“That’s a great way to stop traffic.” –much older man on a bike
“Um, that’s a weird thing to say.”
“No, it’s really not.”
“Yeah, that really isn’t cool.”
“Whatever. Later.” ::gallantly rides off into the night::
This heartening exchange happened at 8:30pm on Saturday night, way out east on the Springwater Corridor as I was stretching at the halfway point on my long run. I’d just run 10 miles, and needed to bend over and touch my toes like nobody’s business (not that it matters, but because I was on a concrete island in the middle of the street, there was no direction I could point my ass that wouldn’t be directed at the passing cars).
By no means was this encounter an isolated occurrence. I run or bike almost every day, which has allowed me to compile a significant bank of data in regards to when and where men find it acceptable to comment on my body. It turns out that the answer is: any time and everywhere! It doesn’t matter when, where, or what I’m wearing. Exhibits A and B:
A: Baggy shirt! Leggings! Helmet! (guys, no one looks cool in a helmet)
B: No shirt! Running shorts! Soon-to-be Crazy Muppet Hair! (it happens after the first mile, every time)
They will do it on foot, from bikes and from cars. They will also do it when I’m at the grocery store picking out salad dressing, when I’m at work, when I’m crossing the street and well, pretty much any time I dare to leave the house with my tantalizing lady parts.
While harassment/terribly misguided compliments happen anywhere, there is a very special anger that bubbles up when it happens while I’m running. Of the many reasons that I run, the most important one to me is that my mind, which has a tendency to whir and spin and never shut up…quiets. When my body is busy doing the whirring, I have space to think. I may be processing important thoughts like, “Who put that patch of shade a billion miles away? Ugh, I forgot this song was still on my playlist. I’m halfway done! Oh god, I’m only halfway done.” I might be thinking about the smell of the river in summer, working out an argument I had with a friend, or trying to decide if I should push myself for one more sprint interval. What I’m not thinking about? I’m not thinking about how I look to someone else. Running is one time (and maybe the only time) in my day that I think solely about what my body can DO, instead of what it looks like. I don’t care what size my thighs are, I care only that they are made of skin and bone and muscles that are pumping to propel me forward. I don’t care if my belly is round or flat, I care only that it contains a strong core to support me when I get tired. Even if I’m worn out or working through an injury, I feel centered and strong.
That’s why I don’t think I will ever be able to just ignore the harassment. The “hey cutie,” the whistle, the honk, the incomprehensible yelling (something about my ass?) from open car windows, the advice about stopping traffic- in all of it is the message, loud and clear, that my body is up for public comment at any time and any place. That’s the idea that makes street harassment so very dangerous. It is part of a spectrum of acts that are able to take place because the accepted cultural message is that women’s bodies are valued for what they mean to others, and are not their own.
While street harassment is often a daily, annoying occurrence that is harmful to our sense of self-respect, self-worth, and agency over our bodies, it’s not generally physically dangerous. But it can be, and even if it’s not, the other damage is real. Because of this message of non-ownership and the culture created around it, a few nights ago I had the sickening experience (with someone I trusted, whom I’ve known for a couple years) when no didn’t mean no. No repeated half a dozen times with a shove added on to the last one for good measure finally meant no. Because of this message, when I set out to run last night and knew that it would get dark, I had two people ready with my exact route as well as a description of what I was wearing in case they didn’t hear from me by the appointed time and needed to contact the police. I wasn’t afraid of twisting an ankle in the dark, the animals I saw scurrying into the bushes, or even of being attacked and having my stuff taken. I was both afraid of, and ready for, my “Here’s Your Rape” moment (if you haven’t seen this brilliant and hilarious set by Ever Mainard, you should really take eight minutes to do so). I’ve asked myself the “Oh, is this my rape?” question so many times that it barely even registers any more.
The solution here is not that I need to stop running when and where I want, wearing whatever is comfortable for me. If it’s 80+ degrees out, I’m wearing my damn short shorts (Exhibit C):
C: The Underbutt Strikes Back
…and so is this bamf. Nor is it that women need to stop walking alone at night, or start wearing special nail polish that detects GHB. I don’t actually have a neat and tidy solution here, but I know that the answer is not to “just ignore” harassment when it happens, because it reinforces the message that this pervasive attitude and behavior is okay (with the caveat that you should absolutely do what makes you feel safe in that moment). As for my dashing biker man- I don’t believe that this man will have had some sort of revelation about respecting women after I called him out on his poor behavior. But at the very least, maybe he’ll check himself the next time he has the urge to say something similar to another woman. Even if all he comes away with is that I’m some crazy bitch, finding the words to speak up makes it easier to handle each subsequent encounter. I know that in that moment, I chose to believe that I deserved more respect, that I was worth more. And I ran the 10 miles home faster than ever.
-if you need help talking back to your harassers, check out this AWESOME project: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/2014/06/cardsagainstharassment/
-Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s fierce project: http://stoptellingwomentosmile.com/