“Hey, sweetheart, nice tits!”
The first time I heard this, I was 12 or 13-years-old. Until that day, I’d been sort of negligent about wearing my training bras. I didn’t see the point of them, and they hurt my ribs. After happened though, I never left the house without one.
No-one in my family asked why I was suddenly more anxious to go outside. The ones that I told about the incident were sympathetic, but distant – I was a woman, after all, or growing up into one, this would be part of everyday life. I was still playing with Barbies, and I also had to worry about grown men making sexual comments at me on the street. I was taken aback by this. The fact that the adults around me were not was disturbing.
Of course, none of this is unique to me, and it happened more than once. It was all very uniform – older man (often significantly older) would say something vaguely ‘complimentary’ and start following me on the street (one of them was on a bike. I had to get on a bus to get away from him). Or he would be young and heckle me for the amusement of his friends (‘Nice tits!’ as I walked, or jogged past). If anybody saw it, they did nothing. People I told were either ambivalent (‘Aw, that’s cute!’) or unhelpful (no, I have no idea where he lives, and how does offering to beat him up change things?)
Street harassment was such a common occurrence, myself and other exchange students once had a whole lecture dedicated to how we should hold ourselves in public transport, and how best to react if anything like that ever happened. (The university’s best advice? Screaming ‘leave me alone!’ as loud as possible. Nevermind escalation can go badly, too.)
A few months later, I was walking out (in midday, on a busy street). I had no idea why a guy suddenly started walking behind me, whispering in my ear, but I was terrified. Of course, none of the other passers-by saw it, or wanted to get involved. In the end I stopped abruptly, intending to walk into a cafe. The guy crashed into my back, called me a whore, and then disappeared.
I still don’t remember how I got home. I haven’t got much memory of that day, period. Just the terror gnawing at my gut, my panicky calculation: do I cause a scene? Do I run? Do I hide? Can I fight this guy off? I wasn’t doing martial arts then, either. My best chance of a weapon was a handbag. I thought about an umbrella I had, a nice long one which I’d gotten expressly because I’d read an online article that rapists avoided women carrying anything that can be used for long-distance defense. It wasn’t with me anymore, and maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference, but I wished for it so badly in those seconds.
I thought an umbrella was more reliable to help me than other people on the same street.
Anybody can rationalize in hindsight. Street harassment is a common occurrence. It happens to everyone, for the same reason – because harassers decide they want to make you feel scared and little. I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, I can’t change it.
Neither did you.
Neither did anybody who had this happen to them.
These days, I can’t say I’m any better at confrontation than I was as a child. Martial arts has been good for my body, but if it has taught me anything, it’s how badly a fight can go and why it’s important to avoid it. I’m not fond of going out at night. I’m wary of strangers being nice to me for no reason, because as far as my experience goes, they are never nice for long.
What I am better at is seeing through the bullshit. Not just of the harassers but that of the people who enable them. There are some for whom escalation might be genuinely dangerous – those who are not able to hold their own in a fight, or those who haven’t got any social capital to yield in the favor of the victim. But there is almost always people in the crowd who ignore abuse because it’s inconvenient for them to intervene. Because they choose their own comfort over that of someone less lucky that day.
It’s a sad realization to have. It won’t start any revolutions.
But it should make you mad.
It should make you mad because it’s wrong, and it should make you mad because it placed the blame on you for so many years. It’s so much easier to tell someone to ‘just yell loudly’ or to carry a big umbrella or to cut their hair so short nobody can grab it. It’s so much easier to laugh off your friend’s distress than it is to comfort them and tell them it was wrong.
The easy way is not always the right one. Anybody who tells you otherwise is the one who should be ashamed for walking out in public – not you.