Street Harassment: “It’s really not that bad”

So, I had a bit of a revelation the other day. Nothing life-changing or world altering – just the same little light bulb moment I have once every few months:

Being a woman sucks.

Not like, Oh shit I don’t have an outfit to match these shoes being a woman sucks or Gosh darn I have cramps and I want to eat a whole cake oh crap I ate a whole cake being a woman sucks. Not like that. I mean more like my circumstances have slightly, temporarily changed and as such I now have to be more aware than usual just because I’m a woman, and that sucks.
The change in circumstances isn’t anything major, like losing my job or having to move out of my home – I simply don’t have a car for a couple of weeks. Sure, this will probably work out better for my wallet (and my poor, underused legs) but it’s still annoying. But what annoys me even more are some of the things I have to consider because I don’t have a car.

Take a conversation I had at work last week, involving my first fateful Thursday night without a car. I had to walk home after a late netball game at uni, and that plus the fact that I live out in the wilderness meant I finally collapsed against my front door sometime around 12:30am. I made it home safely, if a little tired. Great.

What was not-so-great was when it came up at work the next day. The idea of a 30 minute walk after midnight mortified my colleague. In our lunch break, Brooke managed to conjure up about 1000 ways I could have died on the way home. And, to be honest, I scoffed. I was obviously fine, right? I had made it home, safe and sound, and I only had abuse shouted at me from cars twice on the way home. Pretty good, if you ask me.

I had recently moved from a suburb where walking home meant you literally had to shake off men when they grabbed you, hide in petrol stations until people who were following you left, and regularly listen to filth being screamed at you from cars (and some people sitting on their front verandas). So walking home, mostly free from harassment? Piece of fucking cake.

But the more I thought about it, the more it sucked. At what point had men screaming obscenities at me become so routine that being shouted out twice was a “pretty good” night? When had I developed this arbitrary threshold for abuse from strangers that could change a walk home from pleasant or pretty good to pretty goddamn shit?

I had internalised this form of abuse so much that I had even tried to make Brooke feel better by telling her what it was like in my old neighbourhood. I’m much safer walking home now than I was two years ago, I told her. Like that made it ok. As if it meant that because it wasn’t the worst experience I’d had, it didn’t matter. Well, no. That’s crap.

What concerns me the most was how easily I brushed off Brooke’s concern  – how easily and quickly I had fallen into feeling as though it was actually “pretty good” if I only got yelled at and not groped on my way home. It concerns me because I know better than that. This hierarchy of abuse goes against everything I think or feel when I read stories of street harassment. Somehow, though, I’d managed to convince myself it wasn’t that bad when it was happening to me. Why? I have no idea. But it was right about then that I thought: Being a woman sucks.

Okay, being a woman doesn’t really suck. I quite like it, most of the time. But in the midst of arguing with myself and being in equal parts angry, guilty, and disbelieving, that’s how I felt. Not only did I have to watch out for myself late at night, but I was beating myself up about it. When I caught myself thinking “Well of course you have to be careful,” I was guilty and angry with myself. It felt like a lose/lose situation. I know that when I step outside late at night, I expect to get yelled at; but I also know that I shouldn’t have to expect it.

Being a woman is hard enough with all these cake cravings (guess what’s in my oven right about now), let alone dealing with crap that shouldn’t even be happening, let alone excused or justified. And while I expect it to continue to happen (at least until society gets it shit together) hopefully next time I can skip the arguments with myself and land right at what a jerk and fuck you, buddy, instead of trying to justify it as anything other than misogyny and abuse.

20 Comments

  • Lindsey says:

    Thank you! When I would get done with a run I would tell my BF how greaqt it was depending on how many men harassed me on my route. I don’t think I have ever ran farther than two miles without someone making me uncomfortable. We would laugh about it, but in that way that we realized how shitty it was and knowing that the next run might not be so lucky. It is exhausting.

    • Veronica Mommers says:

      Yeah, you don’t realise how much it happens until you think about it. I hope your runs get more pleasant!

  • Alaina Mabaso says:

    Ugh. I think about this all the time and have had years of scary experiences walking around my home city. The most recent incident was last weekend when I was walking down a city street to work and a man on a bench called out “hey sweetheart!”, which I ignored like I always do, and he kept calling out, “hey! hey! HEY!” louder and angrier each time because I had ignored him. And I turned and waved at him because I got scared he’d do or say something worse (in my experience it takes about two seconds for some guy to curse you out or worse if you don’t respond the way he wants). Such a shitty situation and it happens so much.

    I wrote about this on my own blog, jumping off from the idea that no, I don’t owe strange men smiles when they demand them. Maybe you’ll enjoy:
    http://alainamabaso.com/2012/03/28/after-twenty-eight-years-i-am-finally-saying-it-i-dont-owe-you-a-smile/

    stay safe!

    • Veronica Mommers says:

      Thanks, will definitely have a read!
      It is hard when they start yelling, you only have a few moments to decide what response will be the best one for the situation you’re in :/

      • Alaina Mabaso says:

        Yes, that constant split-second decision: assert myself and face potential danger? Or duck and smile and, well, face potential danger. Crap.

  • sarah says:

    Thanks for your article. I guess the threshold varies based on how much we go through. In the city where I grew up, that type of harassment was a daily routine. Where I live now, it happens maybe once every 2 months and when it does, I’m much more shocked than I was before. It’s good to remember – and remind other people – that these things are NOT normal.

