Last week a piece circulated the internet written by a young woman about the three months she spent in India. She’d travelled there as part of the University of Chicago Indian Civilizations Program. That in itself isn’t the part that made the story viral – it was her description of the sexual harassment and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of Indian men that got everyone’s attention.
The young lady in question recounted frightening tales of having her breasts and crotch clawed at by total strangers, having her butt felt up in crowds, being followed by strange men for almost an hour, having men masturbate in front of her, and film and take photos of her body without permission.
Though she says she completely followed the University’s suggestions for women: “ dress conservatively, to not smile in the streets” she was still not prepared for the onslaught of male entitlement to her body.
The author of the piece was so affected by her experience in India that once back home, she fell into a deep depression, She reports feeling that she “wanted to die.” She shared: “After a public breakdown I ended up in a psych ward for two days held against my will, and was released on the condition that I took a “mental leave of absence” from school and went to live with my mother. I thought I had lost my mind; I didn’t connect any of it to India– I had moved on. But then a therapist diagnosed me with PTSD and I realized I hadn’t moved a single inch. I had frozen in time. And I’d fallen. And I’d shattered. …And I am not the only woman who is on a mental leave of absence from the University of Chicago for reasons of sexual assault and is unable to take classes.”
What Bothers Me Most About This Story…
Though this story was certainly horrific, and her experiences something that no one should have to go through, I felt an interesting mixture of emotions. I took some time to ponder what I was feeling and why I was feeling so conflicted about an obviously traumatizing experience.
Then I realized that what bothered me her shock… her unquestioned expectation that because she was white and had blue eyes that she would be treated like a normal human being.
Bam! There it is.
Cause see, her story is not unique if you are a brown-skinned woman living in Pakistan, or Egypt, or Bangladesh, or Yemen. It is certainly not unique if you are Latino or Black and living in a large city in the U.S. If you are female here, you’ve experienced sexual harassment on the streets by men. Black and brown women all over the United States and the world are treated in these tawdry, animalistic ways by men EVERY SINGLE DAY OF THE WEEK.
Yet, their stories do not make it to CNN ireports … well frankly, because no one gives a damn. It’s not NEWS. Reporting on what men do to black and brown women doesn’t serve a GOP agenda. But since this story covers a WAP being mistreated by brown skinned men, it makes her special and unique?
I believe the reason this Caucasian student had a meltdown and white women like her are running around shocked that this could happen to one of them is because they were stunned to realize that outside the U.S., white skin provides them with with no favors or extraordinary privileges. I suppose it’s a real surprise to most white women when they travel to other countries discover they will get treated like they are nothing special. Outside of the U.S., no one cares about their whiteness. Outside of the U.S. white women are on the same level as black and brown women – the bottom.
Black Girls are An Endangered Species
See, black females traveling the streets of any major city to run errands, go to school or go to work are exposed to a volley of disgusting behaviors and words from adult males from the time they hit puberty, about the age of 12. Harassment of young women has everything do to a fundamental lack of respect for females as human beings, and the male belief that anything female is merely a sex object or something to be oppressed and controlled.
What behaviors constitute the harassment we speak of? Harassment of girls and women covers a wide range of words and physical behaviors:
It ranges from leers, whistles, honks, kissing noises, gender-policing, and non-sexually explicit evaluative comments, to more insulting and threatening behavior like vulgar gestures, sexually charged comments, flashing, and stalking, to illegal actions like public masturbation, sexual touching, assault, and murder. Source
Interestingly enough, a 24 year old investigative reporter in Cairo, Egypt donned female garb and makeup to stroll the streets to see first hand what women suffered when transversing public streets. Here is an excerpt from his experiment:
“Waleed Hammad dressed conservatively for his secret mission into the world of sexual harassment and abuse on the streets of Cairo, donning a long tan skirt and sleeved shirt, and at times covering his head like many Egyptian women.
The 24-year-old actor walked the sidewalks, hidden cameras in tow, for an investigative television report, hoping the broadcast would enlighten national debate about how to combat deep-rooted day-to-day sexual harassment and abuse in this patriarchal society.
As he strolled, Hammad, who wore light make-up to conceal hints of facial hair and accentuate his eyes, was hissed at and verbally abused. In one instance – when he was wearing a head veil – he was taken for a prostitute and offered up to 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($575) for one night.
“[As a man] I can go wherever I want, do whatever I want very simply, very easily, very casually,” Hammad said. “For a woman, it boils down to her having to focus on how she breathes while she is walking. It is not just the walk. It is not just the clothes. It is not what she says or how she looks.”
