It’s no secret that street harassment is a huge issue, with 65% of women reporting that they’ve been publicly harassed at least once, and 86% of those women reporting they’ve been harassed more than once. I am one of those women, leaving my Brooklyn apartment every morning with as brave a face as possible, gearing up for approximately two to three unpleasant encounters on the street throughout the day, ranging from regular old smooch noises to full-out “Suck my dicks.”
During these encounters of street harassment, I know I’m responsible for myself. In the times I’ve felt so unsafe and uncomfortable from predatory harassers (usually when they are in cars, following me), I debate calling the police out of lack of other options. But then I think about how that conversation might go:
“911, what is your emergency?”
“This strange man is… um… talking about my body and how he wants to have sex with it?”
“Is he harming you in anyway?”
“OK, this is a line for emergencies only…”
(Not to mention the time that a catcall came from a uniformed police officer himself, but let’s not get into that now.)
There aren’t, really, any tools for women when it comes to street harassment, or at least not any that I’ve been able to utilize. I have my own tactics that have ranged from freaking out in a rage (which usually excites them more -- they got their reaction) to simply ignoring them (which feels horrible but usually makes the harassment stop faster). In many ways, it's every woman for herself, a sad fact I learned at the tender age of 12 when I had my first experience with street harassment.
But what about harassment that takes place in an establishment? Who’s responsible when it happens in a store, restaurant, bar or pharmacy?
Say, for instance, I’m waiting in line for a prescription at my local Walgreens last Wednesday (I was). Say I’m standing there, and the man sitting in the waiting area makes a loud grunting noise in my direction, which I try not to take personally. Then, say, he starts to comment on my overall size and shape, and how he approves of it. Perhaps then he starts to describe his own overall size and shape, and how impressive it is, and how I should like it. Then, say, he takes it five steps further and announces the size of his penis and how, unfortunately, it’s way too big for me, but he promises he will be gentle.
I wanted to cry and puke and scream all at once.
When I looked at my harasser with as menacing a death stare I could muster, he only licked his lips and continued on. I felt relieved when a tiny old Polish couple stepped up in line behind me, creating a sort of barrier between this man and me. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t stop him from continuing to describe the sort of sex he wanted to impose on me, with language that would make even those with the most vulgar of tongues uncomfortable. I just stood there, scared, embarrassed, red-faced. The tiny old Polish couple didn’t notice.
Finally, it was my turn to get my prescription from the same woman I always get my prescription from. She greeted me with a cheery grin, and I became even more humiliated as I recited my full name and address in front of the man who was just sexually harassing me. With a pounding heart, I decided to tell the pharmacist what happened, come what may.
“Just so you know, that man sitting right there is saying horrible, sexually explicit things to customers.”
Upon hearing my words, he casually took out a magazine and feigned innocence. My rage burned stronger.
“Well, he’s not now, but he was saying sexually explicit things to me about 15 seconds ago, and it was disgusting, and something needs to be done about it.”
She assured me she would call the manager and it would be taken care of. I was sent on my way with my prescription. Not convinced anything would happen, I decided to hide out by the toothpaste to see if the manager would confront my harasser. The pharmacist did call the manager immediately, and I could see her describing to him what I told her, and pointing to the man. Perhaps, I thought, this manager would hold this man responsible for his actions.
But you already know what happened: absolutely nothing. The manager left the pharmacy in a huff, with an eye roll, and walked right past the harasser and back to whatever business a Walgreens manager has to attend to. He saw me hiding by the toothpaste and quickly averted his gaze. I left Walgreens and immediately started crying as I swiped into the F train.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so sensitive that morning had I not been on my way to a surgical consultation for an impending operation I’m having, but I don’t think that matters. I think that the Walgreens manager was 100% responsible for stepping up and taking charge of the safety and well-being of his customers, and I think he failed to do that. And I’m really mad about it.
It might seem that this situation was my responsibility to address, seeing as it was happening to me, and I hear that. I do feel that way when it happens when I’m outside, on the street, sure -- I take care of myself. But in a Walgreens? In a community establishment that I frequent multiple times a week, where I spend my money, where I should feel safe getting my prescription drugs? I don’t think so.
This encounter, rightfully or not, made me feel ashamed, small, and afraid to speak up. And I think that the management at that store failed to fill the role that it is there to fill. And I know I’m not the only person who has ever felt failed by the people who are put in place to protect us, to speak up for us when we cannot, and I think that is even worse.
I’ve been siting on this for a few days, debating whether or not I should write about it, but I was inspired by Kitty Lindsay’s article to do so. Sharing our stories is powerful, and I think one of the first steps in creating a change for women’s safety and well-being. Lindsay’s article cites many great activists against street harassment, like Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Brooklyn poster series Stop Telling Women To Smile and these awesome, downloadable Cards Against Harassment.
As it stands now, I’m nervous and embarrassed to enter my local Walgreens after what happened, for fear of meeting my harasser again. And isn’t that so stupid? We shouldn’t have to feel like this. That’s why I’m speaking up.