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Don’t Touch Me, Bro. I Don’t Know You: My Experiences with Street Harassment

By: Justine B.

Street harassment has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve become almost accustomed to the loud—and oftentimes scary—old and young men yelling at me from across streets and subway platforms. Since street harassment is so common in my life (and many other women’s), I have been compelled to base a lot of what I do and do not do when I am outside on my fear of it.

In order to be constantly aware of my surrounds, I no longer walk around with my music blaring through my headphones. In the summertime, if I will be using public transportation, I try to make sure that I do not wear clothing that accentuates my curvy features. I know that there is a great chance that I will be catcalled no matter what I am wearing, but I think that I may be a little more comfortable if my clothing is less tight, or if I am wearing a crossover bag that slightly covers my rear end.

It usually does not make a difference though (So do not tell women how to dress to avoid catcalling!). When I am coming home late and i’m alone, I make sure that I have my keys out before I get to my front door, lest someone grabs and assaults me as I am fumbling in my bag for them.

My heartbeat quickens and I become anxious every time I have to walk past a group of men, especially at night. I pray that they do not notice me, or if they do, I pray that they do not say anything to me. When you are a woman who is even remotely aware of how dangerous this world can be for us, you have habits that are subconsciously (and very often consciously) put in place to protect yourself from being attacked.

I do not quite know when I decided it would be a good idea to take my keys out of my bag before I even reach my stop on the train, or when I began to choose my outfits based on whether or not I would be riding in a car that day, but I have—all in the name of street harassment.

Street harassment is not usually a relatively hot topic in the Black community, although it is a part of every day life for many women. There are lots of men (and even women) who do not take it seriously–writing off conversations about it as “just another ploy those damn Black feminists are using to ruin the Black community!” Oh, I wish it were that simple…

I remember sitting in the front seat of my friend’s car right before we were about to drive off one day, when all of a sudden, a man pulled up directly next to us. He left less than a foot of space between my friend’s car and his, which is already a sign of disrespect and inconsiderateness. He was speaking directly to me, telling me that I looked familiar.

I told him that I did not care and that I did not know who he was. My friend then tried to pull off. He put his foot on the gas and mimicked her action, precluding us from pulling away. (Yes, he was THAT close!) I told him a second time that I did not know who he was. He finally *let* us be on our way.

I put the word “let” inside asterisks because I want to emphasize how men use and abuse their power when it comes to street harassment. Men know that they are generally more physically strong than women. Men know that they are more likely to get seriously hurt by another man than they are by women. They know this and they use it to their advantage, which irks me. Something tells me that that man would not have pulled up next to my friend and I had there been another man present. Do you see where I am going with this?

When Black women bring up street harassment, we are almost immediately dismissed by men (and sometimes women) who do not understand the effects of it. “Why don’t you take it as a compliment?” “Well, it means you’re pretty. You would not be ‘street harassed’ if you weren’t good looking.” “We can’t say ‘hi’?” “We can’t compliment you?” I have a response for all of these inconsiderate and mindless questions and comments:

1) I do not feel complimented by any man who either does not know or does not care that it is awkward, at best and absolutely scary at worst, to be yelled to by strangers on the street, even if they are yelling something “nice”. No “nice” man yells out to women on the street and I will always firmly hold this belief.

2) I do not consider street harassment–something that I protect myself from every single day–a testament to my overall beauty. In addition, to suggest that a woman who is not constantly being harassed on the street by strange men must not be attractive is dense and shallow.

3) I’d rather not have strange men stop me in the street to say anything to me-‘hi’ included. I do not know what their intentions are, or if they are predators. I think it would be smarter and more considerate to say ‘hi’ to a woman in a more social setting. It’s better than in the middle of the sidewalk or street, dontcha think?

4) Everyone’s definition of a compliment differs. There are men who will tell you that you have a fat a**, claim to be confused when he is met with disapproval, and then begin to swear up and down that he was only trying to ‘compliment’ you. “Why you tripping?” There are women who do take comments like these as compliments, and that is completely fine.

