So I live in this neighborhood that’s . . . well, not exactly like the safety bubble I had experienced in college. I recall the good old days where I could scooter over to class wearing a jumble of tye-dye sleeveless shirts and camo shorts or if it was really hot, a yellow cotton halter and a loose-fitting mid-cut skirt. I never left the house worrying what others thought of me. I was never bothered. The only signals I got were the occasional wave and/or verbal greeting from a friend or classmate. What I wore didn’t matter to anyone. Those that knew me knew my personality and those who didn’t know me, well … got out of my way before I ran them over with my razor scooter.
Then I moved. I moved to a some-what financially distressed, socially oppressed neighborhood in Brooklyn where the schools were struggling and the graduation rate was teetering. That’s when I noticed. I noticed that my body was being followed by dozens of eyes. The first thing I did was look down to see if a button was missing … or maybe a third eyeball had grown out of my cheek. But I saw no signs that would lead to alienation. I must admit, I was puzzled. Why would anyone do that? What’s there to see anyway? I’m just another human being walking down the street. Isn’t that what we all are?
So when I took on a job that had a fairly materialistic dress code that required “trendy attire,” I panicked. I panicked for the first time since I was four years old – about what I should wear. I knew that if I had received stares and taunts now, imagine what I would get when I was wearing flashy blouses and black dress pants with heels trotting down the street. For the first time, I walked outside of my apartment not with the thought of what I was going to do or who I was going to see, but how I could make myself as invisible as possible. I made sure that, no matter how high the temperatures reached during the soggy summer days, I always had a zip-up sweater over me. It was like a comfort blanket to me and I felt that without it, things would be a lot worse.
As I said goodbye to the tingling rays of sunlight and warm temperatures, and welcomed in the winter season, I felt a sigh of relief. Yes, now I would be wearing bulky jackets and surely now I won’t receive any attention! This is what I told myself, but when I started taking a tally and calculated the ratio between people on the street and number of glances/cat calls, I noticed that the numbers during the winter time reflected the numbers during the summer time.
Then a small miraculous gift came into my world: an iPod shuffle. I played my anthems and speed-walked down the street changing my atmosphere into a fake playground of bass lines and pure funk. For those of you who believe that I am just ignoring the problem, have no fear. One of the first tasks I did when I moved to my neighborhood was to print out fliers and hand them to every pervert on the street who dare mentioned a word. Don’t get me wrong, at first I was shy and just walked away, but I found myself unable to contain my anger as time went by. I found relief in replying with a few nasty words myself, shaking my fist or a combination of pointing my finger and swearing in different languages. I feel it’s important to let the perpetrators know that what they’re doing is not acceptable. After all, it may be possible that some of them believe women like to be treated as sub-human.
One day, my shuffle ran out of batteries while I was still on the subway. Being somewhat lazy at times, I left the ear pieces in and, being the somewhat forgetful person I am, I forgot that the ear pieces were still in my ear as I walked down the street. That day, no one said a word, and the obvious glaring was non-existent. I didn’t think anything of it until I reached my door and reflected. The next day, I resolved to partake in this experiment and walked with my ear pieces in sans music. It was the same deal; no one even attempted to harass me.
My experience with street harassment isn’t special or an exception by any means. Coincidentally, a recent article in the Gotham Gazette called to light the issue of street/subway harassment and the growing popularity of the website, “Holla Back” a resource that invites New Yorkers to share their experiences and anecdotes in an online forum. But before this website was even created in 2005, filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West created a documentary in 1998 that focused on men who harass women entitled “War Zone” that still receives publicity to this day.
According to the Gotham Gazette, group of women from Brownsville Brooklyn, inspired by this documentary, congregated to form Girls for Gender Equity. They’ve set out to create “harassment-free zones” in their neighborhoods and, according to Executive Director Joanne Smith, train the girls to “Own up to their own comfort zone and identify what they think is harassment.” The girls are encouraged to hang posters to raise awareness and to take part in the battle by letting their perpetrators know that they are uncomfortable with that type of behavior.
As ineffective as some may claim this approach is, I do believe that this can be used as a crucial tactic. I recall a story I was told about a friend who was getting harassed on a fairly filled subway car. This friend pointed at the man and proclaimed loudly “Dirty man!” Everyone on the train looked over to the man, who immediately ceased his taunts. Not only did this effectively shut him up for the time being, but perhaps taught him a lesson to never harass again. Of course there are more physical ways to approach this dilemma, such as the instance where four women stabbed and beat a harasser in Greenwich village with a steak knife, but I would like to stay away from advocating violence unless necessary.
On a positive note, I was happy to find that I wasn’t the only one handing out fliers, and relieved to see that I was certainly not alone when I say that I know that sexual harassment is unacceptable. And for the sarcastic commentators: no, my fliers weren’t banal. They did not simply say “Don’t look at me.” They called upon the fact that I am a human being: a daughter a sister and a girlfriend. (People forget those things, you know.) They also defined what a rape culture is and how that harasser is contributing to it and how it affects our future . . . perhaps even that harasser’s future daughter. Those fliers helped define me as a human and hopefully made them see the situation from my point of view so that I’m not just tits and ass floating down the street, I’m alive and have feelings. They need to know that their words aren’t just words, their words are poison to the community, to the victim and even to the harassers themselves.
As for blaming attire . . . it really urks me when a woman is harassed or even raped and people ask what she was wearing at the time. First of all, not only is it irrelevant, but it doesn’t make any sense – what was “trampy” back in the fifties, wasn’t “trampy” in the 70’s. What’s tasteful fluctuates with time. What people need to get off of their minds is this myth that what women wear determines if a man will “lose it” or not. What people need to realize is that everything from cat calls to rape to domestic violence is all about power. And no wonder these issues are prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. They are oppressed socially and economically and in most cases, will stay hovering among the lower rungs of the ladder by the corrupt powers that be. According to sociologist Laura Beth Nielson who was quoted in the Gotham Gazette, sexual harassment “[Is] a mechanism designed to reinforce [traditional] status hierarchies.” I couldn’t agree more.
A part of me tries to find a thread of compassion, but it’s hard to look through your enemy to see the battered soul that feels that there is nothing left to lose. The anger I feel is the most prevalent emotion I experience and I have to admit that it’s a good idea that I stay away from firearms. But there also exists a small ray of hope that tries to show me that it doesn’t have to be like this. After all, I lived in a community where I felt completely at ease – these places exist! Why not make it happen everywhere else? Why not dream and work on that day where you can walk outside your home wearing whatever you want and for once, not think about how modest or appropriate you are in other’s eyes for your safety against men’s “weakness”, (cough cough, BULLSHIT) but instead focus on what goodness your day can bring.
– written by Elena Gaudino