The Horrors of Street Harassment

How one day when I was 17 led me to stop being silent and start speaking out against street harassment.

By Lauren McEwen

I was 17, and I’d spent the perfect day with my then-boyfriend for his birthday. After a while, it was time for him to go meet his family for birthday dinner. He didn’t drive, and would usually go out of his way to make sure my parents could pick me up from the nearest train station, rather than leave me to take the bus and then walk home alone. But that day, my parents weren’t answering the phone—I later found out the ringer had accidentally been switched off—and I had no one else to call. I’d have to go it alone.

As soon as I got off of the bus, it began. A group of grey-haired men hanging out on the block began leering and greeting me suggestively. It was creepy, but sadly, nothing I wasn’t used to. I was brushed it off, walking as fast as my legs would allow.

I’ve been dealing with street harassment since I was eight, when my cousin and I were finally deemed old enough to walk from our grandparents’ house to the closest gas station by ourselves. We were so excited – finally grown enough to venture out into the world in search of our own candy. It felt so good to be trusted to be out alone. But then, something weird happened. Men in cars would pass by, honking their horns and rolling down their windows, whistling and offering us rides.

I don’t remember if my cousin and I ever discussed how we felt about it. But I do remember yelling back at our harassers, telling them that they were too old to talk to us if they were old enough to drive. They would tilt back their heads and laugh, saying we’d be even prettier when we got older.


I’ve had a bottle thrown at me for telling a guy I wasn’t interested in him. I have had men old enough to be my grandfather sit too close to me on the train, attempting to rub their thighs against mine. I have been followed for blocks down deserted streets. I have been groped by complete strangers, only to have them laugh in my face when confronted.


I hadn’t even hit puberty yet, and I felt like a whore. I was a child, and I didn’t know anything about patriarchy or gender politics or Gloria Steinem. All I knew was that these grown men were paying attention to me, even when I tried to keep my head down and ignore them. I started to think it was something I did or wore – that my Limited Too shorts were too revealing, or that I switched my hips when I walked.

i can be changed by what happens to me. i refuse to be reduced by it - maya angelou, street harassment, sexual harassment
“That was the day that downcast eyes and a murmured “hello” stopped being my go-to to avoid harassment.”

That day in 2007, as I walked without the safety net of a boyfriend or a parent or even a friend, it felt like every man that drove past honked his horn at me. I began to feel afraid. There were quite a few deserted, tree-lined streets on this walk, and I was terrified of what those faceless men could possibly do. Just the honking had put me on edge, and I had no idea that it was about to get much worse.

As I was waiting to cross the street, a black SUV pulled up beside me with two men in the front. They leered at me, their windows rolled down. I tried to ignore them, but it was difficult. Then, one of them turned to the other and raunchily speculated about what I’d be like in bed, describing my body in words that still make me cringe.

I realized that I’d been wrong in thinking that this type of behavior was somehow my fault. Nothing I did made a bit of difference. These men who ogled and shouted obscene things and grabbed at me as I walked down the street didn’t care what I wore, how I walked, or who I was. Just being a girl was all that mattered.

Standing near the car, hearing a complete stranger talk about me in a way no one had before, I was furious and hurt and disgusted. I wanted to reach inside the car and beat him bloody. I wanted to hurt him so badly that I thought I would explode; the knowledge that my weak punch would probably not even hurt him made me even more livid.

I looked him in the eyes, so angry that I began to cry. He quickly looked away, maybe embarrassed that I’d actually heard him. Maybe he realized that he was lusting after a child. Whatever it was, I took off running as soon as the light changed. Once they were out of sight, I slowed down, thinking it was finally over. But I was wrong. A white sedan slowed down and the driver began shouting things from his car – that I was beautiful, that I should give him my number, that I should get in the car.

I shook my head furiously, hoping that would be enough to get him to drive off and leave me in peace. It wasn’t. He parked his car in the middle of the street, and got out. I yelled out, telling him to leave me alone, terrified that he was going to drag me in. There had been a serial rapist in the area months earlier, and I didn’t remember if he’d been caught yet. I couldn’t move at first. I felt my knees shaking, and was afraid I wouldn’t be fast enough if I ran, like one of those dreams where you’re running for your life, but still feel like you’re moving in slow motion.

