Escape Artist: The Toll That Being On The Run From Street Harassment Takes
I hear one or more male voices behind me in a public place and I immediately think “I really hope he/they do not bother me.” Sometimes such a wish comes true. More often than not, it doesn’t. As all of this goes through my head, my heart rate increases and sometimes without even realizing it, I’m holding my breath.
I see a group of men walk towards me on a sidewalk and I immediately cross the street. I see one come towards me in a store and I switch aisles. I see one walk towards me in the mall and I dip into a store, especially a store that caters to women, in the hopes that he won’t follow.
These are just a few of the things that aren’t even planned behaviors anymore but genuinely reflexive now. Because I’ve been dealing with street harassment for more than two decades now, everything is reflexive. I rarely get to navigate public space in peace, in general, whether libraries, stores or coffee shoppes etc. I can rarely sit down for greater than seven minutes without disruption, or worse, street harassment.
It’s not all men that I react this way to. The typical man who street harasses me is Black, my height (5’6”) or taller, physically bigger than me, and usually somewhere in the 16-40 age bracket. If this sounds like it overlaps with the same profile that the police target, it’s because it does. As I’ve alluded to before, the same men who are racially profiled and harassed by the police, profile me and other Black women to harass. I often wonder how many Black men harass Black women before and/or after experiencing a stop and frisk? I wonder since I’ve experienced this—Black men who’ve harassed me before or after I saw them frisked or questioned by police. They street harass as a form of “reclamation” of the “patriarchal power” they’ve lost via racism from the police. Violence between White men, Black men and Black women is intrinsically connected. (One can see this when Lil’ Wayne uses the racist violence against Emmet Till to explain his sexual aggressiveness towards Black women.) Some harass because it’s viewed as a “normal” part of masculinity itself.
Usually men over 50 don’t harass me. Usually (not always) non-Black men don’t harass me though perhaps one or two of the (10-75) weekly street harassment incidents that I experience are by White men or Latino men. Usually, more affluent men don’t harass me (I previously mentioned the correlation between race/class and street harassment in regards to perceptions of patriarchal power.) An exception would be the time where a wealthy 75-year-old White man tried to solicit sex from me while I was shopping just as he was in a Whole Foods store. He described the sex act that he wanted and offered to pay some of my graduate school tuition. I just walked away as the two White women in the same aisle laughed. (Before his conversation devolved, he asked if I were a student. The conversation started normally, not the way most street harassment does where the verbal assault is immediate and aggressive.)
Very rarely has a Black man who is alone, with other Black men or with other male friends/co-workers (especially White ones; some Black men love the White audience witnessing them degrading me—a manifestation of internalized White supremacist thought and patriarchy) allowed me to pass by without street harassment. It’s so predictable that I try to pre-plan my escape route. My whole day is based on ducking, dodging, avoiding and trying to have as peaceful day as possible.
I lose time, sense of peace and more when my mind is on what aisle, store, street to cross to avoid, what prop to have with me to hopefully deter it and the general thought of the avoidance of the pending unpleasantness and potential threat. I’ve skipped visiting certain barber shops (when I wore my hair super short), restaurants, flea markets, stores and events solely based on how many men would be there. I don’t go to clubs anymore and I’ve never really been to a bar—solely to try avoid this hell.
The same Black men who seem insistent about the non-existence of male privilege are the ones who can live their lives without having to do any of what I mentioned above. (Worse, some view harassment as “normal” male behavior and assert that any Black woman who doesn’t rationalize it as such must have a bad relationship with her father or is fatherless.) And though Black men face the oppression of Prison Industrial Complex in a way unmatched by anyone (though among women, Black women are overrepresented in Prison Industrial Complex and exploited as well), and consistent threat of police brutality, I’ve yet to meet a single one harassed by 75 cops in a single week when I have had plenty of weeks with as few (and I use the word “few” just for comparison; ten different men harassing me in a 7 day span isn’t a “few”) as 10 and as many as 75 instances (literally; I’ve counted; this isn’t hyperbole) of street harassment, including from repeat harassers. Demanded to smile; insulted if I were already smiling. Yelled at with sexually explicit comments or ones insulting my looks. Threatened with stalking/violence. Threatened with rape where the actual word “rape” was used. Had my pathway blocked. Books knocked out of my hands. Pushed. Groped. Spit at. Screamed at for White audiences. Followed around a downtown area. Stalked all the way home. Regularly. Often. For years. Decades.
