lighthearted way. Sure, I guess I can see that I may have encouraged future street harassment. I can see how we all may not effectively discourage such behavior in all situations. I thought that was the kind of attention I wanted at the time. Up until the pool incident, I also believed other women were overreacting whenever they complained. Which makes me part of the problem. So again, I can see how this is aggravated by both genders, with everyone sharing the blame.
However, I still feel like it is unfair for me to think that there is something I must have done to provoke situations like the one I experienced when I walked to the pool. It's hard not to shake the idea that you could have prevented the incident by doing something differently, a belief that I feel is systemically ingrained in women at an early age.
We need to see that this behavior isn’t normal and has nothing to do with the way a woman looks or acts. It has to do with the perceived notion of who has the power. Since this is what I believe is the underlying cause of the issue, I know that this must happen to men as well as women. We all must decide like Lisa that we want to live in a society where we can walk around and exist without belittling or objectifying others.