On Being a Woman on the Streets

A teacher once told me a story of a man who decided to follow her home. She stopped by a house nearby, relying on the kindness of strangers to pretend that she lived there so that she could call for help. Unlike many, she escaped.

Within her tale, she uttered,

“I was not walking as confident as I should have been.”

I’m sure that, in telling this anecdote, she did not expect that this would be the sentence that most resonated with me. That this sentence would echo in my mind almost a decade later. That this sentence would be the reason that I policed myself to walk “confidently” when alone.

“In January 2018, SSH commissioned a 2,000-person, nationally representative survey on sexual harassment and assault, conducted by GfK. It found that nationwide, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.” (Stop Street Harassment)

Yet how does one walk confidently knowing the statistics? Why should one walk with confidence to prevent an occurrence that should not exist? I didn’t know it at the time, but I internalized a mindset that blamed the victim. Despite a clear perpetrator, my teacher blamed herself, and, in that room, there was no presence available that altered the narrative. Perhaps if someone asked, “What does that have to do with anything?” the line would be long forgotten. In a room filled with skeptical students – ones who constantly challenged authority – no one thought to question. Does that reflect how we viewed such instances? Tragic yet preventable by the victim? Maybe. Or did we take this statement at face-value because it derived from the victim?

I imagine telling this story to my students, and with the most certainty, I can say that they would interrupt my telling once I mentioned walking up to a stranger’s home. They would not take kindly to this. Probably because they are more educated in “stranger danger” than my cohort. Whether this increased awareness is beneficial is certainly debatable (Are we desensitizing our youth? Or are we merely preparing them?), I want to focus on those who are similar to me. What can we make of experiences related to assault and harassment prior to the recent rise of the #MeToo Movement?

Although it was not as overt, most of the conversations about similar cases that I heard while growing up would be chalked up to “boys will be boys” or questioning of the victim’s appearance. I can’t speak for all, but I would like to believe that many of my peers outgrew this outdated (and heavily problematic) mindset. However, unlearning takes time. You have to work towards it, chiseling the misconceptions away, hoping that you do not remove something important. Yet even after all the chiseling, you are still left with the foundation provided. There will be ideologies that remain – ones that you might have to continue to combat.

I suppose that is where I am. As progressive as I believe to be, there are times where I find myself reverting to harmful stereotypes concerning my body and its agency. When I walk alone at night, I check my posture. Stand up straight. Look ahead. Be confident. My walk to my car is not a runway and I am tired of insisting that there is an audience. At times it feels as if I am justifying a possible unwanted encounter – this happened because you did not walk in confidence. Instead of telling a story about a lack of confidence, how about omitting the predator?

Once when working at retail, I had a customer enraged that his jeans were not on sale – reading is a fundamental skill, but one not yet possessed by the neanderthals. In a fit of rage, he called me a bitch and promised to be waiting for me outside, after my shift. Was I not confident enough when I explained the store’s promotion? Should I have been more assertive when he demanded a manager and I pulled, “I am the manager?” Unfortunately these are the questions that begin to form – but a more substantial question would be, why does this man believe that this an acceptable reaction to a misunderstanding? Is this how he communicates with other women? His threat remained unfulfilled, but I was shaken for a bit. Afraid that such a moment would repeat and that the next individual would be one who stood by their word. Needless to say, it was difficult to remain “confident.”

To address my earlier questions, I think we need a change in this narrative. Omitting certain details while stressing on others. Any successful author knows that revision is crucial before sharing a story. Sure, speaking without a filter can have its benefits (yet with our current president, I would beg to differ), but we have to remember that when we speak, it is not often for ourselves. We speak to be heard, so shouldn’t we keep our audience in mind? When speaking to those who might be susceptible, like I was years ago in that classroom, we should be delicate with our words, especially when dealing with fragile issues. It might seem like I am blaming my teacher. I’m not. Her thinking did not develop on its own. And that is where I think the problem lies. There is a difference between being the wronged and being in the wrong. I may not always walk confidently when I am on my own (could you blame me?), but I can confidently say that a walk does not translate to treatment.

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