Sometimes I say ‘sorry’ for no reason: when I have to squeeze by someone in tight spaces, in situations where I almost bump into someone, even when someone else bumps into me. ‘Sorry’ rolls out of my mouth before I can assess whether I am to blame because no matter the issue, women are accustomed to bearing the burden.
While walking on the sidewalk in front of my house at age 13, an older man driving alone in a car pulled over and asked me to get in. He said something about wanting to take me for a ride so we could “enjoy ourselves.” Harassment has ranged from men blocking my path to strangers whispering in my ear in public, or catcallers dragging me by the arm until I pay attention to them. The lengths men will go to dominate the space I occupy has pushed me to start being more assertive than I usually am or ever desire to be.
Some tips for myself and others on how I hope to accomplish this.
Problem: a strange man on the street asks to sleep with me, or whispers something vulgar in my ear
Response: With a serious expression, please turn to him and say, “I have chlamydia, so I don’t think that would be a very good idea,” then keep walking. He probably won’t be able to think of anything rude to say quick enough, and their reaction to that clapback will surely brighten your day.
Problem: A man blocks my path because he thinks he has a right to my attention
Response: Keep walking at the same pace. Regardless of whether continuing to mind your business leads to a collision. It’s jarring to have someone suddenly stop in front of you, but keep in mind that this person is banking on your common decency to not bump into anyone else. The guy is most likely not going to move even when he sees that you are not stopping so be ready for that. He’ll probably call you a bitch when you push past him. Push anyway.
Problem: A man touches me without my permission, whether it’s grabbing my arm, groping my side to scoot by me (which they surely wouldn’t do to a man), any unwanted and unannounced touching without proper context.
Response: Shout. Most of the time, men are counting on your silence or your polite, quiet way of addressing the infraction.
Just a few weeks ago, I was at a college party where a friend and I, along with a few other people we met there, went outside and all huddled under a single umbrella in the rain to smoke a joint. I don’t smoke but girls have learned not to leave their friends alone at parties. While we stood there, for no reason at all, the guy to the left of me, whom I had never even spoken to, reached his arm around me, placed his hand on my side, and stroked the bare skin of my midriff. I froze, said nothing, and waited for him to be satisfied and remove his hand from my body. I didn’t look at him, speak to him, say anything to anyone in the umbrella group, or even mention it to my friend afterward.
Women are trained not to make a fuss and to remain calm even in the worst situations or else we are labeled: hysterical. The very word ‘hysteria’ stems from the Greek word ‘hystera’ which means ‘womb’. At the time, the uterus was blamed for the notorious female ailment of excess emotion and hysteria, the disease served as justification for why women were not fit to participate in major decision making. In 1883, the French physician Auguste Fabre wrote: “As a general rule, all women are hysterical. What constitutes the temperament of a woman is rudimentary hysteria.” According to Joan Acocella in The Politics of Hysteria, such beliefs became a convenient tool of oppression when society hit its first wave of modern feminism in the 19th century. The fear of appearing too emotional or easily upset is still used to control women today.
Some may view it as unreasonable or even childish to shout every time a man touches you without your permission, but this response only seems overzealous because harassment happens so frequently. So, whether on a crowded street or at a quiet party, you are going to shout “Hey!”, “Stop!” or anything to demonstrate that men will not sit comfortably on your silence any longer.
I did not frame these tips as “problem and solution” because my ideas for how to cope with harassment could never erase such a societal failure as the constant harassment women are forced to endure. The real “solution” to reducing harassment is actually to punish people who do it and to empower those who have been victimized to speak about it.
Now, after writing this, I am even more afraid. Since I have some useful tools and recommended them to other women, I feel compelled to use them. Freezing is out of my control, but I am asking myself to make a concerted effort which will result in an uncomfortable level of change in order to feel I belong to only myself.
I might make mistakes the first few times and laugh nervously when mentioning Chlamydia or apologize to everyone present for shouting too loudly when someone gropes me. Nonetheless, with each exercise of self-assertion, the image in my mind of being weak in comparison to the threats I face will change. Soon being a “hysterical bitch” will feel natural. And I will not apologize for it.