A couple years ago, I was out for a walk in my neighborhood. I was walking on the sidewalk of a busy street, and many cars drove by me. A favorite empowering song of mine came through my headphones and I started to walk to the beat of the song. Then I started to sway my hips as I walked. My chest puffed out, my head lifted. I felt powerful. I felt strong. I felt alive.
Then a large man on a motorcycle drove by and honked at me.
There is a possibility that he recognized this power in me and honked in uplifting “you go, girl!” encouragement.
But the real possibility is that he saw me swaying my hip, and that made him think of sex, and so he honked at me as a sign that he was sexually attracted to me and he wanted me to know it.
That didn’t make me feel powerful. It did the opposite. With his one honk, this stranger interfered in my personal moment to make what I was doing no longer about me but about him and what he wanted.
It may have been a “harmless” honk. After all, one second later, he was gone. I didn’t know who he was. He didn’t pull over and try to rape me. Why should I take his honk so personally?
Because women live in a world where they are viewed by men as sexual objects.
No, not every man views every woman as a sexual object. But overall, men view women as sexual objects.
And when men honk, or catcall, or make inappropriate jokes, or inappopriate contact, or force themselves on us in one way or another, they “remind” us of our “place” in this world. They take away our power and steal it for themselves.
There is no woman alive in America today who has not at one time in her life been sexually harrassed or sexually assualted.
This is fact. This is not opinion.
There may be a woman or two who says this has never happened to her. She is lying. Either she is too ashamed that it is happened or she is too brainwashed by society that she does not realize it has happened to her.
Sexual harassment can be as small as an uninvited honk, an unsolicited wolf whistle, an obvious glance at my breasts.
“What’s the big deal?” men (and women) will ask. Perhaps some women may say that makes that feel attractive, that they like the attention.
The big deal is that small interactions like this set the precedent for the bigger assaults, the violence that women face from men every day, the fear that has us looking over our shoulders as we walk to our cars at night.
And it starts when we’re children. We’re told that when princes come to rescue Snow White and Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, it’s romantic. But it’s not. It’s sexual assault. These princes are near strangers to these women, and they didn’t ask permission before they made a sexual advance. If it’s uninvited, it’s harassment or assault.
In elementary school, I faced sexual harassment from a drunk uncle who insisted on my giving him a kiss.
In middle school, a boy I liked exposed himself to me in his kitchen. I told him I didn’t want to see that and to put it away, but he refused.
In college, I was kissing a friend when he forced his hand down my pants; when I told him no, he continued his advances until I stormed out of his apartment.
After college, a friend forced me on the ground, got on top of me, and tried to make me kiss him.
These were men I knew, who knew me, who I was close to, and they still felt entitled to do these things. Imagine what a stranger feels entitled to do.
Men use sex to feel powerful over women, and it works, because they make us feel ashamed by what we’ve experienced and afraid that it (or something worse) will happen again. And it’s not a matter of “if” it happens again; it’s “when.”
One day I was walking to work and it was nice out and I was happy, so as I passed a man waiting for the bus, I impulsively decided to be Midwestern friendly, and I said hello. And he made a sexual comment in return. And I rolled my eyes. But I kept walking. It didn’t feel safe to stop and tell him how his actions were wrong.
A woman cannot even smile at a strange man without the man thinking she is sexually attracted to him.
Sometimes it doesn’t even take a smile. In fact, sometimes, a woman can be wearing the biggest “fuck off” sign on her head and still suffer sexual harassment.
I was in my car at a stoplight, and in my peripheral vision, I saw a car pull up next to me, window to window. I had a feeling it was trouble, so I stayed staring at the glowing red light. Yet I felt a burning gaze in my direction. So I turned my head just a touch so I could see, and there was a man hanging out of the window making kissy faces at me. I had not enticed him whatsoever. When I finally looked, he was already in the act of making kissing faces at me. He didn’t wait for my permission. He didn’t even wait for me to be involved. I was trying to shut him out completely and yet his sexual harassment still found its way into my life.
When I lived in the city, if I was walking by myself and I was approaching a man, I’d switch sides of the road. It wasn’t worth the risk to get that close to a strange man. Who knows what he may do.
I’m older now. My skin is more worn. My hair isn’t as shiny. I am usually carting around a baby. I had a brush with death, so now I am more positive and friendly. When I walk on the trails by my house, I smile and say hello to all the men I pass--old, young, fit, fat, well-off, or homeless-looking. And most of the time, I don’t look over my shoulder and make sure they’ve continued on their way. But I still think about doing that every time. Because experience has taught me it doesn’t matter what I look like or what he looks like or what I do. Sexual harassment is always a possibility.
I pray that by talking about it like this, by actively acknowledging it, by breaking our silence, women can change this.
I pray that my daughter can walk confidently down the street without worry.