As a woman walking down the street, “you have to be in a constant state of alertness.” Source
Well, at least one guy gets it. Women all over the world live their lives in a state of constant fear, on high alert, wary and prepared for defensive actions against the predatory behavior of males. How is it fair that 52% of the worlds population is terrorized by 48%?
“Hey, I’m hungry. Come satisfy my appetite!” yelled a man, laughing with his buddies in their car. Their target? A 12-year-old girl, walking to school. “You got great legs, baby!” a man in his 40s said to a 15-year-old girl as she waited on the subway platform, dressed in her school uniform. “You, in the white, turn around,” a man shouted at a 13-year-old-girl as she walked with her mother down the street. He wanted to get a better look at her. Source
The street harassment I receive seems to have always been about men/boys thinking they are entitled to my time and attention simply because they think I am attractive or them thinking I care for their approval of me. Street harassment hasn’t definitely affected the way I view and interact with certain men.
Twenty-year-old Tahira Huff was walking to her Bedford-Stuyvesant home late one night when a man tried to chat her up. “What up mamma?” the stranger yelled from across the street. “You lookin’ fine.” Having grown accustomed to routine come-ons from random men on the street, Huff ignored the fellow’s remarks and, eyes fixed on the pavement, continued her journey home. Then things became unpleasant.
“What, you don’t wanna talk to me, bitch?” the stranger yelled, and proceeded to follow her home, firing off lewd comments and haranguing her to respond.
Huff quickened her pace and reached for her phone.
“I felt scared,” Huff said. “I had to call my dad and get him to meet me at the door. Then the man disappeared.” Source
I am a non-Hispanic Caucasian. I was chased down the street by truckloads of drunken construction workers when I was 9 years old and barely had developed at all. Those construction workers were Caucasian and Latino.
I lived in many areas with a high Latino population and those men were vulgar, disrespectful and, at times, threatening. I later lived in Latin American countries and it is much worse there than in the U.S. Plus, it happens Europe and Asia too. Actually, it happens everywhere and in some countries, it moves into more dangerous types of sexual harassment, such as rape, and the women are then punished for being impure after having been raped while the man walks free because he’s a man.
I got a lot of street harassment in the early 90s was common here in Baltimore. It would start with ” hey girl hey girl, can I get your phone number”. When (not if) you refused, you would be called a bitch or ugly or whatever they decided to call you that day. At the worst, you would get a bottle thrown at you.
This sort of thing is the reason why many women don’t smile when walking down the street. If the fools see you smiling, they think it is an opening to disrespect you.
My experience was very similar growing up, wearing the baggy clothes to hide my body with the hope of being left alone by men on the street. The harassment from older men started at about 6th grade.
Thank you for addressing this..I have a big behind and have been harassed for it since I was 14 years old….yelled at, called names when I didn’t respond, touched inappropriately by strange men…I talked about this on another blog…I don’t think that any other race of women has to go through the public harassment that black women go through, not to the same level anyway. I just noticed that I still pull my shirts over to hide it…
Street Harassment in Europe is Just as Bad
A young black women shared her harrowing account of an encounter with threatening male while participating in a study abroad program:
Two summers ago I did a summer abroad course in Central-Eastern Europe. I feel it pertinent to the story to note here that I am a young, petite, pretty black girl – both the only black girl on the trip, as well as kind of an anomaly in a very Slavic region. As a result, I was on the receiving end of a lot of unwanted attention the form of both racist jabs as well as creepy ethnic fetishism type pick-up attempts and the occasional grope. I got catcalled a lot, some people tried to touch my hair, a stranger dressed like a pirate in a club (it was not a theme night) once ran up and smacked my ass while I was dancing with my friends, that sort of thing…and while that was horrible, my most frightening experience came in Poland.
While on a weekend jaunt to Cracow, I went to a club with a friend from the trip and her cousin and a male friend (both of whom live in the city). At the end of the night, I was at the bar grabbing a glass of water before we headed out when a gentleman (term very loosely applied) came up to me, grabbed my waist, pulled me into him, proceeded to put his hand around my neck in a choking motion and kiss me all over my face. I wrestled my umbrella out of my purse and cracked him about the head with it a few times, but it only made him (and everyone else around, mostly men) laugh. I was shaking and freaking out and hitting him and he just said something about “black bitches” and something to the effect of “I like when you struggle.” I feel it appropriate to mention here that he looked kind of like a skinhead, and at this point I was not sure whether he wanted to sexually assault me or hate-crime me (I suspect to this day that it was a bit of both, tbh). Horrifying!
