Why Women Worry About Street Harassment (And Other Language Faux-Pas)

When I was a sophomore in college, I remember walking back from the library at 2am in the dark, clutching my laptop and scurrying as fast as possible back to my dorm.

I didn’t like walking alone in the dark.

This was all made worse when I heard loud clanging sounds and male voices chanting in unison:

“MY NAME IS JACK

I’M A NECROPHELIAC

I FUCK DEAD WOMEN

AND FILL THEM WITH MY SEMEN.”

I started running until I got to the gates of my college, with the door firmly shut behind me, I paused and felt my blood pounding in my ears.

I’m 5’6”. There isn’t a whole lot I can do if an entire mob of football players decides they want to chase me down. This was a reality I was well aware of while I was standing there taking in my surroundings.

I run through a list every single time I stand at my door about to leave my apartment:

  • Do I have my house keys?
  • Is my phone charged enough to last me a few hours if I need to make any emergency calls/find my way home?
  • Do I have my wallet?
  • Do I have enough cash for a cab if I need to get home and something happens?
  • Is my dress too short, am I drawing too much unwanted attention to myself?
  • Where am I going? How will I get there? How will I get home?
  • Who should I tell where I am going in case something happens to me?
  • Is it ok for me to go to [This Location] totally alone? Should I call someone?
  • If I need to run, could I run for a while in this pair of shoes?

If I was still working in Mexico or on site in some of the places I study, this list gets a lot longer. Before I leave in the morning, I assess what risks I could encounter that day and try to build a list of options for myself to make sure I am prepared to meet my challenges for that day. Because if the going gets really rough, my options might end up being fairly limited.

That night I listened to a group of men, many of them much larger than me, chanting:

“NO MEANS YES

AND YES MEANS ANAL.”

As part of an initiation routine for their frat, meaning, freshman boys were encouraged to chant about abusing dead women, felt like what I would have labeled “a worst-case scenario” in my morning planning.

Separately, the song is completely vile in every possible way. Who comes up with this garbage?

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I wrote this post because a number of my male friends through the years have asked me why programs like Hollaback are relevant. Why women don’t like to be cat called. Why we get offended sometimes. They mean well, I know they do, so I often explain this experience of constantly wondering how you are going to get home and if someone has been watching you for too long. How we think through our options to escape and how making a single wrong decision could end very badly for us.

For me, this night in New Haven was one of many in my life where we remember that societal expectations and “manners” are abstract concepts that people opt into. They are not enforced by nature, but by communities. Without mutual respect inside of a community, they cease to exist and I am expected to compete for my own survival.

When I explain it in these terms, my male friends are often the first ones to respond with “not cool” to the guy who yells something at me when I walk by. They start to understand where I am coming from when I talk through my morning checklist and what I worry about when I am weighing my options in risky situations.

I think it would be amazing if I could walk down streets in major cities and know that I was not going to hear someone lean out the window of a car and offer me a list of “dirty things I’d like to do to you” or comment on my ass when I walk by. So, maybe it starts with you.

Check out what Hollaback is up to in your city. It’s an issue with deep roots, but it’s a worthwhile one.