When It Comes to Street Harassment, Bravery Isn't Cut-and-Dry

Young woman using mobile phone in a metro station
Young woman using mobile phone in a metro station

On Halloween, four boys who most likely went to my university pulled up next to me in a battered sedan as I walked to meet my friend. "Must be cold in that skirt," they yelled, and then gunned the engine before I could respond. I ran the rest of the way home.

A few weeks prior, I was at a restaurant with friends late at night. A man approached us and mumbled out the line that I hear almost every time I'm on a train platform, walking in a city, or even just stopped at a stoplight in my own car. "Hey girl, how you doing?" I did what I always do -- became so engrossed with a square of pavement that you'd think it was the political science reading I was days behind on.

Days before that, a man pestered me and my friends on the subway until we finally stood up and left the car, at which point he flipped us off and swore at us. We walked faster.

This summer, one of my sorority sisters looked up on the train to see a man staring her down and masturbating. She ran out of the car at the next stop and called the police, but he was long gone. She knew better than to try to stop him on her own.

The next story could be four weeks ago, then six, then two months, a pattern of harassment tracing back to puberty or even earlier. Women in public spaces have incredibly low expectations of privacy or consideration. I don't go out expecting to be left alone. It's more of a nice surprise when it does happen.

Women have written extensively about their experiences with catcalling and street harassment. When I began writing this piece, I told my friend that I felt like I was beating a dead horse. We know that men shouldn't catcall, and we know that it happens anyways. Where do we go from here? I can't untangle that in one article. It's a patriarchal tangle of intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality and physical appearance that has no simple answer. I'm glad I can afford to live in a relatively safe place, and I recognize the privileges I have that save me from bigger issues and harassments. What I need to come to terms with is how I handle these moments.

And for me, this presents a tough dilemma. I think a lot about bravery. I want to believe I am a brave person, like the girls I read about in fantasy books growing up and the women I see around me today. But when you're a woman dealing with street harassment, bravery isn't like a fairytale. It's not realistic for me to cuss out someone who bothers me on a deserted subway platform. It's not smart to hit someone twice my size that has already proved he doesn't care about my personal space or comfort.

There's a French term, l'esprit de l'escalier (translated as "the spirit of the staircase"), for when you think of the perfect thing to say after an argument or conversation has ended. This phrase describes my experience with street harassment all too well. I'm packed with sharp comebacks and cuss-outs that I can only articulate to my roommate when I'm ranting in my bed at night. But in the moment, I am always silent.

I feel like the worst sort of coward. I feel like I talk all this good game about being a warrior, about fighting for what I believe in, for being a tough, kick ass feminist. But yet I know that I can't be that thing without risking my safety. Frequently when I and other women tell these stories, the first response we get is "Well if that happened to me, I would have just..." It's either that they would have hit them, or called for help, or fired back, or just anything else.

When you are approached on the street, or on public transit, or in your own damn front yard, the only thing you need to do is the thing that makes you feel the most comfortable. Your privacy and space has been violated and disrespected, and your only obligation is to restore those things in whatever way is necessary.

When these things happen to women in your life, tell them you're sorry that they don't feel safe. Tell them that they shouldn't have to go through this.

I think we often get burned out about all the things we need to do to be good feminists or even just good women. We feel like we need to stand for a dozen different things all at once and represent everything that we're trying to say. But personal safety needs to come first. In moments when you feel like you are able to, absolutely speak up. Speak for those whose voices have been suppressed around you and speak for yourself. But never ever think that you are not incredibly brave because of a moment of necessary silence.

I really hope that someday I have a movie moment where I snap back at someone so hard that they get whiplash. In my mind, the whole train applauds while the man staggers away, somehow changed into a better person because of what I've said. But more than that, I hope that someday I take the subway at any time of the day, in any outfit and I still feel like it's going to be ok. I hope my sisters and friends and peers won't always have to worry that they're being cowards by protecting themselves. I hope that I never have to be silent. I hope that I am brave.