I had forgotten what it felt like to be harassed. Honestly, it’s been awhile.
The sun was shining. I was walking home after dropping my children off at school. Ready for work, I was mentally adding items to my to-do list and wondering what I’d already forgotten.
I sensed a vehicle approaching from behind, but only paid attention as it began to slow, which was odd as it was nowhere near the intersection.
A dark blue Dodge with a lawnmower in the box pulled up alongside. Smiling, the driver leaned out and said something. I couldn’t hear him over the sound of the truck’s exhaust, so I stopped and turned; assuming he was lost, I smiled, ready to point the way.
He raised his voice: “You’re like an angel. You’re so beautiful,” he shouted, before laughing, reaching over and high-fiving the guy beside him on the passenger seat. He put the truck back into gear and drove off, not before giving me wink and a wave. I think he thought he had made my day.
There I stood, dumbstruck, wondering what the hell had just happened.
There was a time, back in my teens, twenties and early thirties, that I was always on the lookout for this type of situation, but always failed to see it coming. Now in my 40s, I’ve become complacent. I haven’t been harassed in, like, forever. One man leering out his truck window, however, and it flooded back. I know this feeling. Every single woman I know, and every woman I don’t, knows this feeling.
It’s dread, combined with embarrassment, anxiety, fear, anger and helplessness.
I remember the first time I felt this way. I was 13, it was halloween and I was dressed as a cheerleader. My mom, who taught elementary school during the week and Sunday school on the weekend, put the costume together for me to ensure it wasn’t too scandalous. The skirt was short, but with the tights I wore, she said it was OK. She stitched a letter on my sweater, and bought me pompoms, which I adored. My long brown hair was held up in a high ponytail by a thick red ribbon, and I’m sure that ponytail was swinging back and forth as I walked home from school.
The truck pulled up beside me and there were three young men inside seated together on the bench. I remember exactly where I was. There was no sidewalk on this part of my route. I was walking on an unpaved shoulder with the road on one side and a wooded ravine on the other. I remember thinking that I could turn around and run the other way and that they might not be able to catch up to me if they had to throw the truck in reverse.
My heart still pounds thinking about it, and about what might have happened but didn’t. They commented on my cute costume, laughed, and whistled as they drove away. It was my own fault, I thought. I should have worn pants. I should have waited and walked home with a friend. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. I’m an idiot. There was nothing to be afraid of. I should take it as a compliment. At least they weren’t insulting me. Or wait, maybe they were just making fun of me?
My best friend had a similar experience, but the man in the car was alone when he reached out his window with a quarter in his hand and said: “Give me a call when you turn 16.” She turned and fled. She was out of breath when she called me. She lived in a rural area and walked the same path home from the bus each day. There was no shortcut. We both wondered whether she should tell her mom. We both worried that maybe he’d come back. We both decided that she should just take it as a compliment. We were 13.
After a while, you get used to it. You get used to that feeling as you walk past a group of men and they stop talking, mumble to one another and then laugh. You get used to the feeling of people looking at you, leering. We cross streets, we walk in pairs, we look straight ahead and walk really, really fast.
I worked in a department store in my early 20s. If I had a dollar for every man who told me to smile, or who asked what I was up to after work, or who wondered what a pretty girl like me was doing working in a place like this, I wouldn’t have had to take out a student loan.
This is why we have ladies only gyms, and why we pretend to be on the phone when we use public transit. A male relative once observed that women drivers always stare straight ahead at stop lights: “Why is that,” he asked me, sincerely.
I explained that we stare straight ahead because we can see you looking. If we make eye contact, or smile, you might think we’re interested. Sometimes you follow us. The scenery is not worth the risk.
Eventually, the catcalls stop, though. Eventually, we slow down, take out our earbuds, and remove the keys from between our knuckles.
So we forget. And we think maybe times have changed. Maybe girls don’t have to put up with street harassment anymore. Maybe men have gotten better.
And then this happens. I’m a grown ass woman walking in my middle-class suburban neighbourhood on a sunny Monday morning, but to a man in a truck, I was object on display — I was something he felt entitled to comment on.
To be honest, I debated posting this, worried that readers would tell me to be flattered, and to take it as a compliment. Perhaps the trolls would suggest that the driver must have been blind, or that I’m just too sensitive, and that our society is too politically correct, and why can’t women just lighten up and take a joke?
But I’ve been deflecting, walking quickly, making jokes, and saying “thank you,” to unsolicited comments about my body and my appearance my whole life, and it’s made me feel small, and stupid. It guts me to think of girls who are still made to feel this way as they walk home from school, work out, or try to do their jobs, and who are told to “just say thank you.”
This has never been flattery; it has always been harassment, designed to make us feel small, and remind us that we are here for your pleasure.
We are not.