Last week, I got out of a cab after a late night, with two short blocks between my apartment and me. It being dark but for the street lamps, I made out two male figures standing together at the upcoming intersection. Immediately, I scan the scene. There’s no one else around. From afar, they appear to be rather intoxicated, joking around with beer-infused gusto.
“You’re being paranoid, its fine,” I tell myself, as I go and stand at the intersection with them, waiting for the red hand at the stop walk to turn green.
They turn and face me, like hungry lions who just picked up the scent of a lone hyena. They engage. What started out as friendly niceties immediately turned to crude sexual advances and blatant harassment. They made a game out of me, flexing their muscles between themselves as I morphed into an inanimate bystander in their drunken quest for entertainment. As their comments got racier, my heart felt it was at the point of implosion.
In moments like this, the body goes into fight-or-flight response, an automatic physiological reaction which occurs in response to a perceived threat to our survival. Like animals, we react to threats by producing hormones that prime us to either fight or flee in response to the external stresser.
My immediate reaction: flight. They are two men, I am one woman. I’m alone. They are bigger than me, they are drunk, and they are hungry.
But then something happened. Fear evolved to frustration and rather inexplicably, flight morphed into fight.
“Tell me,” I asked them, “Do you honestly think its okay to speak like this to a woman who is alone on the street in the middle of the night?
Puzzled, they froze. My onslaught continued.
“No, I want to understand. Would you want someone to talk like this to your sister? To your girlfriend? To your mother?”
They were stunned. All I heard was a muffled “We didn’t know.”
And then came the icing on the cake. “You didn’t know that I’m a person, too?”
They huddled with their metaphorical tails between their legs as I abruptly walked away, feeling vindicated in a way that words truly don’t do justice.
The situation I described above is one with which many of us are intimately acquainted. Street harassment is nothing new. Invasive and inappropriate catcalling has become a societal norm practiced against females (and males) worldwide.
Street harassers use their words and their actions as a statement of power. These men were trying to let me know that they had sole rights to my body and my being. They were using their power to intimidate and dehumanize. The second that I reminded them that I too, was a person, suddenly their game bore a face.
Our rejection disrupts their entitlement to our bodies, which society has convinced them to believe that it is nothing less than their given right. Like many forms of gender violence, the ubiquity of the phenomenon acts as a reflection of the toxic power structures inherent in modern society.
As women, we often times walk down very different streets than others walk. Our streets can sometimes feel like a minefield, scattered with unpresuming obstacles and things that go bump in the night. No I am not flattered, and no, it is not a compliment. And god damn it felt good to say that out loud. In today’s concrete jungle, women around the world are taking back the night, and putting a face to the game.