One of the first things every little girl is taught is that, if you ignore little boys when they taunt you, they will eventually stop. Except that’s not true. They never stop. When one little boy drops the mic, another picks it up. The torment forms a chain of incorrigible links. That harassment is best ignored is a treacherous lesson most girls carry into adulthood; it is a lecherous lesson most boys carry into adulthood, too. So many American men see harassment is a free pass. Any woman walking down the street is fair game, some animal to be hunted and tortured for fun. Because society has given them that right, by default, by silence.
Many women have raised awareness about street harassment. They’ve written about it. They’ve filmed it. Society can see through a clear lens how vile and disgusting street harassment feels. We should be awake. We should be aware. We should be effecting change. We need to keep talking about street harassment. But we also need to talk about how to make it stop.
I think about street harassment every day, because I deal with it every day. As a female runner, I’m a prime target.
Nowadays, I enjoy running on the track, because it usually feels safer than running in the streets, where I’m subjected to a variety of hazards besides terrible driving. Running around town, I’ve been cursed at, spat at, and stalked. Men in unmarked vans have trailed behind me with their smartphones extended out their windows, to photograph or film me. This particular violation occurs mostly during summer, when it’s hot and I’m wearing as little clothing as possible — not for vanity or to solicit attention, but for my own safety. I’ve run plenty of summer races where people have literally collapsed in front of me because of heat-related illness. So when it’s hot, I train in tiny shorts and a sports bra. Even so, I’m always wearing relatively more clothing than the men I often observe running shirtless and free.
One evening a few weeks ago, I hit the track with a friend after a session at the gym, followed by a 94-degree power yoga class. I was hot. The air was sticky and the temperature was pushing 90 degrees. I thought nothing of wearing my usual summer running gear: spandex shorts, a sports bra, and a pair of shades. I stepped onto the inside lane, set down my thermos, and started my GPS watch. The second I took my first stride, I heard, “Hey, girl, put some clothes on; we’re children here.”
The voice was coming from a group of five or six teenage boys loitering on bikes by the dugout of an adjacent baseball field.
There' something particularly disturbing about being a 31-year-old woman and hearing yourself castigated as 'girl' by a group of high school boys...
There is something particularly disturbing about being a 31-year-old woman and hearing yourself castigated as “girl” by a group of high school boys, but I decided to ignore them, even though I felt their eyes on me as I circled the track. Shirking harassment is what I’m conditioned to do, after several exhausting decades receiving this kind of abuse. I don’t want to “cause” a scene. I don’t want to be subjected to further insult. And I don’t want to “risk” a physical attack. So I let it slide. I just run away.
Except it’s hard to run away when you’re running in circles.
It only took a quarter mile for the “children” to assert themselves as the kind of “men” that have apparently been modeled for them.
“You look gooooood, girl,” one jeered. His tone was absolutely nauseous. I was planning to run multiple miles on the track, and I wasn’t going to put up with catcalls and god knows what else after every lap. So I said, “I’m going to call the police in about two seconds if you don’t knock it off.”
My friend, who was running a few strides behind me, glared at the boys as he passed.
They asked him, “You wanna fight?”
So he called the police.
I kept running. I kept my head down, while the group of boys spread out on the bleachers and screeched and hooted down at me. I alternately slowed and sped up to avoid one kid who rode his bike on the track and deliberately, repeatedly cut across my lane.
When a police SUV arrived and scoped the perimeter, the kids, intimidated, hopped on their bikes and sped away. I was glad they were gone, but I hardly felt relief.
Verbal (sexual) street harassment is against the law in New Jersey, where I reside. It is considered disorderly conduct under Section: 2C:33–2 of The New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice and is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or up to 30 days in jail. My friend and I had every right to call the police, because we felt repeatedly threatened by those who were breaking the law. Any number of things could have happened as a result: We could have been physically assaulted, run over by a bike, etc. But calling the police presents its own set of risks. I’m not entirely comfortable reporting street harassment, especially if a bully fits virtually any minority description. As a woman, I’m fearful of police aggression myself. Today’s gun-wielding America is more volatile than I can ever remember it. Everyday law enforcement can escalate to bloodshed in seconds. I tense every time I drive by what seems to be a routine traffic stop.
Perhaps if every woman reported every incidence of street harassment, we could recondition society to shed its toxic masculinity.
I don’t know how to solve the problems of gun violence and sexual harassment in a nation both obsessed with guns and complicit in the routine, almost ritualistic degradation of women, even at the hands of its own president. I do know that I cannot be complicit in street harassment any longer. I’m not going to endure abuse without recourse anymore. Perhaps if every woman reported every incidence of street harassment, we could recondition society to shed its toxic masculinity. And if that’s not the solution, then we need to talk about what is. Because street harassment is not okay and it has got to stop.
A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.