He came closer, pleading with me, promising that he never did anything like this. Saying that I was too beautiful for him to resist. He got within five feet, and finally, my legs woke up. I took off running and didn’t stop until I reached home. He shouted out after me, calling me every slur he could think of. I ran until my chest felt like it would burst.

When I finally got home, my mother saw me and screamed. My face was red and I couldn’t stop crying and shaking. She was afraid someone had physically harmed me. They hadn’t—but something in me had broken. These men had regarded my body like an inanimate possession – to leer at, to comment on, to shove into their cars and drive away with.

And I hadn’t done anything but cry and run. I felt like a coward.

My parent’s reactions weren’t very helpful. They were both terrified when they saw my face, but as soon as I explained the situation further, my father quietly excused himself from the conversation. I guess he assumed it was a “woman’s talk” that I should have with my mother, which is strange, because my father, who has three sisters and helped raise four girls, is the first male feminist I ever met.  Maybe he didn’t just know what to say, because he’s usually too ready to give his opinion, or to listen while I explain mine. But instead, my (usually awesome) mother gave hers, and for the first time, I was genuinely disappointed by what she had to say.

 I’m determined to let them know how I feel, and I refuse to let them take my pride.
“I’m determined to let them know how I feel, and I refuse to let them take my pride.”

She waved off my experience, telling me that men were attracted to young women, and that’s just the way it was. She then told me that when she was younger, she had been flattered by men “flirting” with her—but that was in the 1960s, when sexual harassment didn’t even have a name. From what she’s told me, the things those men said to her in passing were milder, slightly more complimentary. They didn’t use graphic detail while describing what they’d like to do with her if they got her alone. They didn’t chase her for blocks, shouting obscenities at her for refusing to give them her number.Maybe it was my fault that my parents didn’t understand. I was too embarrassed to tell them exactly what my harassers had said. Instead, I walked to my room and cried into my cat-shaped pillow. That was the day that downcast eyes and a murmured “hello” stopped being my go-to to avoid harassment. It didn’t always work and I was furious with myself for allowing strangers to make me feel that vulnerable and weak.

I began alternating between calmly explaining my discomfort to harassers and yelling at them in the middle of the sidewalk. The former is obviously the safer route to take, but sometimes, when something especially foul has been said or when I just really want to be left alone, I can’t stop myself before the words tumble out.

I’ve had a bottle thrown at me for telling a guy I wasn’t interested in him. I have had men old enough to be my grandfather sit too close to me on the train, attempting to rub their thighs against mine. I have been followed for blocks down deserted streets. I have been groped by complete strangers, only to have them laugh in my face when confronted.

My stories aren’t even the worst. I’ve read reports about girls who were shot in the head for refusing to give a man their number. Women who have had strange men expose themselves to them on the train, in bars and at gas stations. Women who have had harassers follow them to their doorsteps. Who have called the police, only to be told, “Oh, that’s just what men do.”

I began following the anti-street harassment movement, reading blog posts and retweeting stories and sharing my own. I learned that it wasn’t about sex or attraction, but power. Harassers felt entitled to my attention, body and time, either becoming confused when I rejected their advances (if you can call them that) or furious because I wasn’t “flattered” by the attention.

So now, I explain, I curse, I yell and I scream. Sometimes, my harassers stop and listen. They apologize, not having realized that they’d made me feel uncomfortable. Others get angry, violent even, but half the time, I don’t even care about my safety. I’m determined to let them know how I feel, and I refuse to let them take my pride.

This piece was originally published by The Apposite.

Lauren McEwen is a recent graduate of Howard University and lives in Washington, D.C. She’s horrible at writing these mini-bios, but she does love Ruby Woo, Harry Potter and equality. Oh, and Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta, because you can’t be intellectual all the time. Follow her on Twitter at @AngryWriterGirl.


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ABOUT “MY STREETS, TOO”
“My Streets, Too” is CASS’s ongoing series on personal writings on street harassment by members of the DC community. Email Renee to submit writings using your full name, initials, or anonymously (just let us know). Please be sure to use the subject line “My Streets, Too.”

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