Standing up to street harassment is an act of self care.

I’m going to deviate from the “caregiver theme” today and instead reflect on something that happened yesterday.

I recently moved to a new apartment, and I was showing a friend of mine around my new neighborhood.  At one point as we were talking, I could feel someone walking way too close to us, and sure enough when I turned towards him he proceeded to get in our faces and say, (quite drunkenly I might add) “Hey baby, come here baby” or some other Neanderthal mutterings.  To be honest, I didn’t give him much time to say much else because I immediately yelled, “STOP.  STOP.  Leave us ALONE.”  I was loud and I put my arm out in front of me so he would keep his distance from us.  He slunk away like a scolded child, and attempted to walk away in a straight line (bless his heart, he could not).  My friend and I started sharing our street harassment stories.  But here’s the point I really want to acknowledge, within 5 minutes of the incident, I had forgotten all about it.  And for me that’s significant.  Allow me to explain….

In 2005, I lived in Romania serving as a volunteer in the Peace Corps.  That experience within itself was life-changing in many ways and the incredible people I met along the way made it that much more rich.  Unfortunately, the street harassment became too much for me.  On a daily basis, I was grabbed and touched by random men, cat called, followed, so in a nut shell, harassed.  I should also state that this was often during the day, around many people.  Except for my group of fearless mostly female Romanian and ex-pat friends, strangers never helped me.  No one ever said anything.  My reactions varied, sometimes I’d scream, sometimes I’d run away, I was taught Romanian phrases that were supposed to shame the men, but nothing worked.  Without fail, these experiences would plague my mind.  I kept trying to figure out (by asking everyone who would listen) what I could do or say that would stop the harassment. As if I was causing this, instead of seeing it for what it was…creepy men, being allowed and encouraged to be creepy men.

As time went on I could feel myself starting to lose my “me-ness.”  I didn’t recognize myself, I was losing my quirky independent spirit.  My Romanian tutor, who was also a dear friend, remembers during one of our tutoring sessions where I just cried and cried.  I couldn’t take it any more, I felt so helpless and less bright.  (She has since told me that was a turning point for her, she realized it didn’t have to be like this and WASN’T like this everywhere.)

After putting up with regular harassment for a little under 2 years, I finally decided I had to leave.  I remember speaking to my dear friend Mary, who was also in my town, and she gave me permission to go.  Of course I never actually needed permission but I needed someone who saw what I had been going through to release me.  I wanted to be told I had put up the good fight but enough was enough.  The country director for Peace Corps Romania feared I would regret the decision to leave early, but I knew I was right.  I had to get back to a place, where I could be my self again.  I’ve never regretted that decision.  In fact, it remains one of the most profound self-care decisions of my life.

This past year as I’ve watched women grow more and more bold with street harassers, and harassers in general, it’s brought up a lot for me.  These fearless women/people are no longer keeping their experiences hidden.  Instead, they post the pictures of their harassers on Facebook, they scream at them on the subway and shame THEM instead of the other way around.  They are making others listen.  It’s awesome.  Their boldness is contagious.

So yesterday, I didn’t even hesitate to yell at that man.  And instead of beating myself up about what I didn’t say or do, I walked away from that idiot feeling STRONG.  I forgot about what happened 5 minutes later, because I had handled it.  I hadn’t second guessed my actions, or wondered what I was doing or wearing to “encourage” harassment.

I fully recognize that I will still have triggers, and moments when I freeze up.  But it’s my hope that I will be kinder to myself if this happens.  It’s also my hope that the courage so many are taking to loudly stand up for themselves, will give the harassers far less “courage.”

This is the first time I’ve ever written about this specific experience.  But it felt like it was time when my experience of yesterday popped back into my head during my run.  I’m not sure if I’m being articulate but I guess that’s not really my point.  Back in 2005, I didn’t have a smart phone and I don’t think I was on Facebook.  So this is my version of exposing the harassers.

Take care of YOU.


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