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.
It’s been awhile I think since I was alone downtown late at night. Several months at least.
Between walking from the bus stop to the bar, and from the bar back to the bus stop, no fewer than five men cat-called me.
It’s also been awhile since that happened.
I was wearing a “sexy” pirate wench costume, complete with an underbust corset and no bra.
This should not and does not matter.
It was not then, will never be, and should never be taken as an invitation.
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, 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.
When I posted on Facebook about these events, 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 harrassed by a Renaissance Fair worker who was disappointed in her for covering her “large breasts,” and who threatened her with impregnation.
Even if it was supposed to be some sort of bawdy in-character joke, I will say right now, it was in no way humorous 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.
I spend a lot of my time in queer spaces, and with alternative communities.
So much so that I think I’m often sheltered from the realities especially straight women face.
But I’ve designed my life that way.
On the bus ride home, I thought back to the very different experience I had at PRIDE.
I decided to go topless while watching the parade, which is legal on the streets of Austin.
I received nothing but positive feedback and compliments.
Someone even said, “I love your breasts!”
Which proves how much of communication is non-verbal or sub-textual.
“I love your breasts!” and “I love them titties!” might seem like variations on a theme.
One provided a surge of confidence, however, while the other left me chilled to the bone and wishing I’d brought a jacket or a wrap.
The difference is the intention of the speaker.
At PRIDE, the individual meant to give me a compliment, and to share in a moment of mutual joy at my expression of personal liberation from societal norms.
Last Friday night, I believe the individual(s) were not thinking of me at all. Rather, he was focused on his own sexual desire and gratification. Or feeling some need to prove his masculinity to his peers.
So to all the men out there: if you ever find yourself met with the desire to make some comment about a woman’s breasts or any other part of her body which might be viewed in a sexual way, I’d ask you to think first.
Think about your intentions and the impact your words might have on her experience.
Will they lift her up or tear her down?
Will they bring a smile to her face or cause her to draw her arms in to her sides and pick up the pace of her walking?
If you don’t know the answer to those questions, or if you find you just don’t care, keep your mouth shut.
Because you don’t have to walk the next half mile in fear.
Or the next twenty years in fear.
And neither should she.
If I were you, I’d never want to think I’d made someone reconsider whether it was safe to walk down the street after dark, or whether it was worth ever going to an event alone downtown again.