Street harassment for me, exists on a spectrum from the somewhat polite prompts from fellas on the street for conversation and further interaction to the loud, obnoxious, antagonistic calls from similar such company. At the root of both is entitlement to my time, my energy, my interaction with “the street”.
So endemic is it that I often don’t register it’s something I’ve been dealing with since puberty. In the Caribbean it’s so ingrained culturally that I actually missed it while living in Canada. I’d tied that attention to being noticed and my self-esteem, the heterosexual worth/ acknowledgement. Even if it wasn’t positive, I was registering on someone’s radar.
The story I share here is of the more extreme variety. I want to say I remember it like it was yesterday but I really don’t. I was 16, it was a national holiday and I’d spent the day at the beach with a friend and her family. They didn’t drop me home but to my grandmother’s house, outside of which I would then catch a bus to go home.
Since it was a public holiday and the streets were quiet and no buses were passing. I saw a man, much older approaching and I became nervous, he was across the road but it was clear to me that he had mental health challenges.* He stopped right opposite me across the road and began talking, his words were unclear but he was angry and appeared agitated.
I thought about going back up to my grandmother’s house but I didn’t want to appear afraid and the door was locked anyway. So I stayed. I couldn’t believe how quiet the street was, this was before the age of cellphones so I couldn’t call my friend who lived a little further down the road to see if he was home and would come out and wait with me.
As my mind was racing, I saw a guy I knew very peripherally from school. With his approach the man across the street became less agitated but he continued talking and staring at me. I thought about engaging the guy I “knew” in covnersation, but I didn’t even want to tell him I was afraid, or felt uncomfortable and would have appreciated it very much if he stayed with me until I got a bus. End result:: we waved and smiled and he kept moving.
I’d spent all this time trying to not look directly at the man across the street as he continued to talk to himself/ to me. I don’t know why I did , maybe I could tell something was even more uncomfortable about the situation… when I looked across, one of his hands was in his pants and he was masturbating. The panic in my soul was real. I was frozen. I almost didn’t get the bus when it passed.
When I got on the bus I didn’t say a word, when I got home I didn’t tell my parents, my sister, my boyfriend, not even a friend. It’s something I kept with me for a long time. When I did tell someone about it, I made it out to be a joke or not nearly as serious as it was. But I know that was probably one of the scariest situations I have ever been in.
And now as I write this I realise what made it more difficult is the fact that I didn’t want to tell someone because I felt dirty, felt guilty, felt ashamed and I didn’t know how to have that conversation.
*So complicated is this, we’re taught to be afraid of people who have mental health challenges when in fact we’re much more likely to have negative/violent interactions with someone who we would describe as having mental wellness.
**re: image- Great resource on Street Harassment- especially if working with girls and young women: http://www.feministpress.org/books/girls-gender-equity-gge/hey-shorty