Last Friday night was perhaps the first time I’ve felt legitimately unsafe walking the streets of Austin since I moved here a little over a year ago.
I wanted to attend a Halloween event at a queer-friendly bar downtown, and decided to take the bus instead of paying for parking. This meant there was a good half mile of walking involved.
Not two blocks from the bar, I passed a large group of men hanging out on the sidewalk. I had considered crossing the street to avoid them, but the bar was on my side of the street so I told myself it was silly.
As I passed by, I heard whistles, cheers, then, “Hey, turn around,” followed by, “I love them titties!”
I didn’t turn around, but walked all the faster, pulling my arms in to my sides just in case someone reached out to try to grab one.
I felt a swell of relief when another woman was standing waiting at the cross-walk at the intersection before the bar, and even more relief once I was safely inside. But I still understood that the costume which had made me feel confident and beautiful when I looked in my bathroom mirror had also made me a target.
And that I had another half-mile walk to get home.
Upon leaving the bar, I decided to walk a block north to avoid potentially passing the same group of men on my way back to the bus. Only this meant I was on a less well-trafficked street.
As I passed a parking lot, I heard more shouts, including, “Aren’t you going to respond?”
No, I’m not. I’m going to put up my invisible armour, walk faster, and try to figure out how fast I could run in these heels, how loud I could scream if I needed to. Some people might read this and think, “Oh, she’s over-reacting.”
I think I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more frequently.
There hasn’t been a lot of research on the prevalence of street harassment. A recent study by Stop Street Harassment states that two-thirds of women report experiencing street harassment, and one in five women report also being followed.
Considering that around two-thirds of rapes are not reported to the police, it’s fair to assume that incidences of street harassment may be severly under-reported as well. It makes sense that other, smaller studies indicate that up to 99% of women have experienced some form of street harassment.
Whatever the figures, I think we can all agree they’re much too high.
In many ways, the Internet and social media have been useful means of highlighting this issue and it’s importance, as well as offering solutions to women, or at least solidarity.
Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh created a street art campaign in 2012 entitled, Stop Telling Women to Smile. Last August, Rob Bliss created a PSA for Hollaback! which shows Shoshana B Roberts suffering over 100 incidences of street harassment while walking in New York City.
Also this summer, Feminista Jones, in conjunction with Black Girl Dangerous, started a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #YouOKSis, a call to action for bystanders to check in with women who they perceive are being harassed on the street.
This video, created in conjunction with the campaign, features women speaking out about their experiences with street harassment and how it made them feel. While #YouOKSis is targeted towards black women, bystander interaction is an important part of stopping street harassment for ALL women. When I posted on Facebook about what happened to me last weekend, I was disheartened by the number of female friends who responded, “Me, too.”
One woman walking with another female friend late at night said they DID have a man try to grab them. She voiced the same fear and vulnerability I felt, and the same anger with herself for feeling it. I shudder to think whether any woman I know can say she hasn’t felt that fear – or worse. And despite my feminist beliefs, in that moment of attack, it’s hard not to feel shame mixed in with the fear. Not to think, “Well, I’m not wearing a bra,” and “My skirt is kind of short,” when I know that doesn’t actually make a difference.
In fact, I have proof of that.
Another friend posted a similar status on Facebook not a day later. She was harassed by a Renaissance Fair worker who was disappointed in her for daring to cover her “large breasts,” and who threatened her with impregnation. Even if it was supposed to be some sort of bawdy in-character joke, it was in no way funny or appropriate. Those men don’t know, and perhaps don’t care, how long half a mile feels when you’re gripped by fear. When every passing stranger now has the potential to be an enemy.
Only one of the incidences of street harassment I experienced last weekend was on an otherwise deserted street. Part of the fear street harassment elicits is in the feeling of being alone. Of thinking there’s no one who could help you. Sometimes that might literally be true, but more often than not, street harassment is happening right out in the open on a busy or crowded street.
If you’re a man, or someone with masculine gender presentation, consider carefully how your words and your actions might impact others. We need to all work together to cultivate a culture where no one ever needs feel afraid to walk down the street alone.
Bystander awareness and bystander action are important elements of eradicating street harassment, as this comic illustrates. If you see a woman, someone with feminine gender presentation, a gender non-conforming person, an obviously queer person, etc. walking alone down the street and you hear a strange man make some comment to her, no matter how innocent it seems, check in.
Even if it seems like he’s just saying hello.
This article was originally published by The Horn on 10/29/2014.