I Was Just Trying to Exist

“8 in 10 Women will experience Street Harassment in their lifetimes.”  I certainly don’t believe that’s entirely true.  I think 100% of women experience it in some form.  Even as simple as, “You should smile more”, can make a person feel completely unsafe.  It may sound miniscule, and on the outside, like a compliment, but I can attest to the fact that those words are worrisome to just about every woman walking around in any city, town, mall, store, etc.  I don’t care what anyone thinks would make me look prettier, especially a person I don’t know.  What my face looks like, the grimace or the smile, has nothing to do with a stranger, especially one pointing out how I would look prettier if I smile.  Nobody is in control of you, but you.

 

This guest blog is courtesy of Kara Mendez.  Thank you so much for opening up your life to us, and allowing us to endure some of the most troublesome and spine-chilling experiences you’ve had simply trying to live your day-to-day life.  I’m sorry you’ve had these experiences, but I appreciate you speaking up for others who don’t feel safe, but don’t want to talk about it!

 

The first memory I have of street harassment was when I was 13 years old.  I was in 7th grade and my parents gave me and my best friend permission to walk two blocks to her house for a sleepover. We were about one block from my home and one block from hers when a car behind us slowed down, pulled over, and began screaming obscenities at us. Growing up female you are warned of all the horrors of “stranger danger”, so my heart was beating out of my chest. Just as full panic set in they sped away, laughing loudly out the window, pointing at the middle school girls they had made cry.

I have countless stories of men beeping their car horns and winking at 13, 14, 15 year old me. It didn’t matter if I was wearing shorts, a full winter parka, or a Justin Bieber t-shirt, men everywhere made it apparent that my body and my person was there to entertain them. Most of these instances took place in my small town, where everyone knew everyone, and nothing ever happened. One October a man dressed up as a statue in his Halloween decoration display and jumped off his front lawn and grabbed me. It was 2pm on a day other than Halloween and I was walking home in broad daylight. I was so scared I never walked on that side of the street again, even the other 11 months out of the year.

I didn’t know anything about feminism until I was a senior in high school. It’s embarrassing and shameful to admit but prior to then I always assumed women were “asking for it”- including myself. I felt that it was my fault for being dressed a certain way, or being out too late, or walking on the wrong side of the street. I thought women were being dramatic when they spoke about street harassment, I mean who doesn’t love a compliment? I had never met someone who was sexually assaulted or abused. And when my own assault happened, this really pin-holed my thinking into it being entirely my fault, keeping me silent for years.

This isn’t about my assault, but thank God for the power of the Internet. All through college I educated myself on feminism, human rights and took many courses on women, gender, and civil rights through my sociology minor. I felt empowered, I felt strong, I felt educated, but somehow I still felt powerless to men on the street.

When I was 20 I got my first NYC internship. I have a love affair with NYC and was so excited to begin working alongside some of the greatest theaters in the world. I worked in Chelsea and Times Square. I either had a 3 block or a 12 block walk to work everyday and if I had to average out the number of street harassers, I would say one every block. On every single block someone yelled at me, asked me for my number, said something obscene, and on more than one occasion physically touched me. I am 24. I have only been in the city for 4 years and here are my stories.

I was leaving my theater to grab lunch and I walked into the elevator, where another man was already standing. A young man stepped in behind me; at the next floor the other man in the elevator stepped out and as soon as the door closed the young man cornered me. He asked me for my number and I told him I had a boyfriend. He said “Boyfriends are just speed bumps, baby” and continued to corner me in the elevator. When the door finally opened I managed to push past him and he followed me out the door continuing to say uncomfortable “compliments”. I walked half a block and stepped into the entrance for the subway and he began to follow me down into the subway. I started to panic and get nervous but eventually he left me alone. I was just trying to get lunch.

While waiting outside of a Starbucks a large man with a large backpack approached me. He got so close to me I saw the inside of his lip when he spoke and he spoke only in whispers. He asked me for money and I told him I didn’t have any cash. He then asked me for my number and I declined. He moved in closer, touching me, and said “baby, don’t you know I wear size twelve’s?” I pushed him away and began walking downtown; he followed me for two blocks.  I was just trying to get coffee.

I call my mom a lot when walking home. While on the phone with my mother a man twice my age grabbed the phone out of my hand and demanded I speak with him. I was so taken aback and frightened that I didn’t even verbally respond to him. He called me “sexy” and other “compliments” all while holding my phone with my mother on the other end. I quickly grabbed it back and took off towards Penn Station. I was just trying to talk to my mom. 

While waiting for my train in Penn Station a man old enough to be my grand father walked over and asked me where I lived. He stood so close to me he was touching me, he whispered, and he told me I was beautiful. He demanded to know what my final destination was. I obviously said I was not going to tell him where I live, so he demanded to see the ticket in my hand. I walked away, fast, in the opposite direction of where I needed to be, looking behind me every 15 seconds to make sure I wasn’t being followed. I was just trying to go home.

On the train home I sat down next to an older businessman. The train was very crowded and I was exhausted and just needed to rest my feet. I took my phone out and began reading the virtual newspaper and suddenly felt the breath of the man next to me. He touched my neck with his lips and said, “You’re beautiful”. I got up, quickly moved three cars over, and stood for the duration of the ride. I was just trying to sit.

I have countless other stories of men grabbing me on the street, yelling what they’d “like to do to me”, asking for my number and not taking no for an answer, calling me heinous names when I decline their advances, following me down streets, and making me feel unsafe. Men who didn’t care I had headphones in, or that I was on the phone, or that I was ordering coffee, or that I trying to get to work or home, or that I was simply trying to exist without their approval or their sexual desires.

None of these men actually thought they had a chance with me. None of them were trying to take me on a date. None of them were interested in me as a person. They all wanted to establish their dominance, to feel powerful, to feel their power over women, and they all succeeded. Street harassment isn’t a matter of “compliments” or simply being told to “smile” or men with bad game. It’s a way for men to control women, to feel powerful, to feel strong, and it works. Women carry pepper spray, knives, personal alarms, have buddy systems, etc. just to feel safe on their morning commute. This isn’t a matter of attraction- this is a matter control.

When telling my story to other women I often heard “well what do you expect when you have a nice body”, “well why were your jeans so tight”, “well you do have large breasts, have you thought about a reduction?”, “you’re egging them on by not ignoring them”, “why didn’t you fight back, you obviously don’t care enough”, “welcome to being a woman, this is just something you have to deal with”, and so many other excuses.

No one is entitled to my body. No one is entitled to my space. I do not exist for someone else’s pleasure. It doesn’t matter if I am naked, in a mini skirt, in a turtleneck, or a full winter jacket- no one has the right to make me feel unsafe. My tight pants are not an invitation for you to grope me, my stern facial expression is not an invitation for you to “make my day”, and my womanhood is not an invitation for to feel masculine and powerful. It is not my fault. It is not women’s fault.

We need to stand together. Women who are comfortable telling their stories need to feel empowered to tell them. Women who aren’t comfortable telling their stories need to feel welcomed and supported and loved in our community. Women need to stand with other women. I have so many privileges and those privileges allow me to talk about my experiences, but many women are not as lucky as I am.  Just because women aren’t talking about it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Despite my assault, despite my experience with street harassment, despite my struggles I am so lucky; many women do not have access to the resources, the support system, and the privileges I have. With every women who posts “ME TOO” there’s dozens more survivors who can’t post. We must stand for them. Just because you don’t hear it, or see it, or experience it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Me, too. I was just trying to exist.

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