It pains me to write this, men, because I love and respect and care about so many of you. But unfortunately, a small but vocal minority of you are, to put it succinctly, dangerous. Dangerous to women who happen to exist in your line of sight, and dangerous to all people by virtue of the atmosphere and attitudes that you perpetuate.
Street harassment—the catcall, the wolf whistle, the holla, whatever you want to call it—is a daily occurrence wherever women live, whatever color or shape those women take, whatever those women are wearing. It can be as crude as “Damn, I wanna fuck that ass” or as schoolyard as “Get back in the kitchen, fatty,” or as seemingly benign as “Smile, beautiful.” Actual appearance, fuckable or fat or beautiful, is irrelevant. The important thing is that these men, with whom their targets have no relationship other than temporarily occupying adjacent squares of sidewalk, take it upon themselves to comment on their physical being and determine what should be done to it.
Take this mentality and pull the camera back. Now we’re not just looking at two individuals on the street; we’re looking at groups of people within a nation. A group of strange men making judgments about the bodies of women they have no relationship with. In this election year, this has become a hotter than usual topic in America again, and it remains a struggle for women in conservative countries around the world. Fighting just to control their own bodies. Fighting just to keep men’s hands and eyes and words and thoughts off them.
I travel because I want to experience the world, and a huge part of experiencing the world is getting to know the people in it. But the lesson that I’ve learned since I was a young girl is, Don’t talk to strange men. They mean you harm. They want to say and do things to you and they don’t care if you want them to. So most of the time, I stay closed off. I lower my eyes. I wear earbuds and sunglasses. I bury myself in a book.
I was thusly buried in a teashop in Istanbul when the waiter tried to strike up a conversation. I was wary, but I let my guard down, feeling like we were in a safe public place in the middle of the day, and we wound up having a fascinating talk, him telling me about his family, their Kurdish heritage, his life in the big city, how he liked working at the bazaar. It was a peek into the real life of a real person that I never would have gotten if I’d kept up my defenses.
But sometimes, when I let those defenses down, I get in trouble. Walking at night in the old part of Barcelona, a man approached me, speaking English, wanting to chat. My instinct said he was trouble, but my “you need to be open to this place and its people” overruled it somehow. I tried to make basic small talk, but the tone immediately turned aggressive. I told him goodnight, and he asked where I was going. I said to meet friends and walked away quickly. Of course, I wasn’t going to meet friends. I was traveling alone, knew no one in the city, and was fairly lost in the winding streets. He followed me for blocks, grinning menacingly at me as I kept looking nervously over my shoulder, until I finally ducked into a bar and started talking with the bartender in my awful Spanish like I knew what I was doing.
This isn’t just an annoyance or a thing women need to get over. Street harassment makes us fearful and suspicious, keeps us isolated, narrows down our world. I’ve made decisions on places not to travel because as a solo woman I wouldn’t feel safe. But this harassment also happens in my country, in my city. The quotes at the top aren’t just pulled out of thin air; they’re actual quotes to me from men I do not know in the past month in my own neighborhood.
I don’t know what to do about this. This isn’t an essay that’s going to end with any kind of rallying cry (other than, if you do this, knock it off—but I’m guessing that’s not much of my audience). Yelling and flipping them off always feels impotent, and I’m mad at myself for having let them get a rise out of me. Ignoring them seems like I’m condoning it, and then I walk on and swallow the shame and feel it fester and sicken me. It’s my ideal, when I have the presence of mind, to slowly turn my head, look them dead in the eye, and give them a shake of my head and a withering look like, “You sad, pathetic little creep,” but usually I’m too flustered and angry to keep that kind of control. I’ve got no answers here. Women, what do you do when you’re harassed? Men, what do you do when you see it happen? And what can be done to make it stop?