Dear street harassers: I want my participation points back

Dear street harassers: I want my participation points back

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Ninth Street in downtown Columbia, MO.

It’s taken me a while to write this, because at first I thought I was blowing it out of proportion. But as similar incidents relentlessly occur in not only my life, but in those of others, I couldn’t put off writing about this anymore.

It’s also been a while since I’ve written here, so bear with me.


It happened one afternoon last month while I was heading to class.

I live downtown, but not too far from campus, so I walk pretty much everywhere. I was running a little late, so I knew I had to book it in order to make it to class on time. This class in particular takes attendance, and if you’re even a few minutes tardy, you will lose points. So I was walking particularly fast that day, even for me.

Imagine my surprise when I was pulled out of my powerwalking tunnelvision, headphones blaring, by a random dude coming out of the Subway restaurant on Ninth Street.

This man had the gall to approach me, a random girl on street who CLEARLY was not interested in interacting with anyone, grab my arm and pull me close to him, and say into my ear in the sleaziest of voices,

“Tell your boyfriend I said hi.”

I wrenched my arm away and kept walking, not even getting a good enough look at him to tell you what color his hair was. As I crossed the next street, this nauseating guilty feeling bubbled up from the pit of my stomach, setting my skin on fire.

Why didn’t I do anything?

Why didn’t I stop and give him an earful? Why didn’t I throw a punch, why didn’t I do ANYTHING to show him his behavior was beyond unacceptable?

By the time I got to class a few minutes later, I was late. Ten participation points gone.


In the grand scheme of things, those ten points won’t matter. But the rest of this situation absolutely does.

Anybody who knows me would describe me as a feminist, determined to further justice and equality. Everyone knows I would speak out if something like this happened to someone else I knew, whether the situation was more or less serious that what I experienced. Then why did I do nothing when it happened to me?

I wasn’t really sure until I felt that uncomfortable again.

Last night, I was walking home from hanging out with my sorority littles. They live on the far side of campus, so my walk was a bit longer than usual. I was passing a building on University Ave and these men yelled off their balcony at me. It’s definitely not the first time I’ve been catcalled, but something about this time just sent me over the edge.

“You SLUT!”

“Are you walking or working, huh?”

Then one of them threw a bottle off their balcony – too far away to hit me, but close enough to make me flinch. Raucous laughter ensued.

This was my chance to say something, yell back, cuss them out.

But I didn’t.

Why?

Women are conditioned to believe a few things about sexual harassment growing up – and pretty much none of them are conducive to feeling empowered.

We are taught that if we don’t want attention, we shouldn’t dress provocatively.

We are taught that if we behave a certain way, it is justifiable for men to take advantage of us.

We are taught to “not get raped,” instead of men being taught not to rape.

We are taught to “be the bigger person,” to not make a scene, to pretend that these things don’t happen to “girls like us,” in order to save face.

We are taught to question victims rather than prosecute perpetrators.

Enough.

I could sit here and tell you the following things, justifying why my experience is “shocking”:

  • I was wearing Nike shorts and a t-shirt the day that man grabbed my arm.
  • I was also sober, and it was 3:25 in the afternoon.
  • Last night I was completely covered – the most form-fitting thing I was wearing were leggings.
  • What those guys yelled off their balcony isn’t true.
  • The bottle wasn’t even close to me when it hit the ground.

BUT NONE OF THOSE THINGS MATTER.

If I am wearing a parka or wearing a see-through minidress, whether I am sober in the bright light of day or out drinking at night, whether I sleep with no one or 50 people, whether I am actually in danger or just being shouted at from a balcony 100 feet away – I don’t deserve to be harassed, assaulted, or worse. And neither does anybody else.

There are some inherent dangers involved with going to college. If you walk out in front of a campus bus, you’ll probably get hit. If you don’t go to class, you probably will do poorly come exam time. But a woman’s chances of being sexually assaulted increase four times simply by pursuing postsecondary education – and we can’t let that happen anymore.

There are plans in the works. There is a movement, if slow-moving, if not quite loud enough yet. Students, professors, parents, friends, sisters, legislators are coming forward and together to decide what we can do to stop this epidemic. Sexual assault and women’s centers are attaining more resources and clout, and campus professionals are beginning to realize that safety training is a necessity, not just something they can do if they find free time. Police departments and universities have begun to foster relationships that can help advance the process of reporting sexual assault, rather than hindering it.

So while I’m never going to get my participation points back for that day, I am going to get my voice back. No more feeling ashamed, no more feeling like speaking up won’t make a difference, no more standing idly by.

No matter who it happens to, where it happens, what time it is or what anybody’s wearing – speak up. We can’t afford not to.

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