Street Harassment and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
[trigger warning and content note: misogynoir, misogyny, street harassment, sexual assault, post traumatic stress disorder, rape culture]
"Oh boy. Here we go. I hope he doesn’t come this way. Oh boy, he is coming this way. I hope he doesn’t say anything to me at all. Keep walking. Keep walking. Walk. Walk. Go pass me. Don’t speak. Don’t turn around. Don’t bump into me. Please turn that corner. Whew, he did!"
"Oh boy. Here we go. I hope he doesn’t come this way. Oh boy, he is coming this way. I hope he doesn’t say anything to me at all. Keep walking. Keep walking. Walk. Walk. Go pass me. Fuck he’s going to stop and speak. I hope he doesn’t touch me. Should I argue or try to keep walking? I hope he doesn’t touch me if I keep walking. Great…now he’s going to degrade me and yell loudly too."
These are two of the series of thoughts that automatically go through my head whenever I am in public and I see a man coming in my direction. It doesn’t apply to every man because after 22 years of dealing with street harassment, I know who is more likely to harass me than not, though any man at any time can engage in this misogyny. I’m a 34 year old Black woman who has been street harassed since I was 12. Black men are the ones who primarily street harass me, rarely under 18 years old and rarely over 50 years old, if I guessed ages. Men of other races have street harassed me also including White men directly propositioning me for paid sex and White male cops, but the majority are Black men.
When it is about to happen (and I can tell i.e. their body language changes, their eye contact gives me the creeps, sometimes if they are with other men amidst homosocial bonding, they raise their voices and talk about me at first, not to me) my heart rate speeds up. I feel both anger that the harassment is going to happen but also fear if it moves beyond the sexually explicit comments, verbal insults and threats. It’s not like my reaction is an overreaction because when I am harassed around 75 times in a really bad week or 10 times in a “light” week, it feels like 1,000 times and feels like full days of abuse.
Sometimes when it is happening, I feel dizzy. Sometimes I start sweating. I feel tired because my chest is pounding so my worn body from illness and car accident injuries is working overtime as my mind races for what to say or do so that it will end. I feel as if the very life itself is being drawn out from my body.
When street harassment is not occurring, even if I am somewhere “safe,” my mind replays the most recent incident of it over and over and over. I do what I can not to think about it; listen to music, write, talk to friends etc. Eventually the thought stops controlling my mind and I feel almost calm again. Almost. Until the next time it happens. And there is so much emotional time and energy spent pre-harassment (like I mentioned in the first two paragraphs) and post-harassment that I can’t help but wonder what my life would be like without it? How much better would my physical and emotional health be?
I vaguely know that experience; briefly. Three times in my life.
When I was in undergrad, I was rarely harassed by men on campus. Most left me alone. I was thankful for this. Now, when I left campus to head home to my shared apartment, went out for groceries or caught the bus before I bought my first used car, all bets were off. But campus felt safer for me than public at times. I understand that college is NOT safe for many women. The rape culture that thrives there is palpable (though it is not the only place where rape occurs). And I dealt with a traumatic experience in college, but it involved a boyfriend, not a street harassing stranger (which alludes an important facet of rape culture; most [not all] women who are assaulted are harmed by men of the same race and men that they know). Even so, my experiences with random men harassing me was minimal there. Maybe this is why I look upon college days with nostalgia and not regret, especially compared to now.
I also felt that safety from street harassment when I was in graduate school. I didn’t live on or near campus so all bets were off when I wasn’t in a class for my Master’s degree. I worked full time and dealt with racist microaggressions and sexual harassment at work all day, then headed home to my apartment complex where men who didn’t live there but had girlfriends who did would harass me. Then I would go to evening classes and deal with racist microaggressions in classes. But I never dealt with street harassment from male students on campus.
Even so, both of the aforementioned times were not harassment and abuse-free, just speaking of an alteration in street harassment patterns.
The third time is when I lived in California for a while in the Bay Area. In a year and a half, I only experienced street harassment a handful of times. It was a relief from the usual 10-75 times a week to experience it only 3-4 times while I was there. Though I couldn’t afford to keep living there (the average income there is double of that where I grew up) I miss being able to walk ten blocks without crossing the street four times to avoid men. And I am not pissing on poor men here; men engage in misogyny, period. Some do in the streets/public/social spaces. Some do at their jobs. Some do online. And race/class factors do impact which ones do it where. Perhaps in the Bay those men were busy sexually harassing women at their high paid jobs; they had no time to linger outside of a store, for example. They were not poor and unemployed. Besides, Silicon Valley is there and that’s no feminist magic employment land or anything, as I’m well aware of.
