Despite a recent survey finding that 65 percent of all women respondents in the United States have experienced some form of street harassment—including having been touched (23 percent), followed (20 percent) and forced to do something sexual (9 percent)—the question of whether street harassment actually occurs is almost as frequent as the verbal and physical assaults themselves. To men especially, it’s unfathomable that women live in a world where they’re the targets of a constant barrage of sexually aggressive language and actions.
When I first noticed my attacker last week, he was walking towards me—just another pedestrian in sunglasses, T-shirt and shorts. For a moment, I thought I knew him; he looked like a teacher with whom I’d worked over the summer. But he wasn’t. We passed without incident; I was on my way to interview for a job I really wanted, practicing responses to potential questions in my head.
Suddenly I heard running footsteps on the pavement behind me. I couldn’t believe people were jogging in this heat! But when I turned around, it was the guy I’d passed nearly two blocks before. He must have left something in his car, I thought. Rolling up my resume in my hand, though, I looked around for other people. Something didn’t feel right. I turned back toward him and he was in my face, reaching for my ass with his hand. I stepped back and hit his arm with my resume. His fingertips managed only to brush my backside. I had expected him to run away, embarrassed, but to my surprise he quietly turned and casually walked away.
I wish I could say this was my first experience with street harassment, but it’s only the most recent. Men have groped me on the street several times. Men have publicly masturbated in front of me. One time, I was in a telephone booth and the man parked his car right outside and masturbated while I talked to my mom. Another time, I was sitting on a bench and a man drove his car back and forth past me, one hand on the wheel, the other on his penis. I ran inside my house; I was 17. I was even followed home once; the man, a yuppie in a suit, sat beside me on an empty subway car, got off at my stop, followed me out of the station and put his arm around me. Only when I threatened to call the police did he leave me alone.
I’m not alone in my experiences. Groups like HollaBack!, a global movement to end street harassment, give voice to victims of catcalling, groping and unwanted male attention by encouraging contributors to recount their stories in real time via an easily downloadable app. Street harassment activist network and blog Stop Street Harassment features stories from correspondents around the world and encourages women and men to join the conversation about street harassment.
And it is so important for both women and men to join that conversation! Share your stories. Support street artists such as Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, whose Stop Telling Women To Smile poster series in Brooklyn has raised awareness across the the country. Or create your own! Tweet your experiences. (Yes, #YesAllWomen and #AllMenCan!) Download some Cards Against Harassment and start passing them out. Keep the conversation going! Street harassment is a reality, but it doesn’t have to be a fact of life. Speak up, speak out and most importantly, listen.
Following my disturbing recent experience, a kind friend suggested I carry mace. But I’d rather not. When our own stories wield so much power, who needs it?