A recent video made by the non-profit, Hollaback, https://www.cnn.com/2014/10/28/living/hollaback-10-hours-walking-in-nyc/index.html, made its rounds on the internet showing a woman walking for ten hours down NY streets. With each of the one hundred street assaults she received, another of my hairs stood on end. Even though she was a black belt in martial arts. Even though she had a hidden camera person with her the entire time. Because when I walk the streets “alone,” I am truly a woman alone. But what I started wondering next, during all those catcalls and taunts, was what other men watching the same video were thinking.
The men in the video acted offensively, no doubt, and their words assaulted the actress on an emotional and psychological level. But to me, they were more than that, they were threatening.
Did men see that?
I remember a conversation I had not long after I started dating my husband, twenty years ago, when we were just learning how to argue with each other in a way that didn’t push each other’s buttons. He’s a big guy and I’m rather tiny—a common differential for men and women. I struggled to make him understand that the perceived physical risk when he gets big and angry isn’t personal. Finally he said, “It’s hard for me to remember that just because most women are smaller than men that there’s a basic sense of vulnerability there.” I wondered how many men had come to that empathic realization.
So just in case there are men out there who couldn’t understand that inherent threat, I wanted to explain. Maybe sometimes a picture isn’t worth a thousand words.
In fact, the next day I saw a Facebook post on a well-known feminist social media site, Rachelinthoc, where a man had responded to a quote stating that “a woman of psychologically sound mind certainly isn’t afraid men will kill her . . .” Even if this particular man hasn’t seen the viral street assault video, I thought perhaps I’d supply the following clarifying narration.
Men who behave as those in the video are the reason women are afraid to walk alone on the streets. And I’m not just talking about the man who sidled up to her step by step for five minutes while she struggled to avoid his gaze. Or the man who acted insulted because she wouldn’t give him her number and repeatedly asked with increasing aggression, “Why, am I too ugly?” Because at any moment one of these men could have shoved a less protected woman alone into an alley. And what then? Are the rest of the men on the street watching out for her as she passes by, making sure this doesn’t go too far? Quite the contrary, they seem to be either looking away or egging it on with a word or a smile.
And what about the men who gave her a “passing compliment?” What about them? The hair on my arms never goes down. Because I never know when the “Hey beautiful. You should smile more,” will turn into the stalker who follows me for five minutes or something worse.
Because I don’t carry a weapon or have a black belt and a bodyguard, I live in fear when walking alone in the world. If any man thinks that his words—or those of others—of supposed “praise” of my body or unsolicited “invitations” on the street elicit anything but fear in my heart and every hair on my skin, he has never truly thought about what it means to be woman living in this society. A society where women go through their lives knowing one in four of us will suffer sexual assault, where men are typically built more physically powerful, where testosterone often fuels men to act on that power, where society and the media have encouraged this model of men as strong, powerful, dominant, sexually aggressive, and men and women alike take the bait.
No, I don’t assume that all women experience the same reaction to the street assault video that I did. Some may feel a lesser or ever greater degree of threat from watching catcalls and stalking behavior, a sense of deep offense, humiliation, disgust or hundreds of other emotions I can’t begin to imagine. And yes, I am the one in four women who has experienced a sexual assault—in fact two, albeit relatively minor ones, if you can call such things “minor.” I’ve had my breasts repeatedly snatched while being told “I liked it,” trapped in a hotel foyer; another man groped my inner thigh on a crowded subway while I cried out for him to stop and no one came to my rescue. So, those incidents may indeed play a role in my response to the video. But I dare say I am not alone in my response as a woman feeling threatened while watching, and one need not have been sexually assaulted to feel the ever-lingering threat in the air when you’re a woman walking alone on the street.
Amy McElroy is a writer, freelance editor, writing coach, and yoga instructor. At sweatpantsandcoffee.com, Amy works as Essays Editor and author of the column, “At the Root of Things.” Her non-fiction and craft essays have also appeared in other periodicals, including Elephant Journal and Joel Friedlander’s Carnival of the Indies, as well as on KUSP radio in Santa Cruz, California. FInd Amy online at www.amyjmcelroy.net and @amyjmcelroy.
Featured image: Robert S. Donovan.