A DC high school student on facing street harassment & finding feminism
By Rosie Cohen
Getting off the train, walking down a busy street, walking down a side street, walking the dog, biking home from school, crossing the street. It’s day or night, no matter what I’m wearing or how I have my hair. It’s catcalling, it’s horn honking, it’s whistling. Street harassment is scary and humiliating, and when I see it happen, to me or to someone else, it feels like it’s always going to be this way.
Growing up in Chevy Chase, DC, it was really exciting when I first started getting out into city when I got old enough to independently use metro, spend my own money, and actually have things to do outside of my suburban neighborhood. I remember a certain smugness I possessed when I would stroll down the moving escalator at Friendship Heights, blasting music through headphones, and pretending I was headed somewhere really cool. I felt like I owned this city. Okay, so actually, even though I felt like I was in the heart of DC, I was really just at Friendship Heights (which is definitely partially in Maryland), and the farthest I ever traveled down the Red Line was Cleveland Park. Also, I was definitely listening to terrible music (it was eighth grade, guys) and I was probably just going to school. Still, the independence felt amazing.
I assumed the street harassment was just part of the package deal of growing up. Sure, it made me uncomfortable when I noticed men staring at me, calling at me from cars and trucks, and whistling as I passed them on the sidewalk. At least when I was in eighth and ninth grade, I didn’t ever get mad about it.
I assumed street harassment was just part of the package deal of growing up.
I hate myself whenever I remember this, but I actually used to take it as a compliment. Hey, these guys might be creepy and misogynistic (granted I didn’t know what misogynistic meant back then), but at least they think I’m pretty! Present-me can’t believe that past-me ever had a thought like that cross her mind, but it wasn’t until tenth grade that I realized that I shouldn’t feel unsafe in public. I realized that something was wrong here, that this wasn’t just the way things had to be because of my gender.
This was around the time I started identifying myself as a feminist, and it was when I began to really get frustrated. For me, just embracing the word “feminist” gave me a boost of power and self-confidence. By connecting myself with the concept, I now felt like I had generations and generations of women behind me, all rooting for me.
The worst part isn’t the encounter. It’s always scary, but once your heart goes back to pumping at its normal rate, you’re pretty much all right. For me, the worst part of being harassed on the street is the aftermath. I’ve never responded to my perpetrators in a way that felt at all satisfactory, and I’m always left regretting not flipping them off, swearing at them, or explaining to them why their actions were unacceptable. I always plan to do it next time –promise to myself- that next time I’m bothered out in public, I’ll let loose the anger and frustration that rages inside me whenever I face sexism. The truth is, in the moment, I’m simply too scared.
The problem isn’t that I’m too “meek” or “naturally passive,” as women have been societally deemed for centuries, to defend myself. The problem is the power imbalance in the situation. I shouldn’t even have to find myself in a situation where I need to actively defend myself (change my walking routes, hold my keys tightly in my fist, etc.) in the first place. Nobody should have to do those things, no matter where they live.
Recently, I’ve read stories about horrible sexual violence in New Delhi. These stories offer perspective for me, and remind me that I’m really well off, privileged, and lucky. But it also makes me want to fight even harder against oppression, in any way I can.
“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Rosie Cohen is a junior at Wilson High School in DC.