We see when you watch us. We’re not stupid. We know when something is coming.
We feel your eyes burning on every inch of our skin, following us like laser pointers.
We’re watching you, too, silently steaming with the same level of disrespect you seem to have for us.
Finding yourself subject to foreign ogles comes with the territory when you’re a female urban-dweller, I’ve accepted. It’s part of the rhythm of every day, and it’s often more an annoyance than an actual physical threat. But it’s a meaningful annoyance.
When I bemoan about instances of street harassment to my male friends, they always spout a version of one canned response, a sort of blanket apology for their gender: “Do they really think that actually works? When has a man ever in history gotten a date that way?”
They’re trying to empathize; I know that. But that regurgitation proves to me more than anything else that street harassment, in all its forms, is a phenomenon that is not at all about receiving a positive reaction, and that even these men — the good ones who come to my defense — are still a little oblivious to the fact that as a gender they hold the power to, at any time, effortlessly exhibit assertion over a woman by using fear and intimidation — sometimes with words, sometimes with just a look or a gesture, even in the middle of a crowded city.
When a woman is walking down a street after sundown, alone, in downtown Cincinnati and a man encroaches on her personal space and mutters a, “Hey, baby. You should put a smile on that pretty face,” or whistles or says something about exposed legs or, “Your body looks good in that dress,” he must know.
He must know that he is making us shiver with that one flash we’re seeing in our heads, that one worst-case scenario we heard about on the news, the ones our moms instinctually warn us about and the reason our dads buy us our own keychain pepper spray.
And the problem is that he likes it. The harasser is not looking for a date. He’s not even looking for interaction, necessarily, and, in most cases, the comment is where it ends; he’s not interested in carrying out the rest of what we both imagine this could become.
Too much work, too much risk.
For him, the investment is small: make a comment, leer and watch the woman writhe in silent discomfort while she walks that tightrope she knows so well, wondering whether it’s smarter to snap something back, play nice or keep our eyes beaming forward, hard, pretending he isn’t there.
I’m not sure there’s a right answer to that; every leerer is different, every alley is different and every woman is different in how she feels comfortable responding. What I am sure about is that I refuse to feel guilty or fearful about existing in downtown Cincinnati.
I didn’t ask any stranger to appraise my physical and sexual value for me when I woke up this morning and got dressed; I do that on my own. And I refuse to let you change the way I look at myself in the mirror in the morning or carry myself depending on what part of town I’m in at what time of day.
A few weeks ago, a man on a bike followed me, spewing mouthfuls of vulgarity, things that made me really want to slap him. I felt bolder than usual, so I told him to go away and leave me alone and kept walking, which he didn’t appreciate. He retaliated, biking more aggressively alongside me and eventually remarking that I served no purpose in the world other than being a pretty woman, something to look at.
That’s when he turned around and left. Mission accomplished.
It made my blood boil. At that very moment, he reminded me of a boy I once dated, a boy that, when he wanted to hurt me the most, would dig deep under my skin and pierce all my softest, fleshiest spots, doing his best to exploit every point of self-doubt and hurt and fear I’d ever confided in him. He did it because he wanted to weaken me, for me to let him know he’d won.
It worked for a long time.
The biking man tried, too. He started with dirty words and ended with the same; dirty, cruel and offensive words that were at first masked by a thin veil of sweetness in his voice covering up what he really meant to say in the first place: You are small and I know how to make you feel that way.
It doesn’t work anymore. I remember it every time I step out the door.
CONTACT HANNAH MCCARTNEY: email@example.com