Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I will hold out- I will scream and I will shout

This post on Yes Means Yes really made me think. It discusses the "boiling frog" principle and applies it to sexual assault- how women are taught, throughout their whole lives, not to raise their voices, put up a fight, or make a fuss. I think it also applies really well to street harassment.

I wasn't always as brave as I am now. I wasn't always as willing or able to kick and scream and raise absolute hell when I was being made to feel afraid. I credit internet feminism with bringing out my natural belligerence, and I couldn't thank the movement enough. Because of discussions on amazing blogs like Yes Means Yes, Jezebel, figleaf, and the rest, I feel like I have the right to enforce my boundaries and protect my privacy in a way that makes me feel safe. This wasn't always true.

A couple of years ago, when I was maybe 17, I was hanging around my town library on a Saturday afternoon, waiting for the guys at the tire place to be done fixing up my car. I was in the stacks, idly perusing titles, when a guy came up to me and asked the time.

"One-fifteen," I answered, or something like that. I barely looked at the guy- I was too busy looking at books. Then he went away, and I continued wandering around the shelves.

After a minute or two, I became aware that this man was following me as I walked around. He was also doing that stereotypically creepy heavy-breathing thing as he did so. I was immediately terrified- my heart was racing almost instantly.

This man was making me feel so unsafe. I was in a library with tons of other people, but what did I do? Did I tell a librarian or another adult? Nope. Even though I felt, distinctly, that what was happening to me was not okay, I wasn't sure enough. I didn't feel that I could tell someone and not be laughed at or brushed off. What if this wasn't really happening? Should I really make a fuss?

This man proceeded to follow me out of the library and into the Whole Foods next door. My rationale: maybe if there are lots of people then he won't follow me in. This plan did not work. He followed me in and then sat down a few tables away from where I sat, staring at me.

This is when I thought that I had to tell someone, so I called my dad. I told him what was happening and that I was freaking out, and he helped me stay calm. He told me to stay where there were lots of people, and to try and go get my car.

So, still on the phone with Dad, I made my way out of the Whole Foods and down the street. For one happy second I thought the creepy guy was done following me, but I looked back and my heart sank as I saw he hadn't given up on his mission of making a teenage girl so afraid she felt like throwing up.

He followed me all the way down the street- several blocks- staying maybe fifteen feet behind me the whole time. As I walked, my all-encompassing terror started to subside even as the adrenaline kept pumping. What right does this guy have? I kept thinking to myself. What right does he have to make me so afraid in my own hometown? This isn't okay. I deserve to feel safe.

Finally, I was crossed the street to get to the tire place where my car was. My heart leapt into my throat again as I contemplated the thought that this dude would know which car was mine. I couldn't let that happen.

I turned around to face this guy, who was in the middle of crossing the street (I secretly hoped that maybe he would get hit by a car, but no such luck) and I said, as loudly and forcefully as possible without actually yelling, "Would you PLEASE stop following me?" He muttered something unintelligible and vaguely apologetic-sounding and walked away to leave me alone at last.

I felt victorious, at first, but also drained from the whole traumatic experience. The whole time, worst-case scenarios had been racing through my head. What if he has a gun? Or a knife? What if he tries to hurt me or rape me? With him gone, I could finally breathe, but I had to reflect on how unsafe women are made to feel in public space. Would a cisgender male ever have put up with this crap? No, not in a million years, huh? Then why the hell should I? After that day, I promised myself that I would do whatever was in my power to never allow anyone to make me feel that way again.

More than anything, I wish that no person ever had to feel this way. I should never have to realize that I should never be made to feel unsafe in a public place- it should just be a given, like how 99.99% of men walk around every day without being intimidated, catcalled, followed, or harassed in any way. I deserve to feel safe- just like the other half of the population.