Rare are summer days in Houston when the weather cools from the oppressively swampy to merely sultry. Whenever such an opportunity presents itself, few would blame me for wanting to slip out of my desk and into the sunshine. I didn’t take a lunch break, anyways. Nobody would mind if I ran to the bookstore for a metaphorical minute.
As I walk along Main Street, between its intersections with Lamar and Dallas, a stranger saunters up to me. His body now merely millimeters from mine, he demands, “Let me pick you up and carry you home. I have to carry you and take you home with me right now.” Loud enough for a 5-person band of onlookers to start quietly paying attention.
I panic. “GO FUCK YOURSELF!” Not the most mature of reactions, but fear and a desire to intimidate preclude creativity. Our audience continues staring.
He shrinks back, raising his volume and desperately whining, “But I have to do SOMETHING to you! I need to take you back to my home and do something. Let me carry you home and we’ll talk about this.”
“GO! FUCK! YOURSELF!” Finally, the man jerks his head away and turns to walk off in the other direction. My voice transcends my meager frame. Gives me power. Authority. A strength beyond whatever it is I’m bench pressing these days. “I AM NOT A PIECE OF MEAT, SIR!” rockets towards his back. Cliché to be certain, and not my proudest moment. But it gets the point across succinctly. A glare shot at the throng transfixed by our encounter. Lips pressed tightly into themselves. Eyes narrowed to nothing more than paper cuts, albeit obscured by prescription sunglasses.
They look away. Huffy. Bored. One man mutters, “Such language…”
Humiliation. An overarching sensation of dehumanization prickles my internals and externals alike. Saline stings the backs of my eyelids. A quaking, shaking blancmange of a thoroughly ashamed, embarrassed and just plain angry young woman. Deliberate encroachment onto my personal space, overtures of sexual violence and a complete lack of disrespect for my autonomy, agency and consent…and they take offense at the language I use to convey my flashpoint rage! He and I provided them with the day’s sensational entertainment, not a pathetic tableau of harassment. I question whether or not their apathy would have finally dissolved had this horrid man attempted to genuinely hurt me.
And I am incredibly fortunate he intended to intimidate more than actually injure, but all the same there exists no compelling justification for his actions (sorry, victim-blamers, but I was wearing a loose-fitting Muppets t-shirt and even more comfortable jeans that day). Nor those who saw fit to treat us as free, live theatre. Their silence gave this man permission to treat another woman with such a callous dismissal of her independence. Their chiding my self-defense enabled yet another incident of public harassment and verbal assault to end up an exercise in shaming the recipient. Of neglecting to change the rhetoric of gender-based violence.
But hey! It only takes something as easy and minor as the complete overhaul of societal perceptions towards street harassment, sexual assault and rape to reverse this attitude! Neither I nor anyone else deserves to inhabit a world where something simple like running to pick up a copy The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ends up a disheartening lesson in how Americans react when confronted with very public verbal and physical harassment. Public places belong to the public, not just those intending to badger, bully or brutalize the innocent. And that is why those of us with stories to tell – all narratives, be they victim, bystander or a loved one hearing about everything later in the day – must ensure the populace learns of them. Education, not dressing differently or agoraphobia or constantly looking over your shoulder, remains just about the only truly effective, sustainable weapon in our stash.