The Man On the Street: Three Decades of Street Harassment
Look straight ahead. Looking down seems weak. But looking up makes you seem like a tourist. Look straight ahead. Ignore the periphery. Don’t make eye contact, but don’t go out of your way to avoid it, either. Walk quickly and with purpose. If the catcalls come, just keep walking. Don’t show any sign of having heard. And do not smile, under any circumstances.
I'm 11 years old and walking up the street, heading home after school. A man’s voice calls out: "Pssst. Hey baby, hey girl." I just keep walking, and now he's walking too, gaining speed behind me.
"Oh, you're just a young thing. But you got a big girl's body. Where's your daddy? I'll be your daddy..."
I keep walking until I'm almost running and I'm afraid in a strange way because he's not exactly chasing me, but he's following me and still talking at me. I walk fast and never look back until I am home.
I'm 17 years old and a freshman at NYU. By this point my turbulent childhood means that I've lived in multiple spots in Harlem (where I was born), and also in nearby suburbs of Long Island, in areas of varying ethnic and socioeconomic composition. But there is always a Man on the Street.
At NYU, I live in a dorm on Broadway and East 10th, and many of my classes in the musical theater program are in satellite studios, much farther away than the main buildings. I go to one remote dance studio in particular four days a week and that walk is known as The Gauntlet.
Since I'm going to a dance class, I can wear my street uniform/armor of a baseball cap and a hoodie with my dance clothes on underneath, but that doesn't seem to help. I usually try to organize walking to class with a friend, but if that doesn't work out, I keep my head down and walk/run, usually arriving at class angry and tense and trying to clear my head of "Hey baby yo baby hey ma why you walkin' so fast smile baby come here come back hey I just wanna talk to you pretty girl fine fuck you then bitch you think you're so special huh you stuck up ho get back here I'll show you bitch..."
Just keep walking.
I'm 18 and seated on a crowded subway car in the middle of the afternoon. It doesn't matter where I'm headed, I won't make it to my destination today. There are enough people standing in the center of the car to make it difficult to navigate for those exiting, but there is still enough breathing room for me to watch the eyes of the man standing in front of me scan every part of me as he licks his lips and his gaze come to rest meeting my own.
In an instant, I avert my eyes, looking down ever so slightly, only to see him put his hand in his pants and start masturbating right in front of my face. He's wearing those old school nylon rip-stop workout pants and since they are white, they are almost translucent, providing a clear visual of his erect penis as he strokes it.
I want to scream; I want to run, but neither seems like the option that would get me away from him the fastest since there's not really anywhere to escape to. I want to cover my eyes but I am afraid to, afraid he will grab me. So I make my vision go a bit blurry and try to look completely calm as he jerks off more and more vigorously.
As horrified as I am, I just don't want things to escalate. I don't want him to "whip it out." I don't want him to touch me. I don't want to hear his voice because I don't want to have to try and forget his voice.
The train comes to a stop and I think about bolting, but I would have to physically shove him out of my way to do so, and I know I will have to be prepared to run. I plant my feet like a sprinter and get ready. The train pulls into a station and comes to a stop, but before I can bolt up, a businessy-looking man heads toward the door, turns back, and shouts at the guy: "You're a fucking pervert for doing that to her!"
Then he's gone and the doors close. Now I'm terrified. And I’m still sitting there. How dare Business Guy feel so emboldened in his exiting cowardice to simultaneously acknowledge and ignore me like that? His declaration only points out that others could see too and remain mum, which is saddening, for up to that point I could delude myself into thinking they were just that deep into their books and newspapers.
But most of all, I thought "You've made him angry and now he's gonna take it out on me."
His stroking only carries on, and I do in fact run at the next stop, my fear and sadness and anger all coming to a head and propelling me out of my seat. I walk aimlessly for hours and meander in and out of stores, looking at nothing and no one in particular. I feel a relative safety inside a public building, almost any building, because there is a sense of having witnesses. Of having an employee to dial 911 or a shelving unit to hide behind if push really comes to shove.
I am 33 and doing the fast-walk down yet another street, bundled up against an awful NY chill. The voice comes from far ahead of me. "Excuse me Miss..."
Just keep walking.
That is a universally recognized term of respect. I should stop. Maybe I dropped something. No, just keep walking. I walk right past.
"Miss! Turn around! I just wanna know your name. You so fine, turn around! Aiite bitch don't turn around you dirty bitch fuck you..."
Well. Nevermind that I have other things to focus on than devising a warlike strategy for walking down the street. Nevermind that it is biting cold and stopping makes no sense.
Entering my third decade of this harassment suddenly seems more than I can bear. I spin on my heels and shout: "Yo. What happened between the corner and this spot to change me from ‘so fine’ to a ‘dirty bitch’?"
He stammered and we had an exchange and one could say I effectively shut him up. But I didn't do a victory lap with the theme from Chariots of Fire playing in my head. Because with street harassment, there is no victory.
Street harassment is not some compulsion or "boys will be boys" nonsense that we should excuse. Street harassment is about power and aggression and a pathetic need to assert some sort of authority over women. Nothing gives a stranger on the street the right to grab me, call me “dirty bitch” and “ho” and tell me to suck their dick.
Last year I was walking near Times Square one afternoon when a man approached me from the other direction and said "Oh my God you're so pretty" as he grabbed me by both my shoulders. People near me scattered, and two grown able-bodied men ran into a nearby store and watched from behind the door.
I subscribe to no gender-based damsel in distress narrative, so I certainly didn't expect them to swoop in and save me. Besides, I knew I could take this guy in a fight if he hit me and so -- record scratch -- WAIT -- what the fuck world are we in where I can go from walking down the street to preparing to engage a stranger in hand-to-hand combat on a crowded sidewalk in broad daylight "if it comes to that"?
Well, he held me tight and so it "came to that." I did an actual self-defense move (I've taken classes because, well, this.), broke free, and ran into a nearby store. Someone who had watched asked if I was OK and did I want to report it to the cops, and when I saw the guy disappear up the next block, I thought that what I wanted most was to go on about my fucking business. Please.
I know that so many of us have stories of being harassed and followed, in cities across the globe. I don't mean to shit on New York, but this is my experience.
In my 20s, I scrimped on groceries and clothes so that I could afford to take more cabs. I managed to avoid the subway for over a year during one stretch. I altered my life in an effort to feel safe.
During the NYU days I almost always wore baggy pants, a baseball cap, and a hoodie if I had to walk anywhere, which one does in NYC every day. I would carry a big bag and change clothes at my destination. I'm six feet tall and broad-shouldered, and I always hoped that I would look like a man from afar.
I don't live in New York anymore and street harassment is a big part of my decision to leave. It is a wonderful city in many ways, but I feel so much anxiety and anger on those streets and subways.
Sure, emboldened by age and out of fucks to give, I will now stand up and speak out and confront almost anyone, and today that subway encounter would probably end with my mugshot on the 6 o’clock news, but is that a happy ending? True victory would be a world where I can walk outdoors from point A to point B without feeling like I’m under attack.
In the past, when I've tried to speak out about street harassment, I've gotten responses like: "You know how many women wish they had that problem, Missy?" Or "You complain now, but you'll miss it when you're older." I vowed to keep my mouth shut on the topic, but some pretty remarkable people have encouraged me to share here, and now I ask you to do the same.
Please share. Please heal. Please feel safe.