Street harassment starts innocently enough.
It happens when you least expect it, or when you do expect it; it happens a lot. At least, to me it does.
“But Alise, that’s a compliment! Complete strangers think you’re hot!”
“Aw, it was just game day. Be a good sport.”
“You don’t have to be so uptight about it.”
For those (lucky few) of you who have not experienced street harassment, it feels like this:
It’s confusing at first. You’re not sure if he’s talking to you, or someone else. The person behind you, maybe. But then you glance around, and it’s just you on the sidewalk. He approaches you with his buddy, and they’re both middle-aged men, men a bit younger than your own dad. Harmless, right?
Except they both can’t walk in a straight line.
You have sunglasses on, and earbuds in, with the volume up very high, and you’ve gone from confused to a bit nervous in the span of a heartbeat. Perhaps you can ignore them, before they get closer. But one of them keeps making eye contact with you, at your sunglasses, and raises his right hand in a universally-recognized high-five gesture.
But you would very much not like to give this man a high five. You don’t know him. You don’t know his friend. And they’re very, very intoxicated.
Now you’re not just nervous. You’re anxious and scared (and slightly annoyed). Because you don’t know what will happen if you do give him a high-five (will he grab you? leave it at a high-five?) and you don’t know what will happen if you don’t. You’re alone, and there are police down the street and it’s noon on a very sunny Saturday. So your odds have pretty much balanced out.
So in the span of a few milliseconds, you make a decision. Ignore him. Look ahead. You can’t give him a high-five if you can’t see him.
You walk past him on the sidewalk, and the hand goes unslapped. Still raised in the air, you can hear him turn around and say at your retreating back, “Aw, come on, for real, are you serious?”
“You bitch, whatta whore—“
You turn up the volume on your music.
And instead of cursing him out like you swore to yourself you would if this ever happened again, you bow your head and tuck your grocery bag closer to your shoulder and feel your face burn in the September breeze.
You will stare at the frozen peas in the grocery store ten minutes later, even though you don’t need frozen peas, because it feels like everyone is watching you and you can’t focus on your list.
You will shrink into yourself, hearing the words “bitch” and “whore” echo in your mind. You will desperately wish for a hug.
You will be so angry that you can’t think straight.
You will think, “Well, it’s the first time I’ve been called a whore by a stranger.” And you’ll chuckle a little bit. But it doesn’t help much.
And then, on the way home, it will happen two more times, with two different men, and two different high-fives/different catcalls. Finally, the third time, you acquiesce. Because it’s just a high-five, right?
This is what street harassment feels like.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, it’s not the first time I’ve heard someone yell about a body part at me, it’s not the first time I’ve been singled out and yelled at, though it certainly took a more angry turn than it usually does. I feel so very safe in Columbia, especially during the day. This city and my group of friends make it clear to me that my safety is valued and important, and I hope I do the same for them.
And this isn’t a sexual assault. It’s not a rape. It’s not getting mugged. I can acknowledge all of those things; it wasn’t an Earth-shattering thing that happened. It was just a really sucky moment.
Afterwards, I was filled with a lot of words I wanted to say to the man who called me a whore.
I wanted to ask him if he’d speak to his own daughter or wife that way. Because if he does, he doesn’t deserve either of them. I wanted to ask him if he thought he was funny.
I wanted to know why he felt entitled to my physical contact, why it’s okay to approach a complete stranger for something like that. Maybe I’m just being cranky. Maybe I’m no fun. Too serious.
But get this: my body, and everyone else’s body, is special.
My body is strong and fast and young and absolutely, gorgeously, wonderfully beautiful. My body is wicked and cunning and swift and reliable. My body is resilient and intelligent. My body functions, divides cells, attacks disease, gives me rest, and wakes me up.
My body can figure skate, my body can move itself through every asana in Power Yoga at 1PM on Fridays *including* Warrior 3, my body can scale red-level hikes, my body can kayak, my body can sprint, my body can give comfort and hugs and warmth.
My body is indescribable. My body is my temple. My body is unattainable. My body is a fortress, a treasure, and a gift. My body is glorious.
How dare you feel entitled to any single part of it.
This is what street harassment feels like.