This went on for minutes, I struggled to get away from him, he wouldn’t let go, he was groping me and I was crying and yelling and everyone (including the bartenders) were just laughing or ignoring the whole scene. I was eventually rescued by the male friend who had come with us when he returned from the bathroom, saw what was happening, had a quick but stern word with the offender and he backed off. He later explained that he had lied and told the guy that I was with him, and he backed off to avoid pissing off someone by trying to get with his woman. SO fucked up.
I shake with rage even as I type this, because while I’ve gotten harassed, catcalled and even occasionally touched, I’ve never been in a situation where someone had gotten intensely physical and kind of violent, and would not stop no matter what I did, even if I yelled, screamed, cried, kicked or hit him. Also, while I was grateful to our friend for getting him away from me, it still makes me really upset that it was clear that the situation would have further escalated without his intervention, despite what I did. I felt powerless because I was foreign, a visible minority and a woman, and it was one of the most profoundly disturbing, scariest experiences I’ve ever had. Source
The Drama Begins at Puberty
By the age of 12 a girl’s body begins to change. For many, that is when they become a target of creepy adult men, many old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers.
Sadly, when young girls are frightened by men and understand that their bodies are the source of these strange encounters, the girls feel confusion, fear and shame. This is the time in a girls life when she should feel free to embrace her moth to butterfly changes, and experience in a natural way the exploration of romantic and sexual feelings she has towards age-appropriate males. She should be free to have crushes, a first innocent kiss, holding hands, and having fun as a teen.
But for too many young women, this is a time of dread, shame, humiliation, terror and pain. Instead of blossoming, many begin to shrink and hide, or they overeat in an attempt to make their bodies unattractive and hopefully avoid unwanted (and scary) adult male attention.
Danielle C. Belton tells her story.
I have a big butt and I cannot lie. But goodness knows, for most of my life, I tried to deny it.
While some women dream of having kicking curves, for me there was a special horror having a big, round butt. Kids, thanks to other children, often loathe standing out, and my large posterior made me different. I was a stick skinny little kid and before starting school I simply thought my round booty was funny. I can remember looking at myself in the mirror around age 6, thinking I was shaped like a backward lower case “p.” But that bemusement gave way to embarrassment by the time I was in the fourth grade. I suddenly took to pulling all my sweatshirts, T-shirts, and sweaters down as much as I could to cover my rear.
But I think I might have gotten over it – maybe – if having a big butt hadn’t gone from goofy playground taunts to men three times my age licking their lips and shouting vulgarities at me when I was only 12 years old.
At 12, sex (or being sexy) was the furthest thing from my mind. I still played with stuffed animals. I didn’t like boys. And even though my mother sat me down and explained sex and puberty to me three years prior, none of it really clicked. Learning about human sexuality wasn’t all that different from learning frog anatomy as far as I was concerned. It was just information. I hadn’t processed it in any real way other than I understood that I now had to wear a training bra and suddenly deodorant was necessary.
So the first time someone started screaming about what they wanted to do with me sexually while I was in the food court of the old Northwest Plaza Mall in St. Louis County, I was frightened and confused. I looked to my mother – who was standing next to me – perplexed as to why this man and his friends were lewdly gesturing toward me and knowing it was terrifying, but she quickly told me to turn around and ignore it.
“They’re ignorant,” she said.
But she offered little explanation for what seemed dangerous and threatening. And it was around that age I started having nightmares about being physically assaulted by strangers or raped.
In junior high, boys and the grown men they idolized (and who should have known better) were prone to shout just about anything at me. I think for them it was amusing, as I can only imagine what the success rate is for shouting at women and girls on the street, but when you’re 12 or a teenager (or even now, to be honest) it’s scary to have someone just announce that “you’re so fine, if you were my daughter I’d have to rape you.” The first boy to ever say this to me (we were both about 14) thought this was a “compliment.” Even though I did my best to make it clear how messed up that sounded, he insisted it was a funny joke he’d heard his uncle say to a girl and that I was way too uptight.
But it never seemed to stop. The vulgarities. The “friendly” stalking that ended with them cursing me out when I didn’t want to give someone my number. This is pretty much why approaching a woman on the street if you’re a halfway normal guy is almost pointless. By the time a woman is an adult, she’s endured this kind of garbage for more than a decade and she just assumes you’re a creep/potential rapist until you don’t rape her. You honestly can’t be mad at the woman for being traumatized. Be mad at the 40-year-old pervert who hit on her when she was 13.
