Sophie’s story: You don’t have to “get used to it”

This story happened quite some time ago, but when I think of stories apropos to Hollaback, it is these that jump out at me:

Three summers ago, I was living in Brooklyn with my boyfriend at the time. I am from a fairly small town; I’d certainly encountered my fair share of street harassment there, but nothing compared to the huge volume I encountered every day in NY during my commute to work. I would complain about it to my boyfriend and he would brush it aside with comments like, “well, you’re hot, baby,” and, “that’s just the city.” One day, on the way to work, a man I walked past growled, “I would ride that.” I told my boyfriend about it, and he turned it around later that day and used it as a joke, yelling it to me out the window of a car when his friend picked him up.

That same friend of his and I got into an argument another day about street harassment. He said that the catcalls, etc. were compliments and I shouldn’t feel threatened or stereotyped. “Being hot is not a BAD stereotype,” he informed me. “I’m Puerto Rican, and if someone yelled at me, ‘hey, you must play really great baseball,’ I would say, ‘thank you, yes I do.’” My boyfriend thought this was hilarious.

I should note that the boyfriend was NOT an asshole or a bad boyfriend or in any way abusive to me or disrespectful of me otherwise. He was and still is a caring kind and smart person who I genuinely respect. I would say the same of his friend. But they could not understand the feeling of violation that came with street harassment, and in not understanding, they invalidated the anger and fright and disgust I felt on a DAILY BASIS. To them, that was simply New York, and it was a part of the city that came along with all the rest of it. And who, after all, was I to try and question the norms of a city that wasn’t my own? I just had to learn, like all the rest of the women there, to deal with it.

I did learn to deal with it. The sexual slurs rolled off me like water by the end of my summer there. Or so I told myself. But then came one morning in August, by which point I felt myself much better suited to the city (I could not only navigate the trains, I could give directions). I was headed to work at about 7 AM, walking to the F train on Second Ave. The LES in the mornings is a very different place than the LES at night; rather than loud pretty twenty-somethings, the streets are filled only with the homeless who slept there the night before. I was walking past many groups of homeless men and was otherwise entirely alone on the street. Then I saw one homeless guy lumbering towards me. Here we go, I thought, preparing myself for an unpleasant encounter, kicking myself for never having bought the pepper spray I’d promised my mom I’d get back in June. The man got to about a foot in front of me, raised his head, looked me right in the face, and said, “Well at least somebody’s beautiful this morning, and it sure ain’t me!” He laughed, and I laughed from relief, and he went on his way, wishing me a nice day. I laughed at myself the whole day, thinking how paranoid I’d been and how prejudiced it was for me to assume that a homeless guy was inevitably going to harass me. The thing this made me realize, though, is that my prejudice was borne of a larger fear. The silence around street harassment DOES contribute to prejudice, and it contributes, too, to an overall feeling of worry, shame, and fear that had me walking to work in a paranoid state. And though the man did comment on my appearance, I was GRATEFUL for it because I had been so sure that what was coming would be explicit or a threat.

Looking back on this time now, I realize I was deeply misinformed and unsure in regard to street harassment. I am moving back to New York in a couple of months, and thanks in part to Hollaback, I am doing so with more confidence and feelings of empowerment than I otherwise may have. Had I known about this site three years ago, that summer could have been more golden than it was.

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  1. amy says:

    i like that you connected silence about street harassment to other phobias/isms, such as the fear of someone who appears to live on the street. at first, i wasnt sure where that portion of the story was going, but i really appreciated how you described your reality as a woman (of being harassed) to contribute to defensiveness in public spaces and consequently to feeling a need to profile those around you (which can slide easily into using the racist and classist languages of our culture to protect ourselves).

    also, im sure that in print the comments of yr partner and his friend are an incomplete portrait of these men in yr life, and so i value the understanding that you are extending to their reactions. i think yr discussion of it highlighted, with tenderness, that there is a huge disconnect for men to understand the reality and fear of sexual violation. i struggle with this in my own life, and with my own male friends, and unfortunately the only thing that i can say to draw some men even near understanding sexual harassment is an invocation of homophobia (by way of tapping into a straight man’s fear of being in gay male spaces, and being “hit on” by other men when that attention is unwanted. i try to translate that feeling to a woman’s experience, all day everyday, with unwanted attention from men.) however, using one hateful phobia to connect to another struggle is highly problematic, so i am looking for new languages to have these conversations with.

    alas, we’re all in process, and i thank you for publishing yours.

    -amy

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