Street Harassment Forced Me to Quit Playing Pokémon Go

My experience is about more than just an app; it is about the futility of trying to avoid sexual harassment.
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Brittany Webb
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My experience is about more than just an app; it is about the futility of trying to avoid sexual harassment.

As much as it irritates me to have to do so, I take precautions when I go out in public. I don't walk alone unless I am in a well-traveled area (a designation I sort of arbitrarily set as having at least 10 other people within sight). I don't walk at night. When I do venture out alone, I try to look as inconspicuous as possible. I started taking these measured precautions after my rape three years ago.

They began as a source of comfort; I was so embarrassed and ashamed after my assault that I wanted to melt away, to just be another face in the crowd. After I began to process my assault in therapy, I became frustrated as I grew to understand no person should have to change their behavior or dress to avoid sexual assault. Still, some small part of me believed and hoped that, if I played by the rules of sexists and misogynists, they would leave me alone.

I'm pretty sure we know how that usually pans out.

When Pokémon Go debuted a month ago, I was hesitant to download the app. I wasn't apathetic about the Pokémon Universe; I was really just trying to disconnect from my smartphone and didn't want another app to potentially occupy too much of my time and attention. But, within a week, I caved in to my curiosity and downloaded the app.

Initially, I had a great time wandering the streets with my fiancé, Luke. I live in the Bay Area, so each block was packed with new creatures and Pokéstops. Luke works in Berkeley and I work in San Francisco, so we often would text each other over lunch to discuss (and shamelessly brag) about finding different Pokémon. I laughed with my coworkers about the Golbat lurking around the office and snapped pictures of small local business street signs offering "Pokémon Specials!" to draw customers and tourists. Like any mass cultural attraction, there were downsides: People would step into streets, police departments had to release announcements to not #CatchAndDrive, and some more-than-questionable Pokéstops and Pokémon were set up in inappropriate venues, but it was still a fun, innocent way to get outside and enjoy myself. 

Just as with my walking habits, I followed the "rules" set for me: I looked both ways before crossing the street, didn't play on busy sidewalks, and made sure I stayed in public, well-trafficked areas. My hope was, as it had been for years, that I would just be another inconspicuous face in the crowd. And much like before, I watched that hope crash and burn.

A small sampling of Poké-centric harassment. 

A small sampling of Poké-centric harassment. 

The first time it happened, I was waiting for my train on my way to work. I stood in line on the platform with other commuters, several of whom had their phones out catching Pokémon. I had just captured a Dewgong and was having a small moment of internal celebration because it was my first time seeing one since downloading the app. In that moment of celebration, I did not notice the young guy peering over my shoulder until he asked if I wanted to work on my Breeder's badge with him. Confused, I told him that is not how that badge works, that it's just for hatching eggs, and there was no part of the game set up for breeding Pokémon. His reaction was immediate, visceral, and, well, disgusting.

"If you weren't interested in me, you could just say it and not be a stuck-up bitch about it!" As he walked away muttering "bitch," I closed the app and haven't opened it since.

At first, I was pretty surprised by the street harassment I experienced. But over the next couple of days, I read articles by people of color who shared they could not enjoy the game for the very apt fear of racial profiling and other potentially deadly expressions of racism. Then I realized that the harassment I experienced wasn't something necessarily new. It felt different because a new platform had arisen for these institutional problems to inhabit.

This is when I started getting frustrated and, yes, angry. For the past three years, I had bent over backward trying to satisfy all the demeaning and unnecessary "rules" on how to be safe from sexual harassment. I knew these precautions were stupid, sexist, and wrong. I knew that no woman should have to fundamentally alter herself or her expression of self in order to feel or be safe, but I hid anyway. Now, a beloved childhood game was being marred by the unwarranted sexualization of my mere existence.

After giving up on Pokémon Go, our cat filled the mythological creature void.

After giving up on Pokémon Go, our cat filled the mythological creature void.

My experience is about more than just an app; it is about the futility of trying to avoid sexual harassment. In that moment on the train platform, I was clad in jeans and a baggy cardigan. I heard the same disturbing comments that I received while wearing a sundress last month, while wearing leggings last winter. 

It shouldn't matter what I am wearing, nor should it matter what I am doing. I shouldn't be sexualized. After that Pokémon-based come-on, I am now personally aware of the irony that it doesn't matter what I am wearing or doing. I will be sexualized. The precautions I clung to won't change sexual harassment or make me immune to the catcalls. Nothing will, until something changes.