For the past few years, I’ve mainly worked from home and that’s significantly reduced the amount of street harassment I face because I’m not out in public alone that much. Typically, I “only” experience street harassment every few months. So, facing it seven times in the past six weeks has been jarring, even though that is still way less than other times when I have faced it that many times in a given day or even a given hour. I hit a new life record today though when two different men harassed me within about a minute of each other. So that’s prompting this post.
(1) The first of the seven incidents of street harassment occurred six weeks ago in New Hampshire, literally after I had given a talk at the University of New Hampshire on street harassment. I stopped in a shop on my way back to my hotel and the older white male store manager saw my “Stop Street Harassment” pin and felt it was okay to interrupt me to demand how he’s supposed to respond to people who “accost” (his word choice) white people and tell them that wearing a sombrero is racist (there had recently been several publicized incidents of racism at the university including white students wearing sombreros). I suggested he could listen to that person and hear WHY they are upset by it and try to understand their point of view. That was not the response he wanted and he began arguing with me. I can’t recall all the ins and outs of this conversation but one thing I said was that as white people we needed to consider our privileges and listen to other points of view and be open to changing our behavior. His response was so typical: “I’m not privileged!” I said, “You’re a white man, of course you are.” After originally being polite to him, I got fed up and chose to leave the store. As I walked to the door, this man, who outweighed me by 100 pounds and loomed over my 5’2″ frame, followed me out of the store, continuing to loudly argue with me. I felt anxious, upset and unsafe. This was not explicitly gender-based harassment, but I doubt he would have become so aggressive if I were a man. So then, in that sense, it was. (Also, would he have been even more aggressive had I been a woman of color?!)
(2) The next week, I was harassed by a Safeway truck driver while I walked my dogs near my home in Virginia right after I did a media interview about street harassment.
(3 & 4) A week later, I was in Texas and during a morning run near my hotel, I had to run alongside a busy road for four minutes before I could reach a quiet neighborhood… and men in two different vehicles harassed me during that short time.
(5) One day last week, I was walking my dogs near my home again, looking down at my phone to start a podcast, when a man in a car I had never seen before yelled out, “Did you get the text I just sent?” He stopped the car by me and he and his friends laughed and looked expectantly at me. I smiled weakly and hoped they’d drive on and thankfully, they did.
(6 & 7) Today, I was standing to the side of the entrance of my local Harris Teeter grocery store, quickly answering a few texts before I went in, and a man walked by me and said, “You shouldn’t be texting!” He said it in a joking, maybe trying to be flirtatious way, and stopped and smiled at me, expecting some kind of response. I guess he wasn’t expecting me to glare because then he walked on. Then literally within the next minute, another man walking by me said, “Oh hey honey, how you doing?” He slowed down and as I glanced up, he kept looking back at me, giving me a big smile, waiting for me to say something positive back to him. I glared at him too and returned to my phone. He walked into the store. I stood outside for a few more minutes, nervous to go inside and possibly have to see him again. But I bolstered my courage and fortunately, I did not encounter him a second time.
No doubt these all sound relatively benign and they are far from being the worst experiences I’ve had, but in each case, if I were a man, I bet I would have been able to go about my day uninhibited. I could go into a store (by the way, I put back the items I was going to buy so I could get out of there faster), go for a run, walk my dogs or text in front of a grocery store in PEACE. Each of these men knew they were interrupting me from what I was doing and they didn’t care. They felt that saying a “witty” line or honking and whistling at me was more important than just letting me live my life.
It’s an interesting contrast to see my personal experiences of street harassment rise over the last few weeks at the same time that millions of women have been speaking out against sexual harassment and assault with the #MeToo hashtag, and as many high powered men are FINALLY facing consequences for past sexual abuse they’ve committed. Perhaps it’s no coincidence. The more women push back against harassment, perhaps the more men will “punish” us by harassing us. I just hope that eventually we can win out and they will stop. I hope that one day, I — and everyone else who wants to — can walk down the street without being needlessly interrupted or worrying about a man’s underlying intent.
(Also, I gave a talk to teenagers in a writing group in Maryland last night and while the focus of our conversation was on writing, since I write a lot about street harassment, we briefly touched on the topic. Nearly all the girls immediately nodded their head in intimate understanding of the behaviors I described street harassment entailing. This harassment begins SO YOUNG and it’s simply not okay.)
Location: New Hampshire, Texas and Virginia
Need support? Call the toll-free National Street Harassment hotline: 855-897-5910