Almost everyday on my way to work, I get harassed.
The office where I intern is located in a bustling area of the city, and during the fifteen minute jaunt to and from the transit station, I pass more people on the sidewalk and more cars on the road than I could count.
On a good day, I might encounter a few bozos who honk their horns or stick their heads out of their car windows to shout out pithy greetings like “hi” or “hey, ma.” (The latter was a personal favorite; given my age, “ma” seems hardly appropriate)
On a bad day, I will walk past strangers who make more involved comments about either my physical appearance or clothing. Usually, these are more frustrating than they are harmful — and with the exception of a few instances, I generally haven’t felt threatened and these comments haven’t delved into the overly explicit.
More than anything, this kind of harassment bothers me because it seems purposeless. Because most of these strangers do this in passing, I don’t understand why they do it all — why make me, or anyone else, unnecessarily upset?
I know that this kind of street harassment arises, especially in big cities. However, I do feel uneasy each time it happens, and I wish that I had the courage to respond. Especially on occasions when strangers’ comments do cross the line more than usual. Definitely each of the few times when they have forgone commentary for physical harassment — there are few things that will make me angrier, I’ve found, than feeling as though I can do nothing when a stranger approaches and touches me.
But, I’m fearful that my interactions with them could escalate in a way I wouldn’t know how to handle. And I hate both that I have this fear in the first place and how irrational it seems. Or how powerless I feel when loud, backbreaking assertiveness is not a quality I lack in other areas of my life. And I hate that, for many of us who experience this kind of harassment, the default response is no response at all.
I wish that we could say something. I wish that we could express how angry or upset or annoyed these interactions make us. And I hope that some people, who are certainly braver than me, do say something.
Personally, I feel as though I have no recourse when someone passes me in the street and makes a lewd comment. I can’t counter their “hey, mama, nice legs” and their “baby, you dance?” with the annoyance (and sometimes, anger — depending on their level of vulgarity) that I feel. I can’t say anything, or so it seems.
Once, as I walked around a busy neighborhood in New York City, a stranger came up to me and remarked that my hair looked “soft.” I don’t know what induced him to do this — maybe he was intoxicated or maybe he was not — but before I could even process what was happening, he grabbed a handful of my hair and gently tugged for a few seconds — running off just as I had begun to recover from my initial shock.
As I watched him hurry away, I wondered to myself how he could have thought it was okay for him to transcend the boundaries of normal street harassment and violate my personal space. But I also wondered what would have happened if I had recovered from my stunned state before he had run off. Would I have done anything? Or would I have felt too scared, too voiceless, and too powerless to do anything — like every other time I experienced harassment of this nature?
Would it be empowering for us to fight back against street harassers, in a sense, and vocalize our discontent? Or would it be foolish? Should we just let the moment pass and think nothing of it, regardless of how uncomfortably they make us feel or how depraved their comments are?
I, for one, hope that I muster up the courage to say something the next time someone harasses me on the street. After all, the short list of what I would do to them is probably less exciting than they’d think.