Outside of these eras in my life, the harassment has been consistent. And it has impacted me in the way that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder impacts people who experience other traumas or abuse. Most people associate PTSD with combat soldiers; the reality is it is relatable to a plethora of types of psychological/physical abuse and trauma. I dealt with PTSD before. After sexual assault in 1998 that I rationalized away and forgot/suppressed for at least a decade (because I didn’t fully understand rape culture at the time; I alluded to this in a previous essay). After my mother died suddenly in 2001. After car accidents in 2001 and 2005. After a burglary and being stalked in 2005-2006. After major financial duress in 2009. People accept when I state that I had physical and emotional responses that PTSD categorizes when I mention these scenarios. But if I mention it in regards to Black men street harassing me, I am told that I am “attacking” Black men. This usually comes from some Black people who don’t want me to discuss street harassment for fear of judgment in the White Gaze. My safety and health matters less to them than (cishet) Black men’s (and often less than any other Black people’s as well), which is common because of cisheteropatriarchy. And it’s not like the White Gaze is always ignorable when it shapes media and public policy in a White supremacist society. The fact that many Whites who witness me being harassed assume the random man is my partner and that I enjoy the harassment (and they asked me this when they don’t ignore it altogether) reflects White supremacist views of Black sexual politics and general victim blaming. That some White feminists use my (and other Black women’s) experiences—which are highly intraracial—to paint Black men as misogynists and aggressors towards White women while their analyses have gaping holes for White men’s misogyny and White supremacy’s impact on the entire globe, let alone on Black men’s masculinity, reveals the pitfalls of this Gaze.
According to The Mayo Clinic, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Symptoms of intrusive memories may include: Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time. Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event. Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include: Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event. Feeling emotionally numb. Avoiding activities you once enjoyed. Memory problems. Trouble concentrating. Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include: Irritability or anger. Overwhelming guilt or shame. Self-destructive behavior. Trouble sleeping. Being easily startled or frightened.
I deal with a lot of the above because of street harassment. In fact, in the last two weeks or so, I have barely gone outside. Because so many things are going on in my life (financially; here on my blog with the plagiarism, content trolling and academics; the PhD program app shenanigans where they reject me yet doctoral students contact me every 2-3 days to use something on my blog; some health issues) that are stressful, I truly cannot bear to go outside and also be street harassed on top of everything else.
Thus, I’ve barely left home. In fact, I need to go out and get some late lunch right now but I am worried. I had to go to the supermarket a few days ago and I mentioned I didn’t have the strength to fight these men to get there and be there and get home and several Black women replied to me stating that they were feeling the same way. Sometimes I have the strength (though not the desire, I am not a Strong Black Woman) to battle these men (though it still obliterates my health and includes PTSD responses) and sometimes I rather not go outside. This is a part of rape culture; women altering their lives on the regular to hope to avoid misogyny versus men being held accountable. Luckily this aforementioned time, I made it to the store and back without incident. The time before that, I went to the market with my dad and uncle. I have to barricade myself with two tall Black men just to keep other Black men from harassing me? Before xenophobic people start critiquing misogyny in "other" countries “over there,” a good look needs to be taken at the rape culture here, which impacts women here.
For Black women, some of the numbers are staggering to acknowledge. 60% of Black girls are sexually assaulted by Black men (that they usually know; familiarity and intraracial status impact sexual crime) before their 18th birthday. 93% of Black women who are murdered are murdered by Black men. 15x as many Black women are murdered by Black men that they know versus strangers they don’t. Black women are murdered at 2.5x the rate of White women. 20-something Black women are 11x more likely to be murdered while pregnant or in the year after giving birth than White women are. Rape culture is a human-made plague. And it includes men’s entitlement to street harass as if it is a “right” that they have. Though so much sexual violence is acquaintance-related, street harassment is a different facet of rape culture but excused for the same reasons as the other assaults.
Beyond the usual ignorant responses (i.e. "where do ‘you’ live," "nobody harasses me!" etc.) to street harassment that people give me, if I discuss it online, some men reply or make fake accounts just to reply as street harassment apologists only looking for “dating advice" (why the fuck would discussing street harassment be the time to play Dr. Phil; when a woman discusses sexual assault, she doesn’t want to give out sex tips; street harassment is not about flirting/dating and rape is not about sex) or as blatant misogynists. And then some will state "well saying hello isn’t harassment!" Did I fucking say it was? When men harass me, they do not say a kind hello. Some harassment starts with "you ain’t shit." So spare me.
Because so many types of stressors are on my plate all at once, I fear that street harassment on top of all of this will drive me over the edge. My health is poor right now and I just want it back at a “reasonable” place (it’s never “good”) where I can think clearly and sleep well again. I can’t stay indoors at home forever.