Michelle Marie Ryder, USA, SSH Blog Correspondent
In the United States, 65% of women have been harassed in public. Each wolf-whistle, obscene gesture and violating touch has the power to transform our world. For many of us it’s hard to forget the first time we were harassed, as evidenced by a recent popular hashtag #FirstHarassed.
No matter how confident we might start the day, we struggle to keep an ocean of fear at bay the moment we step outdoors. Everyday we navigate a sea of uncertainty that limits our mobility and sense of safety. Short of a cure, we find ways to cope.
Personally, I never leave the house without putting on my best Wednesday Addams resting bitchface. I evade eye contact with strangers to avoid being perceived as flirty; my gaze is restricted, my interaction with the social world strained and limited, some of its richness lost.
When I feel safe enough I speak up, tempted by the peace of mind assured by an effective counterattack. The first time I did I shouted a simple, liberating FUCK YOU! – drawing in a deep breath of air between the two words for extra effect. That was really all it took to shut up a clot of men (who hang out in groups of five because they each have one fifth of a personality, jokes comedian Eddie Izzard, who is frequently harassed in public for cross-dressing). At the time I had been walking alone, but thankfully had the anonymity of a crowd to slip into for protection.
But there are times when our friends, family members or lovers are with us, putting them in the awkward position of wanting to defend us but also being well aware of the threat of violence, of how easily catcalls can escalate into something more serious. So they, too, often feel compelled to suppress their anger and frustration.
Renowned slam poet Andrea Gibson speaks to these feelings of powerlessness with high-octane eloquence in her poem “To The Men Catcalling My Girlfriend as I’m Walking Beside Her.” Co-performed with Katie Wirsing, Gibson addresses the subject of the poem, the street harasser, directly, making this quite possibly the finest the-reason-you-suck-speech to ever grace the earth.
Gibson says this is the first poem she’s ever written that’s meant to be “used in the real world.” Carried like a weapon in our consciousness is what I imagine she meant by that. Carried like “Wolverine keys” girded for battle between clenched fists, “because what men fear most about going to prison is what women fear most about walking down the sidewalk,” proclaims a popular #YesAllWomen tweet.
Whether we’re carrying mace, a rape whistle, switchblade or scythe (I’ve considered them all), these weapons, like Gibson’s dagger-sharp wordplay, are symbols of the violence women face daily. They evoke with forceful lucidity our second-class citizenship. There is significant risk in defying this system, in defying the will of the harasser, even for those who might try to intervene on our behalf.
A 31 year old San Franciscan man, Ben Schwartz, was savagely attacked in 2014 when he asked a catcaller to stop making lewd comments to his girlfriend. He was stabbed nine times, the knife narrowly missing his major arteries and spinal cord. Michael Tingling, a Chicago father, wasn’t so lucky. He was killed shielding his 15 year old daughter from sexually degrading treatment on the street after picking her up from school.
Street harassment is not flattering, it is frightening. It is a barrier to true equality and a denial of liberties, writes Holly Kearl, founder of Stop Street Harassment. But the good news is there’s a lot we can do to fight back, to stop from sinking in the ocean of fear that greets us daily. From speaking up to taking to the streets to pressing for policy change, the fight is only just beginning.
Michelle is a freelance writer and community activist. She has written for Infita7.com, Bluestockings Magazine, and The New Verse News on a range of social justice issues, and shares her poetry regularly at poetrywho.blogspot.com.Share on Facebook