However, there are also women who consider such boldness disrespectful and intrusive. I do not want any strange man to comment on my body in the middle of the street and think he is absolved from wrongdoing because he considered the crude comment to be a ‘compliment’. Secondly, many people do not understand that being spoken to by strange men on the street is almost always either a precarious or frightening situation for women, even if what they’re saying to us is ‘nice’. We just want to go about our day without being shouted to, stopped, and hissed at.

I can recall another of the countless street harassment incidents in my life: I was walking in a New York subway a few years back, when I felt a light touch on my elbow. I looked up and saw a man who looked about 10 years my senior. “Don’t touch me.” I said, firmly. “Don’t touch you?” he asked, seemingly taken aback.

I replied, “Yes. Don’t touch me” and continued on my way. There was something about the tone in the man’s voice when he replied to my instruction not to touch me that irked me—something about the surprise in his face and body language when he realized that I was rejecting a strange man’s touch.

The man did not seem angry, annoyed, or bothered. He seemed SURPRISED, as if he were at a petting zoo and one of the animals said “Don’t touch me” in a human voice. It annoyed me that the strange man was apparently flabbergasted by a young girl (I believe I was about 17 years of age at the time) having agency over her own body, and actually having the audacity to utilize it.

Why was that strange man confused by a younger me not wanting to be touched or even spoken to by a man whom I had never even seen or met before? Why are there so many men who still believe that they have the right to put their hands on women’s bodies just because they are physically attracted to them?

While discussing sexual assault in the Black community, many people ask: “But why would he rape or sexually assault someone? He has a beautiful wife.” Or if the suspect is rich and famous, like Bill Cosby, people will ask: But why would he do that? He could have had sex with almost any woman he wanted?” Both questions are unfounded because of what I have learned.

As a sophomore in college, I took a course called Victimology. In that course, I learned that the number one reason that rapists rape is not because of the inability to get consensual sex, but because of the desire for power. Men who rape get a rush from the power that they exercise over their victims. I believe that men who shamelessly street harass women get a rush from the power it gives them. They get a rush from making women feel uncomfortable and/or afraid. I am not saying that all men who partake in serious street harassment are capable of the vile act of rape; I am merely pointing out the correlation.

Women have the right to walk outside without being harassed by strange men, no matter what we have on, how old or young we are, or where we are headed.

Don’t touch us, bro. We don’t know you.

Have you had any experiences with street harassment that made you feel unsafe? If so please share in the comment section below.

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[…] April 1st marks the beginning of National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The goal of SAAM is to raise awareness about sexual violence and educate communities on how to prevent it. Sexual assault is defined as any type of unwanted sexual contact including, but not limited to rape, molestation and sexual harassment. The affects of sexual assault impact not only the lives of the victims but their family, friends, communities and even society as a whole. The most commonly dismissed example that I have experienced is summed up almost perfectly in an article on MyBlackMatters.com, […]

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1 year 4 months ago

I literally walk and take public transportation (in Chicago) everywhere so I agree with every statement made. I’ve been getting around on my own since I was like 7, maybe even younger. I’ve been followed home or just simply followed around mutlitple times. One time, recently I was riding the bus up 55th Garfield from my friend’s house and this guy who was probably like 50+ years old sat next to me. At first he complimented me on my skin tone and continued conversation about the day. I didn’t mind because I absolutely love conversations with elders on the bus… Read more »

Guest
1 year 3 months ago

Thank you for your honest assessment of what happens when girls/woman go about their day. There is just about nothing worse than the behavior you so accurately described and it need to stop. When I have these experiences I often think why someone believes I need to know their feelings about me (a complete stranger). I will never understand why folks (boys/men) do not think first or put themselves in our shoes. I’m sure this behavior would decrease or stop if if they did.

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