On boobs and shame: My experience with street harassment

It was mid-summer. I was walking down a busy sidewalk along one of the busiest streets in Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital of Mongolia, the country I had been living in for a year by this point and would live for another year through my work for the Peace Corps. Right as I began crossing over a bridge, a man— at the exact moment we were passing— stuck his arm straight out to slam into my breast. His arm returned to his side, and he kept going the opposite direction with no more reaction.

I looked around, hoping for some justice or righteous anger from the other passers-by, but there was nothing; and, despite all the scenarios I’ve played out in my mind that inevitably end with my reacting in an empowered and articulate way, not even I could do anything in real-life. I turned around and kept walking the direction I was going, suddenly feeling vulnerable to more attacks, as if any boundaries I had contentedly believed in until then were not real at all and that anyone could— and felt the right to— do what they wanted to my body whenever and wherever they wanted.

It’s not like this was the first time I had experience unwanted touching.  Just earlier that same week, I was climbing onto a bus in UB when a boy who had been hanging out with his friends near the bus stop ran up behind me and smacked my butt before skittering away again. Drunk men had touched me while I was walking many times, and even in the States where touching was not always so blatant, there were enough subtle rubs and intense stares that felt like fingers touching me to know that it wasn’t just a cultural thing. Yet, unlike most of the sexual harassment that has happened to me, the incident on the bridge didn’t feel sexual. There was something intentionally malicious about what he did, as if he wanted to hurt me rather than feel me up. He made it clear that I wasn’t welcome there, on that street, in that country; he had the power.

The scene on the street with the boob-smack was painful and degrading, but the part of the story that hurt the most came just a few minutes later when I met with a friend nearby: after I told him my story, he laughed. His response stopped me from continuing to talk about it or seek some affirmation of my basic human-ness, and we moved a different direction with our conversation. In that one moment, everything I had felt became small and inconsequential, not worth talking about and certainly not worth taking seriously. The saddest part is, it’s taken me two and half years to see that: to see that what I felt was worth taking seriously and that what that man did to me was wrong. My [heterosexual male] friend probably didn’t mean to invalidate me. But that didn’t stop him from doing so.

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