While I was in Hawaii last week, it did not take me long to realize that I had gone a whole day without be sexually harassed while walking down the street. Then I went 2 days. 4 days. 6 whole days. Even though I was walking around damn near naked (like many other folks as well) no one said a word to me. No one lingered their gaze too long. No one licked their lips or blew kisses at me. It was incredibly freeing and brought a sense of safety that I haven’t felt in a while.
Living in New York City, it is incredibly rare that I go a whole day without being harassed. In fact, it tends to happen at least 2-3 times a day. One guy went so far as to be physically connected to me, shoulder to shoulder, while I was walking to the train, whispering in my ear how much he wanted to fuck me. I was so terrified I didn’t say anything, I just kept on walking even though this man was literally on my body. Finally, when we got around more people, I yelled out “GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME!” Knowing damn well I was taking a risk with my life in being resistant of his advances. He literally laughed in my face with a creepy satisfied grin on his face and finally went away.
In our country, there is a lot of blame put on women for the harassment they experience. Because of the clothes they were (or weren’t) wearing. Walking by themselves. Drinking a little too much. Sending mixed signals. The excuses are endless. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we do. I have literally been dressed eskimo style in the dead of winter and still have been sexually harassed. This is one of those situations where it’s really not me…it’s you.
What I didn’t know, but became so acutely aware of after my visit to Hawaii, is that street harassment regularly triggers all of the sexual assaults I’ve experienced. In my life I have been sexually abused by a stepparent, sexually assaulted by two different partners in college, and was recently sexually assaulted by a tinder date I had been seeing for about a month this pass November. I carry all of these assaults with me every day. They impact my confidence at times, my ability to speak up for myself, my fear and trust towards men, my anxiety, my ability to feel sexually safe and positive, etc. But I truly truly TRULY did not realize that my PTSD from these assaults is almost impossible to heal from because of the constant verbal assaults I still experience. Each slur, sexual advance, lick of the lips, reminds me that assaults can happen any time and any where. They remind me that I might be physically powerless in these situations. They remind me that if something does happen to me, more often than not, the justice system will not be on my side. They remind me that my 5 year old daughter might be haunted by these same thoughts. You just never know when one person who is feeling verbally bold on the street might try to put those words into action. It makes me fear my ability to ever get over these assaults; will they just forever stay on the surface of my skin?
Often times folks wonder how they can prevent street harassment. There’s a lot of great work being done out there to educate folks on the detriment of street harassment and the long term impact it can have not only on an individual but a community. One of the organizations I adore is called Hollaback! They’re an amazing grassroots effort working towards educating folks on street harassment and how to advocate for those who experience it. They also have an amazing app that helps victims put a gps location to where they experienced harassment and to note what exactly they experienced. This helps others see if there are any particular areas that seem to have a higher frequency of harassment as to maybe avoid those areas. It’s also a great way to offer support to those who have experienced harassment. You can see the notes that others leave and click the “I’ve Got Your Back” button to let them know you are there for emotional support.
They also have a great program to address online harassment through their platform HeartMob. I have actually used this website quite a bit. Last year I was severely stalked and harassed by a woman I knew and even had filed a police report against her as she created unsafe situations for me. I relied on HeartMob to help report her online harassment as well as received emotional support from them with little notes from complete strangers who understood my struggle and were there to help me when I needed.
While there are several organizations that support those who have been victimized, I think it is even more essential to support those who offer preventative measures to figure out how we can decrease or obliterate instances of sexual harassment and assault. While it is important to teach folks how to deal with an assault, it is even more effective to focus our energy on how to prevent these situations from happening in the first place; taking the responsibility out of the victim’s hands and placing it in any potential perpetuators or bystanders. One way this is being addressed is more conversations with young people to better understand what consent is and why it is important, but to also equip everyone as allies. Again, the responsibility should not only be on those who are victimized, but on the community as a whole to eradicate sexual harassment and assault. The best way to do this is ensuring we have as much information as possible and access to strategies to address the problem head on.
One of my favorite organizations is Men Can Stop Rape. This is a group of men who recognized that men (more often than not) are the predominant perpetuators of sexual assault towards women, however, when services are offered to deal with sexual assault it is often geared towards the women assaulted. Taking the preventative approach that I mentioned earlier, Men Can Stop Rape goes around the country leading talks, workshops and bringing together young men to train them as advocates and allies; not only to keep women safe but to protect men from partaking in activities that could be harmful to themselves and others.
At the end of the day, it will be important for all of these organizations to work in tandem so that we all can walk safely down the street without being triggered, without feeling unsafe, without feeling we have to hide from our own bodies or confidence, and being able to exist comfortable in our own skin, unapologetically.