Dechanique’s story: I finally called the WMATA harassment hotline

I finally called the WMATA harassment hotline and reported the constant street harassment I’ve been receiving outside the New Carrolton Metro station, by the kiss-n-ride bus stop. It’s a gauntlet of leering, mouth-flapping assholes from the escalators to the crosswalk. I get on my best bitch-face, but it hardly ever helps.

The officer on the other line was very understanding, which eased my anxiety in calling. They took my complaint, told me they would be alerting their evening shift of the problem, and if I ever feel unsafe, if I call and let them know I’m on my way to the station, an officer will be placed outside. I asked if it would be possible to place some anti-harassment posters on the bus shelters, because if these guys are going to be standing around waiting for their buses, might as well educate themselves on how to (not) talk to women who just want to get home. My comment was acknowledged, but no affirmative was made.

Street harassment was a rude awakening for me. Much of my life, I had been very heavy, and while I experienced harassment going about my day to day life, it was mostly to bully or shame me about my weight, with the occasional spattering of comments on my shapely posterior or legs. It wasn’t very common, and I felt relatively safe walking around (though very insecure about my appearance).

Then I started losing weight. About 40lbs down, I started getting noticed more. The cat-calls increased in number and frequency. The “dayum gurl”s, the “hello sexy”s, didn’t seem so bad at the time. Low self-esteem and hunger for acceptance played a role in my tolerance. I stopped to talk to people, I was flattered, I was excited! When guys called out to me on the street I would respond positively. It quickly became uncomfortable. Walking home from the gym the day after Valentines 2011, I was stopped at a street corner by a group of men standing outside an apartment complex. I was happy to talk to them at first, about bicycling and life as mostly-pedestrians in the District. When I indicated I should continue home, the man who called to me originally began to try to get me to come inside. I politely declined, and in desperation, he offered me $500 to “keep him company”. I left quickly.

Two blocks later, I was stopped again by a different group of men, asking me to be their Valentines.

This was becoming a serious problem.

From then on, it never stopped being a problem. It was a cut that got infected. It’s now gangrenous and a constant force in my life.

Street harassment was a rude awakening. Over the course of 2010-2011, I lost 100lbs and had skin removal surgery. With every progressive step in my weight loss journey, the level of harassment I experienced continued to rise. Sometimes, when it gets bad, it makes me want to bury myself in boxes of pizza and tubs of iced cream and get so big I never have to leave the house again. But I can’t. I don’t want to let the harassment run my life, and I am certainly not going to let some dickbag who can’t keep his words/hands to himself ruin all the hard work I put into my weight loss and happiness I feel with my husband and our new home together.

It’ll be two years in September since my surgery. Street harassment colors my life outside the house like it never has before. My anxiety level has sky-rocketed. Anytime I leave the safety of my home, car, or office, I’m on guard, on alert. Walking by or through groups of men, I wonder if they’re going to say something. For a while, I thought it would be best to just ignore it. Keep walking, pretend I don’t hear them, because I didn’t want to confront them and face the possibility of physical assault. But just like playground bullies, silence gives them power. My shame and meekness gave them power. Because street harassment isn’t about whether they find you attractive or not, it’s about control, power, and dominance of women in public spaces. It’s a constant reminder that you don’t belong, that you are only there like a piece of meat to be examined and commented upon, like I’m there for their fucking eye-pleasure.

Having hardly experienced this prior to my weight loss, my tolerance for this disruption to my life and habits didn’t take very long to reach the point of confrontation. A few weeks ago, I began calling people out for their harassment using the simple phase “STOP HARASSING WOMEN”. I steeled myself and made it a point to fire back at anyone who thought it was okay to harass me. The anxiety is hard to deal with sometimes. I walk by and through strangers on the sidewalk and wonder if anyone is going to say something. I repeat the words in my head, and constantly reaffirm to myself that I will tell them off if they harass me. Someone walks by me and coughs, or clears their throat, or begins talking on the phone or to their neighbor and my heart jumps into my throat, only to settle when I realize what’s going on and leap again at the next person. It’s a rollercoaster and I want to get off it, right the fuck now.

Last night, I was harassed again leaving the metro. It was too dark to wear sunglasses, which I don whenever I can to avoid eye-contact. Judging by the number of men waiting for the bus, I considered walking through the kiss-n-ride to the sidewalk and avoiding the bus stop entirely. I told myself no, because I shouldn’t have to fear the bus stop. So I looked straight ahead towards the crosswalk and marched forward. I had almost made it through the gauntlet, past the first two bus shelters, rounding the corner, when someone decided to open their god damn mouth with a “oohhhh hey sexy” *leer*. So I told him off, “Stop harassing women!” He made a laugh, a derisive dismissal, so I continued. “It’s called street harassment. It’s unwanted sexual advances.” Was the only thing I could push out of my mouth as the heat filled my face and my heart threatened to choke me. He made a whatever and I continued, picking up the pace to the crosswalk.

He walked the same path. My worst fear- it looks like we’re neighbors. He walked into my community. I remained quiet and kept walking behind him. He would look over his shoulder to see if I was still there. Finally, he asks, “You live here?” In a confused way. When I affirmed, he apologized! I was.. shocked! I said OK and kept walking. He walked down the same hill I usually walk to get to my house, but still feeling pretty uncomfortable, I decided to walk one more street over and take that hill down instead. I was actually about to tweet that this guy apologized, holy shit guys, but then he yelled out as I walked away “Bye sexy!” and I wanted to bash my face repeatedly into a wall.

When I made it to the bottom of the hill, he was walking up the same block I live on. I waved at my neighbor next door and rushed into my house. I was safe. I was home. But all the joy and excitement from nailing the Extended Butterfly in pole class, the happy highs of my friends at the gym, had vanished. I moved from anxiety to rage, and ranted extensively about street harassment and rape culture to my husband.

I paced around angrily for a while. I showed my husband the Extended Butterfly, and ate dinner, still mad. By the end of dinner and the glass of wine, I was still angry, almost shaking, so I self-medicated. And I felt better by the end of the bowl.

But I shouldn’t have to do this. I shouldn’t have to fear walking from the metro, or from my office to the grocery store. I shouldn’t have to deal with the gauntlet that is the New Carrollton kiss-n-ride. No woman should. We deserve respect and to be left alone. Me leaving my house ≠ inviting strangers to comment on my body and make me feel uncomfortable.

The WMATA Stop Harassment campaign is a good start. I hope the transit authority takes my request to put the posters in the bus shelters seriously. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I decided to write the First Lady to see if she can lend a voice to this pervasive problem. It’s a pie in the sky that she may read my letter, but street harassment needs to become a regular part of our national conversation on respecting women’s autonomy.

She may never read my letter. The guys I tell to stop harassing me may continue to dismiss me. WMATA may never put up those posters in the bus shelter. But I, for one, refuse to be silent about harassment. I will keep telling men to stop harassing women, though I fear violent retaliation. Because silence helps no one.

Maybe if more people, men and women alike, speak up against street harassment, the cultural attitude will change. If children and teens are taught about harassment and consent, if women, men, the media, celebrities and people in authority decry street harassment and make it socially unacceptable, things will change.

Change is slow. But like my husband says – culture and the status-quo is a very large boat to turn around. Progress is slow, but the great thing about large boats turning is that once it starts to turn, it’s very hard to push it back around.

Today is my birthday. I am 29 years old. I will stand up to street harassment. Maybe if I keep standing, and keep fighting, and others keep fighting, we can turn this culture boat around so everyone can walk home without fear of harassment.