It’s Almost Summer! Time for: Street Harassment
Maybe it’s just that more hours of daylight = more people on the streets and more people just means more opportunity but I do know it’s what I dread most about warm weather in Chicago. I do know that I’m hit on by strangers most days, asked for hugs by people I don’t know, talked to by bus drivers about sexuality and pornography, shouted at and catcalled from moving vehicles, and generally shamed for being a person with breasts.
Today when I got on the bus I failed to notice that the man next to me had his hand placed across the back of three seats (there was an empty seat between us). I accidentally bumped his hand with my back and he thought that made it okay to laugh and grab my side, a few inches from my breast, and give it a tickling squeeze. I looked directly at him and said, “No. I don’t know you.” He responded by telling me I “could get to know (him) tonight.”
At that point I flipped out and started shouting at him. Like most people who were raised female, I generally let comments slide for my own well being. I’ve been conditioned, and it’s often true, that my emotional and physical safety requires a certain amount of acquiescence to advances by strangers. This is fucked up. This is wrong. But it’s also true. Being passive has probably kept me safe numerous times. But this man touched me without my consent and then didn’t back down when I told him to stop. I shouted in a half full bus that you, “can’t touch or talk to people you don’t know,” and continued shouting at him for probably 20-30 more seconds. I don’t remember exactly what I said but I know some guys did a bro-y thing suggesting he lay off but also trying to put me in my place by reminding him mostly that he wasn’t going to get sex from me. My wife suggested a different open seat and I promptly moved away from the guy, who was still acting like he just bumped me (I know when people bump into me I close my hand around parts of their body repeatedly while laughing and telling me how we can get to know one another).
A moment later, another woman sat down next to him. He pulled the same move on her, grabbed her near her side/breast area. Instead of shouting at him, she quietly moved to another seat at the back of the bus. As she walked away he said, “I appreciate you.” I saw this and, being fed up, I went shakily up to the bus driver and reported what he’d done. The driver responded appropriately and pulled the bus over at the next stop to confront the man. He told me if the man didn’t leave on his own, he’d call the police. The man left voluntarily, and I was glad.
But even as I did this, the right thing, the brave thing, stopping someone from immediately groping another person, I felt ashamed. I felt guilty for causing the bus to stop, for making a scene. I knew other people were looking at me as the cause of the problem as opposed to the man who’d touched me. I cried as I waited for my stop and had to pause when I got to the store to collect myself. I’m an outspoken person. I call people out on a lot of shit. But doing what I knew I should, telling a creep to get lost and then intervening when I saw that what happened to me wasn’t a one off incident, still scared and upset me because I know how society treats people who act out against sexual harassment and assault.
We shame people who stand up for themselves and for others, we tell them they’re making a big deal out of nothing, we tell them they’re wrong, and we make it clear that they’re wasting our time. Only my wife really stood up for me when the man told the bus driver I was being “spoiled” and that I’d been the one shoving him. Dozens of people saw the man touch me, heard him acting like I was crazy for not wanting a stranger to grab me and make sexual suggestions about me. No one helped. I had to help myself.
But I did the right thing. I was scared and shaking and crying and ashamed but I wasn’t the one in the wrong. Calling someone out for harassing or hurting you isn’t ever the wrong thing unless you make the decision not to for your own well being. If you choose not to talk about something for your own safety, you made the right choice for you. If you choose to tell someone to stop and that what they’re doing to or saying about your body isn’t okay, you made the right choice for you.
You are not inconveniencing anyone. They inconvenienced the people around them when they overstepped their place and touched or spoke to you in a way that made you feel scared or ashamed or uncomfortable. You are not the jerk in this situation. Remember that. Remember every day that millions and millions of people are harassed and they say nothing because society told them not to, or they say something and are treated like freaks because society told them to stay silent. This summer, and always, remember you are not alone. You aren’t a freak. You, and only you, have the right to say what should and should not happen to your own body. Remember that.
Hey my wife is a badass.
I have nothing to add to this except rageface and a sense of vague disappointment in myself that I didn’t do more.