Growing up female, street harassment is just something you live with. I have a beautiful trans-gendered friend and she had a recent experience that isn’t mine to share. My first thought was to blow it off as what happens, but something she said on a late night stroll along the Santa Monica pier Saturday resonated tonight.
We’re so used to holding our secrets as close as we can. We worry that it’ll get out and be exposed. We might get teased or attacked for what we do or think or feel. We keep our secrets close and quiet, muffling all resonance in cloistered secrecy for our protection. Being trans literally took all of her closely held secrets and put them outside of her body. She chose to take all of her fears and put them before her, exposed and exposing the most beautiful and vulnerable parts of who she is for friends, family, and fearful haters alike. I adore her for who she is and who she always shows up as to me. She’s a radiant beauty and I admire her strength and courage, and she gives epic hugs. (We’re not dating. It’s the boobs. I don’t do boobs. Also, I really don’t date younger people. There have been two exceptions. One has so much special in him I would have regretted passing up on our time together and I married the other.)
Street harassment is so pervasive that it’s become an insignificant blip on the radar of my life because it’s a secret of womanhood. If I talk about it, I’ll be criticized for my jaunts on the town alone. If I talk about it, I’ll be questioned for what I was wearing as if my Retro Vintage Ruby Woo lipstick is asking for anything other than to make my lips blood red. If we talk about it, it grows a face that looks like blame and we won’t place the responsibility of the action on the shoulders of the aggressor. He’s a nameless child that means no harm. We’ll find help. Even if he proves to be a rapist, his family loves and trusts that he’ll make good choices if we give him another chance. If we say he is just having fun, and it’s harmless, we ignore the many women that are so openly victimized by street harassment that they are afraid to go out alone. Street harassment tells the attacked person that she or he doesn’t have a right to be outside of their home and enjoy freedoms that stray dogs do. We never know when a comment might become an attack of aggression. It’s power and dominance. It wasn’t long ago a woman was killed because she exercised her right to reject a man. That is a reality that sits in our minds from the time we were little and told we needed a buddy system for our safety in public bathrooms.
Street harassment doesn’t even require a sexualized adult body. My first experience was more than harassment, but it was my first exposure. Literally. I was in elementary school, possibly the 3rd or 4th grade. I was allowed to walk to and from school as it was only a couple of blocks on a busy street. A man pulled up next to me in a red car, asking for directions while stroking an erect and exposed penis.
Growing up, I got used to men catcalling me. I hear lots of complaints about men asking women to smile, but I usually do smile and it has never been my problem. I understand the frustration. Being a woman on the street does not offer strangers entitlement to how I walk down the street, whether smiling, or angry, strutting, or trying my best to pretend I don’t exist and can blend in with the cracks in the sidewalk.
More than once, I’ve noticed a camera phone pointed at me as I go about my day, walking, or shopping, or sitting with gelato at a bistro table. My nephew was shocked and pointed out he would attack a creeper taking pictures of him. This is my normal when I’m alone because we need to do better by our sons, nephews and brothers.
I’m used to men smiling at me, and slowing down or pulling over as I walk and they drive. I’m used to friendly smiles and creepy ones. I’ve watched men looking at me while using their hands to air stroke an imaginary phallus. I’m used to everything from a sweet hello, to “I’d hit that.” I never know what it’ll be and I’m a little nervous to find out sometimes. Time has taught me to put on a brave face, smile and make eye contact. It’s less likely to turn ugly if you show kindness. Also, it’s why I’m at Santa Monica Beach so often. I prefer quieter beaches but the police presence is huge and comforting.
I get the power aspect of it. I work out my own aggression when the windows are down and I see a beautiful man running, and I loudly say, “thank you,” while quietly saying ,”for all you are doing for me right now.” I’ve been called out on it and shamed enough that it’s been a while and I felt true remorse for my actions. I don’t do it in front of my boys, but I have done it and it was always about power. Now it’s about shame.