being outside while being a woman

I’m in Denver, walking back to my dorm during a summer post-graduate course when a car pulls up next the sidewalk and slowed down, keeping pace with me. The driver rolls his window down, and the men inside of it start yelling at me. I do my best to ignore it, to just keep walking, but when they became angry some of what they say registers.

“Fat ass.”

“Ugly bitch.”

“We were just being nice to you– why couldn’t you just talk to us?”

I keep trying to ignore them, but then he starts revving his engine and jerking his car toward the sidewalk. I walk faster– he speeds up. Suddenly the low-level anxiety I’d been feeling bursts into full-fledged panic. I could see a bluelight, part of the campus security system, and I run for it, hoping I could make it before something awful happens. I pick up the phone while the driver speeds off, screaming obscenities and threats.

I’m in St. Louis, hired to photograph some of the unique architecture in a downtown area for a local guidebook, and a man starts shouting at me from his truck. “Hey! Hey, baby! You wanna take a picture of my dick?” and then he laughs and drives off.

Florida: I’m walking in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, and a middle-aged man who’d been walking from the store turned around and starts following me. “Hey, how are you doing?” I give that half-smile that every women knows, the one that says please I just want to be left alone while also pleading please don’t hurt me. “Hey, why won’t you answer me? I’m just being nice! Cunt.”

I’m sitting in the middle of a traffic jam in North Carolina, and the men in the car next to me start shouting. I look up, and one of them has drawn a picture of a penis in his notebook and has it pressed against his window. I do my best to ignore them, but for the next three hours they sit next to me, taunting me, shouting at me, drawing more and more graphic and lewd pictures, alternately “complimenting” me while screaming that I’m a bitch for ignroing them.

I’m waiting for a bus, and a man tries to strike up a conversation. I keep my answers muted and monosyllabic while trying to seem friendly because I have to stand there. I can’t leave, I’m trapped. I’m desperate to do anything I can to make sure it doesn’t escalate. At first it’s ok, but then he starts asking really invasive and obviously in-poor-taste questions, and I’m so relieved when I see my bus pull up. I do my best to extricate myself from the conversation as smoothly as I can– “hey, it’s been nice chatting, but my bus is here!”– and I move into the crowd of people waiting, trying to put a buffer between us. He immediately starts screaming a litany of profanities and threats, and three other men join in, shouting “why couldn’t you just talk to him?! He was trying to be nice to you, bitch!”

I go out to get the mail in my apartment complex, and two men follow me all the way there and back to my apartment, starting off with “hello!” and “nice ass”, but then escalating to “bitch” and “whore.” Eventually I’m so fed up with it I flip them the bird, and that’s when they start screaming at me, and I’m scared. I’m ten yards away from the stairs– can I make it? If I scream will my partner be able to hear me?

I’m in Virginia, antiquing, looking for Christmas gifts. A man starts following me, waiting for me outside of every store I go into. He doesn’t say anything, he just follows me, and stares. Eventually I go inside a coffee shop and ask the employees inside to keep that man from coming in– I’m frightened. The barista recognizes him because he’s done this to many other women, including her.

I’m taking out the trash, and someone driving past yells “hey!” and then when I don’t respond, “you want to fuck a n*****, bitch?” out of his window at me, laughing when I jump.

I’m sitting on the metro in DC and a man who watched me as I got on moves from the complete opposite end of the mostly-empty car to stand directly in front of my seat– he positions himself directly in front of me, trapping me. He was so big, he filled up the entire space, I’d never be able to get around him. I open up my book and do my best to keep my eyes glued to the pages, even though I can’t read a word. I sit there and pray that he has to get off before my stop.


It took me a long time to recognize this sort of behavior for what it was because it’s been happening since what feels like forever. It started when I was 12 and creepy old men would come up and start stroking my waist-length hair without my permission. It happened so often that one day I’m with my father when it happens and he gets angry at me because why didn’t  I do anything? and I don’t know what to say because all I can think is I don’t understand why you’re upset this is normal. I turn fourteen and suddenly hips appear and every time someone follows me around a parking lot to shout things about my rear end I just assume that I’m not dressed modestly enough, even when I’m already wearing a skirt with enough fabric you could camp under it.

And then I’m in my twenties and researching feminism and I finally connect the dots: what has been happening to me my entire life is harassment. It is not a compliment, and it is not my fault.

So yesterday, when I saw Shoshana’s video, I wanted to stand up and cheer.

Then I saw the comments, not just on the video, but on the pages of the friends who’d posted it. I saw the rape and death threats. And I’m exhausted. I don’t want to expend any of the energy to respond to the (usually white) men who just don’t get it. They don’t understand. They’re screaming about “how can just saying “hi” be harassment?! Feminists are just so stupid and sensitive,” and I want to scream because most of the street harassment I’ve ever experienced in my entire life starts with “hi”– and it never ends well. You say “hi” back and all of sudden you’ve given them permission to follow you. You flip them off, and they get pissed– really pissed. You ignore them and suddenly it’s all about how ugly you are and how they’d never fuck you anyway.

Men don’t have to deal with this. They don’t understand how every single time I hear the word “hi” something inside of me wants to curl up into a ball and hide because I know what’s coming. I can count on my fingers and toes the number of men who have looked at me and given a polite “hello” that wasn’t the precursor to insults and jeers. That’s not normal. When a man is polite and respectful to me in public, it is actually startling to me because I don’t expect it.

That is something all those men shouting about how these entitled little jerks are just “being nice” will never understand.

Update 9:47p: When I saw the video yesterday the only thing I was watching was her face, and, like in my real life, not paying attention to who in in particular was harassing her. But I saw this statement earlier today from Aura Bogado:

That catcalling video you all posting is deeply problematic: It perpetuates the myth of the cult of white white womanhood by literally placing this white woman in neighborhoods where men of color will be the ones who catcall (or, in some instances, say hello to) her. Doing so makes it appear as if men of color are the perpetrators of all that is bad on this planet, which can only be balanced with the exigent need to therefore save white women above all else. This stale, ahistorical association also makes invisible the disproportionate harassment that women of color face broadly from men (including white men)–and the very tangible violence that trans women of color face in particular.

So I went back and re-watched the video and I agree with her thoughts. As a white woman, I can afford to see this video primarily as a useful tool for talking about the constant barrage of harassment women face on a daily basis, but we must never forget that everything we do, everything we create, exists in a system dominated not just by sexism but by racism and other oppressions. It’s unlikely that the editors consciously chose examples for this truncated video that focused on the actions of black men, and because I didn’t follow Shoshana around for 10 hours I don’t know if she really only did walk in black and/or brown neighborhoods, but the end result is racist.

In my personal experience, I am harassed by men of all races, but because of my context, I’m harassed primarily by white men. I’ve decided not to remove the video because it’s also helpful to illustrate how white people have used, and continue to use, the racist assumption that black men pose a particular threat to our white women.

Photo by Paul Cleary
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