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There has been a recent spate of incidents around the country where women have been violently attacked after either ignoring or outwardly rejecting verbal harassment. Two incidents from this past week include a woman, Mary “Unique” Spears in Detroit, Michigan who was shot and killed and a woman in Queens, New York whose throat was slashed, both after rejecting a harasser.
In the first incident, Mary “Unique” Spears, a mother of three, who had gathered with family members just after a funeral of a relative was approached by a man who asked for her name and number. When she refused, he continued to harass her and ended up shooting and killing her and seriously injuring other members of her family.
In the second incident, a woman was returning home in the early morning of October 1st in Jamaica, Queens when she was approached by a man who made advances and tried to talk to her. When she ignored him and continued on her way home, he violently attacked her and slashed her throat.
These tragedies resonate with those of us who face verbal harassment on the streets on a daily basis in our respective corners of the world. Street harassment affects many people in different ways, but when women walk down the street and are asked by strangers for our name, our telephone numbers, our relationship status, or just a moment of our time, it is never as simple as the questions themselves. These questions and comments are not a mere nuisance or imposition to an otherwise routine trip to work, school, grabbing lunch or returning home, but actually pose a real threat to those who are targeted.
Everything about street harassment is unexpected and unpredictable. It is impossible to know when or where it’s going to happen, what the temperament of the harasser is going to be or at what level of persistence a harasser will try to get your attention. Similarly, there is no predicting what their response is going to be if you choose to ignore them or say something. These unknowns force many of us to walk down the streets hypervigilant, constantly on guard every day, all the time.
When we are verbally harassed, there is a thought process that takes place which includes assessing the harasser, considering our environment -- where we are and what time of day it is, figuring out if and how to respond, and thinking through a way out if followed or physically attacked. Whether at the forefront of our minds or more subconsciously through conditioning, our internal dialogue can look a little something like this:
“I don’t owe them anything, but if I ignore it and keep walking will they leave me alone? Or will they follow me, obstruct my path, grab my arm or worse?’
This is only a sampling of our thought processes when we encounter street harassment, and having to think about these things daily can lead to increased anxiety, stress, depression and in some cases, even post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the back of our minds is the ultimate and constant fear of escalation -- the possibility that the "wrong" response or a non-response to that one question or comment will lead to the next worst thing. From "Can I get your number?" to being followed, to being grabbed, to being sexually assaulted and even worse as in the case of Mary ‘Unique’ Spears and the woman who was just trying to get home in the early morning in Jamaica, Queens.
The fear of escalation is only increased through a harasser’s persistence. Harassers have this idea that if they keep yelling out after you, if they walk behind you and whisper, if they walk alongside you or in front of you and talk at you, trying to stall you with comments and repeated questions like "Do you have a second to talk? Why not? Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?" you will succumb.
This isn’t an exaggeration. This is the reality for women everywhere. Keeping in mind what happened in Detroit and Queens, it is seriously worth considering that verbal harassment is much more than a minor affront. Harassment is steeped in a conversation around power and entitlement -- the fact that harassers feel like they have it in that moment when they decide to harass you and feel they are owed something in return. Some harassers often let it go and move onto the next person, but this is never a guarantee.
It’s not always about the verbal harassment and comments in and of itself. It’s what can follow and happen next, regardless of where you are, who you’re with, what you wear or how you respond. Mary Spears was at a family gathering after a funeral of a relative. All she did when asked for her number was respond by saying she was with someone. Her harasser did not stop there. He killed her.
The first step in addressing street harassment is identifying and understanding that it starts with verbal harassment but does not always end there. When we dismiss or okay these comments and questions as "innocent" or "harmless," and suggest that women the world over are just over-reacting, we become bystanders to the proliferation of further acts of sexual assault and violence. It’s time we put the pieces together.