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.

Not feeling safe— in public or in private, physically or emotionally, even with well-meaning friends who nevertheless create a space that prevents me from expressing myself— is just one effect of sexism. Another is the shame that results when these incidents happen because I have internalized the overt and more subtle messages I’ve been told and have put the blame on myself. The day my breast was slammed by a stranger’s hand, I was wearing mid-thigh shorts, a spaghetti-strapped tank top, and no bra. No more skin was showing than if I were wearing a sundress, and I wasn’t doing anything different from every other person walking on the sidewalk that day.

Yet it was a reminder of those innumerable times when a teacher or other person of authority used to pull me aside as an adolescent to tell me that my skirt or my shorts were too short, or that I couldn’t wear spaghetti straps and needed to cover my shoulders or pull up my shirt— all the ways my clothing choices had been policed throughout my life. I’m grateful my own mother was not a part of that, which gave me freedom to express and explore at home, but the message was quite clear outside of that: parts of my body— chest, leg, shoulder— have sexual implications simply because they are on my body— a female’s— rather than a male counterpart’s.

I have done years of shame resilience since then when it comes to my clothes to understand that nothing I put on my body is ever an invitation for men to touch me at random, just as not wearing a bra is a personal preference that is often unnoticed by most people throughout the day and is comfortable for the person doing it (though, just like my story shows, there are occasionally people who do notice and effectively make the person wearing it incredibly uncomfortable).

My feelings still have some catching up to do, however, and when my friend laughed at the story, I thought, Oh, maybe it wasn’t serious. Maybe whatever I felt was just overreacting, and this shouldn’t bother me at all. I was ashamed of feeling exposed and degraded when I obviously should have just shrugged it off and kept going. Not wanting to fit the stereotype of the overly emotional woman, I smiled with him and put up a stoic front, as if the incident meant nothing. The thing is, even that idea of hysterical women is sexist. Separate studies have shown that men have more extreme emotional states than women and in fact feel more than they let on outwardly. The stereotype isn’t helping anyone. For me to express how the scene really made me feel, I would have simply been honoring my experience. It wouldn’t have been overly emotional. It wouldn’t have been ridiculous. It would have been a true expression of what I was feeling and nothing more.

I realized it was time to stop holding my tongue after I came across some casually sexist things that women hear daily. Suddenly, seemingly unrelated incidents from my life became connected by the thread of sexism and sexual harassment, and I was angry: I was angry that these things happen, that I had grown accustomed to them, and that I felt ashamed when I tried to bring it up. And I was angry that I let that shame silence me, that I had, in a way, internalized the sexism and directed it at myself. When I think back to that day in UB, I remember the isolation I felt with a friend just as much as I did amongst the indifferent strangers on the street, and it’s taken a while to realize that they both have the same root: women are objects; women shouldn’t overreact; women bring it on themselves.

I don’t have the cure for that. I wish that simply acknowledging something negative made it go away forever, but it won’t, at least not without a collective effort. But maybe the best effort we can make is to share our stories and to listen to each other when those stories are shared.  Maybe the more we open up about our experiences, the more attuned we become to each other’s needs and to the areas we can do better. And maybe the more we understand each other, the better we treat each other. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, right?

(Image via Shutterstock)

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