As a woman you’re told to just ignore or “deal” with street harassment (and all sexual harassment, honestly), so it is pretty easy to internalize it and think it’s all your fault. For years I rued the day I hit puberty, seeing it as some horrible thing that made people suddenly go crazy on me. I wanted to stop whatever was causing this unwanted attention, meaning I often wore clothes two sizes too big for me.
This meant for years I didn’t wear or even own a pair of shorts out of fear of showing my “big legs,” which were obviously too provocative, even in Bermuda shorts or pedal pushers. My dream for the longest was to be thin, really, really thin, size 0, smaller than small, thin. If I was just skinny enough that I had the body of a 10-year-old boy, I’d look more child-like and I wouldn’t get so much unwanted sexual attention from men. The only problem was even if I got down to a size 4 or smaller in a shirt, I still wore pants that were a size 9/10 or larger.
So wearing my coat all day in the winter and blue jeans in the summer with long, loose fitting shirts was pretty much my look as I hated the body I was stuck with for a very long time.
The cycle continues because the younger ones see the older ones doing it, and think it’s funny. I was particularly appalled by the statement the author quotes above where a teenage boy says she is so fine, he would have to “rape” her! That is absolutely terrifying!
When I was 14; I was in the train station with a male friend to go out for the day, and he told me an old man; 70’s at least was lifting up my skirt with his cane, and, to my disgust, it was true.What further disgusts me in retrospect is that the friend was joking about it. In the same station, (yep, hate the trains, love the place I usually go to) and same age I saw another elderly man leer at me, and this time I shouted ”hey, pervert!” Then he spat at me.
One time I was in a community play, and I was alone in the theatre waiting for the rest of the cast to arrive. One of the cast members arrived and had brought her brother, who had some kind of disability and was in his 40’s. She went to the bathroom and left me alone with him. I was wearing ripped tights as a part of my costume. The man came and sat by me, breathing heavily and staring at my legs. “Ripped tights means you must get a lot of guys after your pussy.” He said. I was terrified. No one was around to help me. I felt so violated and disgusted. I didn’t even want to be in the play anymore. I just wanted to go home and take off the ripped tights. Not knowing what to do I quickly got up and stood outside. Later on, I told one of the cast members what had happened. They shrugged and said “He’s a bit odd because of his disability. Don’t worry about it.” This made me so angry!
While I was waiting at the bus stop, a random man got in line really close behind me, violating my personal space bubble. At first I wrote it off because the bus was almost at the stop, so I assumed he was just getting in line. But then he started creeping closer and closer. He leaned over my shoulder and whispered “what’s your name?” into my ear. I jumped back and stuttered “sorry, I don’t know you…” He continued eyeballing me like a piece of meat and his gaze wandered all over my body as if he was undressing me in his brain. It was gross. I tried ignoring him, but he kept mumbling things including “you want my ding-a-ling?”Adolescent? Yes. Terrifying? Also yes. Even though I tried to stay away from him, he came up behind me again just as the bus pulled up. If I wouldn’t have rushed on, I’m almost certain he would have tried to touch me. When I was safely on the bus, I started tearing up and shaking. This man, unlike the two I mentioned earlier, had a scary predatory feel to him. I don’t think I’ve ever been so afraid in my life.
It was only until about 5 years ago, in my early twenties did I start to embrace my body and not let leers and jeers get the best of me. As a tween/teen I too couldn’t understand why grown men would look at me with lust or be so bold as to say something lewd. It was confusing and I too did what I could to hide my “thick thighs” and not be noticed. This article is a learning opportunity for men and those who have sons — street harassment stops when the present generation affects the mind of the next.
I’ve been followed. Grabbed. Cornered. Berated. Forced to kiss someone. It’s happened so often that it doesn’t even feel like my body is really my body anymore. The world is a museum of flesh and I am merely one of the many displays to be oogled at by men.
I want to know when it became acceptable for men to approach women in this country in such a disgusting manner. Like, when exactly did some lightbulb go off in men’s heads saying “Hey, you know what I think I’ll do? I’ll accost and maybe inappropriately touch a complete stranger. Yeah, that seems reasonable”? I just don’t understand how we went from “Let me help you with those bags young lady” to “Lemme hollatcha a minute, shawty. Well, fuck you then, you fucking bitch!” It makes me wonder what is in store for our daughters and future generations….
You Don’t Have to Take It
You can help fight street harassment – first by being aware of what it is, and then by empowering yourself to make a difference. There are many international as well as national groups of women coming together to make the streets and public transit safe places for women by providing education, training and venues to share information and photos of harassers. These links can help you get started:
Category: Society and Culture