    • Veronica Mommers says:

      I have to agree with you there. I was almost used to it when I lived somewhere it happened all the time, but now it gets to me much more. There’s always the pause of “What just happened?” followed by, “Should I ignore them, or go tell them to fuck themselves?”

  • emilarious says:

    I am literally terrified of walking or even being outside at night unless I am with a man or am well-protected. Part of me knows it is silly because I live in a nice part of town where there are very low crime rates, and yet I can never get past the “what if” that has been shoved down my throat since I was a little girl. “You don’t know who could be out there.” “You could get hurt.” “Someone might take you.” And all of the numerous scenarios on television where a women or group of women without a man present are abused, hurt, harmed, or killed. I mean as a helpless little kid it was understandable, because you wouldn’t really be able to fight. But now that I’m older, I’m realizing that most women NEVER really grow out of the fear of something like this happening. I’m sure not all do, and that some men also have trouble with this, but I think the majority are women and that there’s a lot of them.

    • Veronica Mommers says:

      I agree! I definitely have it tucked away in the back of my mind. I don’t know many women who would be ok with walking home by themselves at night, whether it’s from a night out, or even just after a late shift at work.

  • ATRWibben says:

    This reminded me of a piece written by Liz Kelly & Jill Radford from 1991 – It’s called “Nothing Really Happened” and talks exactly about this phenomenon (see csp.sagepub.com/content/10/30/39.full.pdf, unfortunately it does not seem to be openly available). It argues, among other things that rivializing these experiences is part of the problem – because actually, it is really disruptive, scary, violent to be confronted with street harassment continually. This is why projects like Every Day Sexism (http://www.everydaysexism.com/), Hollaback (http://www.ihollaback.org/) and more (e.g. http://www.collectiveactiondc.org/) are so important as part of a wider effort to address the continuum of sexualized vioelnce.

  • kerri says:

    where do you live?! i’ve lived in several big american cities (philadelphia, new york, nashville) and one in europe (barcelona)…never experienced anything like this. 🙁 traveling through italy in college, i experienced it some, but nothing like what you describe. i remember complaining about it to the (american) girl i was visiting and her responding, “it’s not like sexual harassment in the US, italian men have been taught to appreciate beauty.” ri-iight.

    • Veronica Mommers says:

      I used to live in Caboolture, which is north of Brisbane. It’s known for having a fairly high ratio of creepers, and the train station I had to walk home from was right across the road from a pub. A great combo.
      Yes, Italy! I went on a tour through parts of Italy and the tourguide warned us about it… but it was more a “It’s going to happen anyway, so you may as well know about it now,” kind of warning. I hope it didn’t affect you trip too much!

    • chatte noire says:

      I’m from Chicago. I do get this kind of bull, albeit far *less* often in Chicago than in Champaign or Urbana (nothing like drunken frat boys). Madison (Wisconsin) is also pretty bad. I do, however, know women who’ve been attacked after failing to smile (or otherwise comply with their harasser). I’m afraid it happens pretty much everywhere.

  • chad craig says:

    Well written. And funny. I think I disagree with the premise that you were yonked at because of your gender. Its the being alone, the vulnerability of that. I get yelled at, harrassed, followed, hit-up–I’ve been robbed (by 5 black guys in a parking lot alley behind a hotel), chased, honked at, even chased in my car (by white hick type dudes) on a lonely road so that I had to pull off in corn field to hide (because I was in a little white sports car in the backwoods, and a big truck with a lot of dudes in it saw vulnerability). I’ve been called a pussy at stop lights in the middle of nowhere (again because of the little car, I think). Oh, and I am man. A big one. I played college football. I’m in shape. Work out. Its not safe anywhere to show one’s vulnerability. It sucks being a human.

    • Veronica Mommers says:

      Thanks! It sucks that anyone should have to feel unsafe walking around at night, or any part of the day.

  • zomb1etron says:

    Awesome piece, reminds me of walking home from the train station late one night with my boyfriend. A car drives past and they yell at me, so I turned around and put up both middle fingers. He said to me “you shouldn’t acknowledge them you know” and I told him that it was so rare for it to happen to me with someone else there that I can respond angrily for once without worrying that they might stop the car and turn around.

  • Lizzy King says:

    Thank you for this piece! I used to live in Indooroopilly, in Brisbane, and there was this one stretch of Moggill road I had to walk up any time I wanted to catch the bus to work. It was about 20m long, and I honestly can count on one hand the number of times I *didn’t* get honked or yelled at. Those times stuck out as little miracles. I remember at the time that kind of behaviour was so ingrained in my understanding as ‘normal’ that I used to say things to my housemates like “I don’t understand! I didn’t even wear a skirt today! I deliberately wore a baggy jumper!” I was so upset and so convinced I could change their behaviour by changing my clothes. Like it was my fault. Now that I am older, wiser and more enlightened, I will never allow myself to feel like that again.

  • Dee M. says:

    In my youth I always felt that I was strong enough and smart enough to extricate myself from any problem that might arise while I walked down a public road, then my sister-in-law was abducted off a public street and stabbed to death.

  • Rose says:

    Great article. Men + society are horrifying at times (all of the times). It is sad that having a vagina means you get to be verbally or physically harassed on your way to and back from the local supermarket, every damn day.

    I find myself changing my outfit if I know I will be walking a certain distance some days/nights. Not that it decreases the creepiness, but being ogled whilst in a t-shirt and jeans seems less scary than being ogled at in a dress. That shouldn’t be the case at all… but just is!

    The struggle is real =/

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