On Streets and Safe Spaces

I admit that I was hesitant to publish this, let alone write about it; normally I’m one to hold off on hot-button issues until I can coherently express how I feel, but after seeing a viral video and some of the head-scratching responses that have come along with it, something in my soul screamed at me to speak up. I do realize that there are a lot of opinions on this subject, some of which has to do with generational and cultural norms. What I do know is that I can only speak from my own perspective, as well as the perspective of being a woman.  This is about more than just a video’s depiction of harassment, or trying to define what harassment even is. It’s something deeper, and deserves to be talked about. 

My experiences with catcalling are very limited, save the occasional “hey sexy!” from a passing car on my way to work out or training for a 5K in the early mornings before class. That being said, I’m not an exception when it comes to dealing with men who invade my personal space or disrespect my boundaries after I’ve set them. While walking home from a night about back in March, I was about to cross the street to my apartment when a guy who looked to be my age approached me from the sidewalk near a downtown parking garage. He introduced himself as a friend of a friend of my brother’s while asking me where I was going and I immediately re-directed myself toward the closest gas station.

“I’ll walk with you.” It wasn’t a question or a suggestion, but more like a command, which brought me back to sophomore year and set off a warning in my head. That warning only got louder when he grabbed my hand and kept a firm grip whenever I tried to pull it away. I came pretty close to yelling at him and then making a break for my apartment, but I felt trapped and figured he would follow me anyway.

The women’s restroom was closed, so I had to pretend to browse the frozen food section while calling anyone who I thought would still be awake. My friend arrived within five minutes and I did my best to ignore the guy when he became defensive; apparently all he was trying to do was buy me a frozen pizza and I should be thanking him. Based on his actions earlier, I’m sure it was more than that.
I stayed up most of the night, still shaken and frustrated; I had only been one block from where I lived at the time.
When I think about it in retrospect, walking alone is not the problem. Regardless of the distance, not everyone wants to spend money on a taxi, especially now that a lot of them have a reputation for scamming or even assaulting passengers. Sometimes walking takes a lot less time than waiting for public transportation, particularly when you’re tired and just want to get home so you can sleep. If you’re in a town or city that you generally feel comfortable enough in, you should be able to walk around at night without feeling like you’re always running a high risk of being in danger.  

Modesty is not the biggest issue, because modesty is different for each person. There’s no shame in wanting to dress up, especially if it increases confidence. Covering up does not prevent inappropriate comments or behavior, just as a lack of covering up isn’t necessarily the cause of it. A woman is only “asking for it” if you hear her verbally doing so.

It all very much comes down to choice; every man has a choice in terms of when and how they approach someone. They have a choice in being aware of or ignoring social cues, whether they’re on the street or in a public establishment. (And if they’re not sure what those social cues are, they also have a choice in educating themselves). If nothing else, they have a choice in how they react or treat a woman if she doesn’t engage or respond in the way that they’d hoped.

How interesting is it that as women we’re told to do everything possible to protect ourselves, but when we choose to trust our instincts or speak out against crude treatment, we’re chastised for being “oversensitive.” On the surface, a greeting such as “hello” or “good morning” may not seem harmful, but depending on the tone of the speaker and context of the situation, it could easily lead to harassment and violence. It’s a lot easier to keep walking than to take that kind of chance, although it’s just as easy to end up in a bad situation if you don’t respond.

So it’s not just about harassment; rather, it’s also about endangerment, which can be a result of harassment in itself or a woman attempting to ignore it. I understand that men want to meet women (and vice versa) and not pursuing an attractive person could result in a missed opportunity. But I honestly believe there are better places to socialize and connect, such as a park, a coffee shop, and so on. When it comes to public streets, most people are trying to get from one place to another; they may not have time for conversation or be in the mood to talk. Yes, meet-cutes do happen but it’s hard to imagine on a crowded sidewalk.

As far as compliments and acknowledgement go, there’s a difference between being genuine and having ulterior motives. I personally am a little put off by being called sexy or beautiful by someone that I just met, particularly as a way of introduction. We don’t know each other, so it’s a natural inclination for me to believe that he’s mainly referring to my face or my body. And In my experience, those “compliments” have typically been followed by an invitation to hook up with them. While it’s fine to think that a woman is attractive, there’s an appropriate time and an appropriate way to express that, especially if the man is hoping to form a relationship. If nothing else, a compliment should be specific and should be given for the right reasons. What I do know for sure is that I want to be treated like a human being, as do most people. I enjoy flirting and having a little fun, but don’t assume that you know what I want and don’t want right off the bat.

But intention does not necessarily affect perception. In other words, men shouldn’t blame women for being guarded, even if they weren’t trying to be creepy. At the end of my sophomore year of college and part way through junior year, I was extremely suspicious of men, even to the point of not being able to look them in the eyes.  It took one experience to make me realize that I was a sexual object to some, and it was better to be suspicious than to be overly trusting. When you first meet a person, you have no idea what they’ve been through or might still be dealing with, so be careful of what you judge as an overreaction. It’s more or less a setting of boundaries, and those boundaries must be respected.

Don’t get me wrong, I do get discouraged when I hear stories on the news or when family members choose to react to my experiences in ways that make me feel invalidated. I could very well be wrong, but it seems like my generation is the first one to not only realize that harassment is wrong, but it is also something that’s worth openly talking about. Too often we place the responsibility on one gender or one group of people, when in reality it’s on all of us.

Despite the fact that it seems impossible, I do believe in being an advocate and an agent for change. I wish that it wasn’t such a risk to fight back, because I’ve always wondered what it would be like to say “did anyone ever teach you how to properly talk to a lady?!” as a response to discomforting behavior. Yet, I’m not going to deny that saying that to someone who’s most likely taller and stronger than I is absolutely terrifying. Could I hold my own if I were to be physically attacked? Most likely. But you really don’t know how you’ll handle something until it actually happens.

 I do look back and wonder how I could have handled certain situations differently, but deep down I know that in those moments I was just doing what I had to do to survive. My missteps do not excuse someone else’s disgusting attempt to manipulate or take advantage of me. If we want to rebuke anything, let’s rebuke these ideas of entitlement and being animals who are unable to control themselves.

I don’t have all the answers; on most days, I see it as vital that young children are raised with the truth that having power does not equal success, and being self-serving in relationships is anything but healthy. There is an extent to which certain cultural behaviors and expectations are ingrained in a person’s mind, but there is such a thing as learned behaviors and adaption. There is living in fear, but there is also speaking up in the midst of being one of few. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, we’re all human beings who want to be recognized, and to be recognized with admiration, respect, and compassion.

Let’s act as individuals, but also as helpers for one another. Back in February, a random guy was following me around a bar because I had refused to dance with him; uncomfortable, I stopped at a table full of people that I didn’t know and told one of the girls that I needed help. She calmly stood between us and acted as a buffer until he left me alone. To this day, I’m thankful that she was willing to do that, because in a way it showed me that she understood without any justification.

If you can’t be a safe person for someone, at least be willing to create a safe space. Our daily lives depend on it. Our neighborhoods depend on it. And for many, life itself depends on it.

Just let us walk.

photo credit: Just Ard via photopin cc

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