Channeling the Jaguar, or the Things We Do To Make Us Feel Street-Safe

It seems like every woman I know has developed a strategy for dealing with that slimy feeling of a deserted train car or an empty, dark street.
Publish date:
April 24, 2013
harassment, violence, catcalling, street harassment

I was 15 the first time I went to New York City. As a tiny Broadway-obsessed queer growing up in the painfully white-bread suburbs of California, the whole idea of New York made me a little bit breathless.

By day, it was all "pretending I was in Newsies" and "clambering up on the Wall Street bull," but when it got dark, I started to get nervous. My dad had booked us a hotel in Clinton -- actually not a bad area, I know now, but at that point for me every corner not smack in the middle of Times Square seemed downright terrifying.

We only had to walk about 10 blocks from the nearest subway station, but every evening I dreaded it. As we wandered, and I became more and more convinced that we were about two Starbucks away from getting mugged, I'd hold myself up straight like a marionette, barely even breathing. Shoulders out. Eyes ahead. Fuck-you face on.

I'd look at my family, all of them chattering away or looking at their maps, and just seethe with anger at them, that they weren't even trying to pretend like we weren't targets.

Naturally, we never even got catcalled, because we were staying like three fucking blocks away from Times Square, and, contrary to popular Baby Kate Belief, not everyone in a city with a population greater than 100,000 has awakened that day with the intention to rob you.

But I still distinctly remember feeling the hum of adrenaline under my skin and the way I'd instinctively tried to seem fierce, even though I was wearing a Macy's tiered flouncy skirt and platform sandals. I'd been volunteering for the tiny zoo back home at the time, and I remember thinking that New York was like a mountain lion: I just had to make myself big enough, and it would leave me alone.

I don't even know where I'd learned that, considering that, again, I was from a town 3 miles wide by 3 miles long where the only recreation was walking from the library to Borders and back again. Even by 15, though, I knew that pretending to be invincible was the best defense I could muster.

Pia touched on this with her fucking phenomenal street harassment piece a few weeks ago, but I'm always fascinated by the "tips and tricks" that people, particularly women, seem to start trading whenever the subject of feeling threatened in public comes up.

I know that every self-defense class I've ever taken has begun with the "Make yourself appear confident" bit, but that seems to emerge uniquely for every person, to the degree that it's kind of funny in a sad, the-world-we-live-in kind of way.

It's a whole different degree of self-protection from the standard "Don't flash cash, don't walk in certain neighborhoods, be aware of your surroundings" guidelines that are arguably just common sense. They're these strange little behavioral tics that almost all women I know have developed as an antidote for, frankly, the near-constant stress that comes from having to be on guard all the fucking time because the line between harassment and violence is so thin.

One of my friends swears by putting in headphones. "Ooh, but you're not supposed to listen to music," another one frets when she says this, and the first reassures her, "Oh, I'm not actually listening to anything."

Another one calls her mom and has a loud, carefree conversation about her exact location. My housemate says her trick is to yawn whenever she walks by big groups of dudes, as if to say, "I couldn't give less of a shit about the fact that it's you and me and no one else on this corner."

"There's also the singing thing," someone offers. "You know, sing a random song as loud as you can. Be the strangest person on the street and no one'll bug you."

"I just carry around a tazer," one of my shyest friends grins. "Makes me feel better." I think about the fact that my grandpa offered to buy me a gun for an Easter present.

Every person says they try to wear a lot of layers, preferably with a hat or a hood. Every person says they try to disguise their body.

It's like we've all spent our adolescent-to-adult lives honing different strategies for choking down that cold, slimy feeling of a deserted train car or unfamiliar street. Just like any fight-or-flight response, you have to learn to control it or it'll consume you. But unlike heights or spiders, the consequences of being consumed by it are way, way more dire, and sometimes facing your fears won't even keep you safe.

But when you're a woman who moves around in public, these are the choices the world seems to give you. There will be threats to your safety, in the form of harassment or more outright violence. The onus is on you to try to stymie them, somehow, by being loud -- but not attention-seeking -- and confident -- but not cocky -- and preferably as invisible as possible. It's a delicate balance, and it's not even guaranteed to be effective.

It is, in fact, fucking ridiculous, because of course this narrative implies that if you're attacked that you're somehow the one to blame for being bold enough to exist in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong attitude. Everyone knows, after all, that attackers only go for the perceptibly weak. If you are a victim of random violence, you clearly weren't trying hard enough to seem strong.

At the same time, though, sometimes these strategies are the only way for women to feel like they're taking back control of our environments. It puts the responsibility of our safety unfairly on us, but even that is a little better, at least for me, than the suffocating feeling of helplessness that would be the alternative. They don't make me brash, but they make me a little brave.

The other night, I was on my way back from a date's house, a little drunk and a little stupid. It was late -- probably too late for me to be walking home on a Tuesday, all things considered, but I hate taking cabs and the mile and a half didn't seem that daunting at first. About halfway there, though, I turned onto 24th Street and had one of those dry-mouthed, shaky, baseless revelations that it was almost midnight and I was all by my lonesome.

For a minute, I felt almost paralyzed with indecision -- go or stay? Try to call a cab now? Just mosey home like nothing was wrong? Then, though, I had this weird, freeing moment of Fuck it.

I started walking again, hunched over, tensing up my whole upper body so my shoulders hulked out. I moved faster, still not actually running, just letting my knees loosen and my movements go fluid. I was hurling down the sidewalk, but I didn't feel panicked. I felt predatory, and I'm sure I looked like a fucking weirdo but the few people I saw on the street got the fuck out of my way.

When I turned onto my street, I saw an unfamiliar figure crouched on my stoop. I didn't even slow down, just barreled up toward my house until the figure straightened, startling, and clapped a hand over his heart.

"Jesus Christ, Kate," he said, laughing at me. It was my dweeby upstairs neighbor, who's more or less harmless. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"I'm," I said, out of breath even though I didn't feel winded, just wound up. "I feel like a motherfucking jaguar."

"OK," he said, laughing a little. "Whatever you gotta do, I guess."

"Right," I said.

Kate's on Twitter: @katchatters