It was broad daylight on a crowded NYC street -- St. Mark's Place to be exact -- when I walked with a few female friends to some destination I don’t recall. What I do recall was when some dude started following us. First down one street, then down another -- we decided to duck into a Pinkberry to derail him, or to at least make it obvious to ourselves whether or not he was actually on our trail.
And there he was. Standing in the window -- nothing like a visibly jerking off while leering at us to confirm our suspicions. Eyes locked on us, hand down his pants, publicly masturbating.
Now don’t get me wrong, we weren’t scared -- growing up in NYC, we’d pride ourselves on seeing a whole lot of crazy. But hell yes we were pissed off and pretty disgusted. We knew we had to do something about it -- and so we called the cops. No strangers to being blown off when it comes to police calls, we didn’t have much faith when we were told cops were on their way.
Undeterred by our middle fingers and backs turned away from the window, the masturbator remained leering in the storefront of the popular establishment. So we finally just exited and hoped he wouldn’t be on our trail any longer.
Wrong again. And as we walked away from the yogurt spot, we spotted a cop car, perhaps coincidentally pulling up. Seconds into explaining my story I was interrupted rudely by a chuckle, and a question asked with eyebrows raised, “And where are you ladies from?”
The mockery in his tone was fire to our frustration. “We’re from the Bronx,” we told him defiantly as if it mattered. The officer inwardly rolled his eyes as if we should be desensitized to public indecency, as if the number of penises we see in broad daylight in a NY minute should have prepared us for this moment. He turned his head lazily to see if he could spot the masturbator. Of course by then he was lost in the crowd and we were left to feel as if we overreacted to an everyday occurrence.
The officer confronted us as if we were sorry, little suburban girls who had never been exposed to the realities of the big, bad urban jungle. Well guess what? Where we grew up, what we were wearing, what time of day it was -- all of that had no relevance. We were not driven by our soft upbringing, but by our being upset at an offensive act on a public sidewalk.
We were pissed off and we had every right to be. As boys and girls, and women and men, and everything in between, have every right to be offended by unwanted sexual attention. Armed with sunglasses, giant headphones, sweaters on hot balmy summer days -- women in NYC, as in many other cities, suit up for another day on the street. Sometimes the walk to the subway can be the hardest part of the day.
Men feel free to whisper dirty things in passing, hiss and make lewd gestures as a female pounds the pavement with a commitment to standing her ground...what’s it going to take for us to band together and fight back? Some days verbal harassment is enough to make us want to throw some blows, duck into a store to buy a less obvious outfit, take a route way out of our way that includes fewer construction workers...
Going to the store shouldn’t be so taxing and taking the subway shouldn’t feel so violating. Each incident adds up to pools of frustration, gritted teeth and the occasional misplaced sense of shame. We should not have to hide ourselves to make it through the day. And we must acknowledge that street harassment and catcalling is a problem. Public masturbation, verbal harassment, needless to say, groping and grazing, are crimes.
Women and men around the world deal with it on the regular and we should never feel belittled when we admit to being upset by it. These issues are linked on a deeper level to larger issues of the normalization of rape culture. Towards the tail end of International Street Harassment Week, I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before.
Unfortunately I’m sure you, yourself have a million and one stories that look and smell like this one. But every time we share our experiences, we are letting each other know that we are not alone. And if we are not alone in the reaction, we won’t be alone in the action. Organizations including Meet Us On the Street and Hollaback! are just a few that have created spaces, initiatives, social media campaigns and street teams that encourage us to confront these challenges.
It's time for us to join forces in our decision to take an active step towards ending street harassment. Harassment and harassers feed off insecurity, doubt and helplessness. But our efforts are not hopeless. Everyday, we have the chance to speak back, speak out and put confidence back in our stride.
Be a Hollaback girl and take action, spread the word and shout your story. Find out how your community is getting involved by visiting these sites to sound off on your street smarts. And dudes, don’t forget to tell your homies it ain’t cool.
Watch this motivational video produced by Hollaback!
Alyssa Aparicio| Elite.