If I avoid these men because of this, I’m called evil, manhater, bitter and paranoid. If I embrace the abuse I am called self-hating, thirsty and pathetic. If I fight back, through my words and actions, I’m called hateful, anti-Black and “gay” as a homophobic slur. If I were raped by one of them, it would be deemed my fault because that’s how America rolls in this victim-blaming rape culture. If I am deemed “ugly,” I’m expected to be “thankful” for the harassment as a “compliment.” If I am deemed “pretty,” I’m expected to “accept” that harassment is just a part of the “gift” of attractiveness. In no instance is a man ever held accountable for street harassment.
I speak of these experiences because so many Black women live them (and usually have since childhood or puberty) and are afraid to talk about them because of fear of The White Gaze, fear of being intraracially blamed for not quietly accepting abuse in the name of “racial unity,” or because they don’t even realize that this is not “normal” interaction between any man and woman of any race. They email me. They say/write “thank you for speaking up.” They say that they experience exactly the same and aren’t interested in sharing the truth so that Whites can pretend that misogyny is “a Black thing” (as they do with music, while ignoring the ways in which White supremacy and patriarchy work together to marginalize Black women) but because they want Black women’s voices to be heard.
The thing about discussing what Black women experience is that many White women come to silence us with “all women” rebuttals. However, street harassment is not experienced at the same frequency and intensity across the board. Race and class are factors. (Sexual orientation and being trans* are factors too.) While this is ignored by many middle class White women who want to dominate the discourse on…well anything in relation to women, other White women have shared with me that they have never experienced street harassment. I cannot imagine what “never” means. I’ve been harassed since I was 12. I am 33 now. Other White women have mentioned to me that they do experience harassment but quite rarely. They can’t fathom weeks with as many as 75 incidents.
One White intersectional feminist (Lucie Brooks) that’s a mutual follow on Twitter conducted an experiment, which she tweeted to me about:
BTW last night on my run I did a completely legit study, totally scientific studyon street harassment (motivated by @thetrudz). Results:— L.B. (@LucieBrooks)
I ran for 2.5miles/26 mins in a racially diverse area at a busy time of the day. Ran past residential and commercial locals plus university.— L.B. (@LucieBrooks)
Wore short-ish tight running shorts and a sheer tank over sports bra (it is hot and humid as hell here, fyi).— L.B. (@LucieBrooks)
Passed many men, most age 14 - 40. Only one - BM late teens/early 20s street harassed me (the whistle at me like I’m a dog approach).— L.B. (@LucieBrooks)
Would my experience have been diff I was a BW? Based on the expos of BW with SH I my hypothesis is yes.— L.B. (@LucieBrooks)
This is amazing to me. Amazing. I would NEVER go for a run like this via this experiment and I explained why when I replied to her.
@luciebrooks I wouldn’t even attempt your experiment. I already know result. 10 incidents a day when dressed like Steve Jobs, so…— Trudy (@thetrudz)
@thetrudz Yeah, I can’t imagine if you went running in typical running gear. Maybe 3-5/wk is my avg and I run 3x so must from that.— L.B. (@LucieBrooks)
@thetrudz **most** from that.— L.B. (@LucieBrooks)
@luciebrooks My sister and I go to a different city (avg income there is 9x where I’m from) to run or semi-secluded park.— Trudy (@thetrudz)
There is no way that I could exercise where I grew up or where I’ve lived in adulthood. I have to go to a different city (that I cannot afford to live in), secluded park area or gym (which I don’t like and isn’t affordable for me).
@thetrudz my neighborhood is mixed income - get virtually no SH when I run in high income neighborhoods— L.B. (@LucieBrooks)
@luciebrooks Yep. Definite race/class vs reclamation of patriarchal/phallocentric power involved in SH. Can’t be overlooked.— Trudy (@thetrudz)
I find that the actual street harassment itself plus the mansplaning (i.e. “shut up,” “it’s not harassment,” “be flattered or else,” or victim blaming from men) and Whitesplaining (i.e. “oh, only Black men do that,” “misogyny is only among Blacks,” “well White men are nice to me and I’m White” or victim blaming from Whites) or the common White feminist response (of pretending that Black men or White men street harass them at the same frequency, start at the same age, or of the same intensity as Black women, and silencing any conversation about difference via the “oppression” olympics” label or by dominating the discourse in general and painting it as Black men harassing White women as the key issue) to be genuinely awful and tiring. This is why having an honest and nuanced conversation about it with a White intersectional feminist (tweets above) was refreshing.
I’ve been an escape artist for a long time, actually. So much of what I do, where I go and how I spend my time is based on avoidance of unwanted human contact via racial microaggressions, in general, but avoidance of virulent street harassment, specifically.