“I thought I would be entitled to a little peace.”

To preface this story: now, I don’t ever think the clothes I wear entitle strangers to make unwanted advances. Furthermore, I find the fact that women often need to make lifestyle changes (i.e. dress differently) in order to protect themselves against harassment an absurd limitation on their rights. But before I begin this story, I just want to point out that on this particular afternoon I was wearing a dress that could be best described as a “going to brunch with your boyfriend’s parents” dress. It was conservative and simple, not attention calling or fitted. Honestly, as I stepped out of my front door in this boring dress about to embark on a walk that brings me daily harassment, I thought I would be entitled to a little peace.

I was waiting at a crosswalk for the light to change on a recent Saturday afternoon, with my attention directed towards my phone and the text message I was writing. So I didn’t immediately notice the car that pulled up to me as it turned through the intersection or hear what the driver said to me the first time around.

I had only ever had a stranger’s car pull up to me when the driver needed directions. I get catcalled from moving cars all the time, but a stopped vehicle was different. I looked up from my phone and asked, “What?” In the car, I saw a man staring at me and smiling lewdly, apparently relishing the fact that I gave his first comment any attention. The words come at me again: “What color underwear are you wearing?”

Locked in eye contact for a second, I finally took a deep breath and settled on “Fuck. You. Go to hell,” and walked across the street without turning back.

I didn’t think to do more. I told a friend this story later and she said I should have grabbed the license plate number, and the fact that this didn’t occur to me left me feeling incompetent. Then I thought, when this happened I was still in sight of my front door, and this man may have very well seen me exit my house. It wouldn’t have been safe to make a scene. This left me feeling vulnerable. I also mentioned this story to one of my male friends. He tried to sympathize, but I don’t think he believed the incident warranted energy or action, and his dismissive tone left me feeling overdramatic and silly.

I still felt frustrated so I posted the story on my FB page. A friend of mine commiserated. A homeless man had told him to “fuck off, pretty boy” when he had no change to spare and shouted after him “where’s your boyfriend, homo?” as he walked away. With brave humor my friend—who is indeed single, very attractive, and gay—told me: “I would have been angry if he if he weren’t so on point about everything.” The story put things in perspective for me and cheered me up a little, but the fact that a harasser’s words can be accurate doesn’t make them any less upsetting. And I wasn’t quite ready to brush it off so good-naturedly.

This left me feeling incompetent, vulnerable, over-dramatic, and upset.

Then another male friend posted the link to your site on my wall, and I decided to see if fleshing these feelings out in writing might help. This prompted me to spend a while thinking about street harassment with some productive conclusions. But here is where I get stuck:

My parents tried to raise me to get no enjoyment out of harming others. But when this kind of harassment happens to me (and since I moved to this city at the beginning of the summer I’ve been astounded at the unrelenting frequency with which it occurs) all I want is to make my harassers feel as hurt and angry and embarrassed as they make me feel.

I spend too much time thinking about how I could do this. Answer “Hey Sexy” with “How’s it going, Average?” or counter comments about my tits and ass with jibes about their bald spots and beer bellies? I can’t help but laugh at the corny spitefulness of my comebacks. And then I feel sad.

I can’t touch them with my exhausted and unimaginative “Fuck you” anymore than I can with a righteous “What would your mother say?” or a grade-school “You’re ugly and fat and bald and stupid and smelly and probably never get laid and…”

There is nothing I can say to tear them as far down as they push me and the truth is, even if I could think of the sharpest retort, I’m not sure I want to be the kind of person who would be willing to spit those words back.

And that powerlessness is the absolute worse part. That’s the part that left me in tears, as this asshole laughed at me and drove away.

Submitted by LV on 8/7/2011

Location: 11th St NW

Time of harassment: Day Time (9:30A-3:30P)

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7 Responses

  1. Sara Salam

    I love this story and the accuracy at which you describe what happens to many men and women in the city. My question is:

    So what ARE you doing to release those feelings? Because in the end, those feelings hurt you, not the harasser. People will always have their own opinions about what happened. And in the end it’s how YOU feel, not what someone else thinks about how you SHOULD feel.

    There are times and places to voice your opinion, and times and places where safety comes first. Yet, that lingering feeling and the annoyance, what are you doing to release them safely? To come back to balance?

    I normally don’t chime in in this way, but I have read so many stories like this lately, and I just want you to know there are ways to feel powerful and empowered, even after such events. I would so love for you to try out some of the programs we have developed at Luminous Warrior to help you let go of those feelings and truly stand in your power.

    Maybe I’ll see you there next week! 🙂

    Light & Blessings,

  2. cathy

    you say a lot that i’ve been thinking about our responses to harassment. it’s frustrating that you can’t hurt them or help them. i don’t like to give up on people, but it’s certainly not much of a teaching moment. :/

  3. Emily

    Thank you so much for writing through this and sharing it with all of us. I take such inspiration from what you wrote!

    Isn’t it odd how no comment you spit back really makes you feel better? That old adage “sticks and stones” seems to apply to our harassers but not us. Keep your head up. I just try to tell myself that these men are sad, sick people. Then I count my blessings and go on my way. (if only it were that easy, right?)

  4. DCN8V

    I’m so sorry this happened to you. Thank you, though, for so eloquently describing the feelings that this evokes and the mental back and forth that plays out in your mind for days/weeks/months afterward. We don’t seek this out, but we certainly deal with the consequences of these vile, slimy, thoughtless, and scrofulous words from the mouths of vile, slimy, thoughtless, and scrofulous people.

  5. Anonymous

    He was right, you’re right, you are being “overdramatic and silly” by grinding every ounce of sympathy and attention you possibly can off something that’s not a big deal. All people, male, female, gay or straight take a bit of verbal abuse from crazy people in public, it’s part of city life. You only have two choices, either move to a cabin in the woods or grow-up and act like an adult.

    • Alice

      Anonymous:There is a difference between verbal abuse by a crazy person on the street and sexual harassment. I have more than a handful of stories of my own experiences of being lewdly commented to, inappropriate touching on public transportation, and even getting followed by strange men from over the past twenty years. Most of them happened when I was in my teens and early twenties when I walked and biked and took public transportation often. It is a simple, sad fact that some men are predatory in their behavior towards single women traveling alone on the street. And to say that women shouldn’t feel threatened by threatening behavior is just crazy talk.

  6. Alice

    I was very inspired by the story of your blog in the Washington Post. Best of luck and thanks so much for giving this issue a voice online.