Benji’s Story: “We don’t have to put up with street harassment”
We shouldn’t have to live in fear of going for a simple walk or jog, but many people do. A walk can quickly turn into being sexually harassed ten times in all of twenty minutes. This harassment would not be acceptable if it was done within the walls of a classroom, or a place of business. But for some reason, many people consider it acceptable when it is done from a car or on the street. The victim, always a stranger. Always someone minding their own business. Always a person who simply wants to get their morning exercise done, or reach their destination to buy lunch for themselves. And when they try to recount their experience, they are often told to suck it up, or that it was probably just what they were wearing. Or – perhaps worst of all – that they should take it as a ‘compliment’.
The first time I experienced street harassment, I was only twelve years old. Think about that for a moment. Twelve. Years. Old. I was not yet old enough to understand that I was more developed than most of my other twelve year old friends. I seldom wear skirts now, because I identify as transgender. Back then, I tried to deny my identity and I tried as hard as I could to be normal. To ‘fit in’. I borrowed a mini skirt from my friend who was less curvy than me, and I wore it. I wore it with the matching top. I was more filled out, too, but I never noticed. I didn’t notice until adult men – read that again. Adult. Men. Slowed down long enough to call me a slut. I was twelve. I did not even know what the word meant, but I quickly found out. One would think my refusal to wear skirts has to do with my gender identity, but it actually has more to do with that day.
That was only the beginning of many years of street harassment. I wish I could say it has gotten better, but it has only gotten worse. Within the past year, I have taken up exercising. I want to be healthier. So, I walk daily. Sometimes, for an hour a day. Sometimes, more. It all depends on how busy or not busy my day is. Living where I do, it is hard to avoid walking on the main streets. I am literally harassed – on average – three to five times a day. There are some days where that number is easily ten, depending on how busy traffic is. The harassment ranges from honking (which is mostly just an annoyance – I startle very easily and do not appreciate being ‘honked’ at), to having kisses blown at me (degrading and rude), to having words shouted at me (which I can never hear regardless), to downright obvious harassment (such as being offered a ride by a creepy man at LEAST thirty years my senior [I am only 23, and I am often told I look even younger], to being asked ‘Yo, girl, how old are you?’, to being questioned about my sexuality, and on the worst days even rape threats when I ignore my harasser). I used to just keep walking, and take it in stride.
I realized that doing so just gives them permission to keep doing it. I realized that if I didn’t stand up for myself, I was teaching these men (and occasionally women, too) that it was okay to harass me. That calling me sexy, whore, or making humping gestures at me is ‘okay’. But when I was walking home from college, and a group of at least six men were following me, asking me how old I was… I realized that it is NOT okay. It was terrifying to me. It is annoying, and it makes exercising hard. So, I have started to take a stand. When a friend honked at a pretty woman, I asked him why. He explained that he thought it would make her feel good. When I explained that, often, the only thing it does is scare us or annoy us… he was honestly surprised. Education is imperative. As many of these people don’t really mean harm. Then again, there are many more that do. And when we experience harassment daily, we can never tell the difference.
The other day, I was walking home from the Kangaroo after just filling my Roo cup, and an older man in a white truck honked at me. I ignored him. But when I crossed the highway, I caught him from the corner of my eye turning around to chase me down. This happens a lot, and is downright terrifying. So, I assessed my situation. I had two paths I could take. One down the business area, where there were bound to be people around. One down a hill, with a forest on one side and houses on the other. I took the safer route, the business area. He honked again, stopping. And this time, I stood up for myself. I pulled my cell out, a way of letting him know I wasn’t afraid to call for help if I needed to and I firmly told him to leave me alone. When he drove away, and I kept walking I felt a surge of fear, but this time it was coupled with a surge of pride. We don’t have to put up with street harassment. But as long as people behave as though it is acceptable, people will believe it is.
Also, I am transgender. I wear traditionally men’s clothes most of the time (and only wear women’s clothes maybe once a month). So I dare anyone to tell me ‘It’s probably because of how you dress.’ I dare them.