Being in public without fear of harassment is my right, but not my reality

A stranger approached me two months ago while I was walking the neighborhood with my infant and two-year-old daughters. He said he “just wanted to talk” to me. Poised there with my children, I had a choice to make: Be polite and hope that the interaction would work out for good, or say no and potentially put my children and myself at risk of retaliation if he responded negatively when I declined. I let him talk to me.

He asked me personal questions about my girls and myself, if I was married, and if I was “satisfied” in my marriage. He heavily emphasized satisfied while looking me in the eyes, alluding to my sexual satisfaction. I faked a laugh and continued laughing when he remarked that he wanted a family of his own like mine.

“Why are you laughing?” he asked. I smiled as I shook my head—when really I was masking my discomfort and attempting to avoid conflict. I was also calculating the best way to leave and get to safety. After that interaction, I decided to never walk that route again.

A recent viral Twitter post features video of men harassing a woman at a gas station. The video starts with four men shouting at the woman—who later revealed her identify on Twitter as Diamond—while she shields her face with a purse to block their unwanted attention.

“Don’t touch her,” one of the men says. “We’re not gonna touch ya. We’re just gonna put pressure on ya,” says another. One man raises his hands to indicate that he’s not touching her, but he and the others all lean into Diamond and press themselves tightly around her to the point that their clothes brush against her body.

“I think you’re here for me,” one of the men calls out multiple times.

It’s difficult to hear everything being said over the loud shouting and catcalling, but it is clear from Diamond’s body language that she wants to get away. At one point, seven men surround her before some leave to accost another woman. The person recording the video calls her a bitch and a hoe while saying, “You came in a circle full of pimps.”

Diamond—clearly exasperated—remarks that she’s “just trying to get gas.”

The video is triggering. I anxiously watched it, waiting for the moment when the tone shifted and the men insulted Diamond because of her disinterest or, worse, physically assaulted her.

Twitter user @NaomixSuicide shared the video with the caption: “‘she should’ve just went to a different gas station’ Y’all outta y’all damn mind if y’all mean to tell me I can’t go to the closest gas station because there’s dudes outside of it? I should not be afraid to go pay for my gas because men are standing around.”

Most people commented that the men exhibited deplorable behavior. Some stated that the woman in the video should have been carrying protection. Others believed that, if they were in that situation, they would have fought back or have reported the men to male family members—the implication being these family members would have retaliated on their behalf.

However, this is the most important question we should be asking: Why do women need to protect themselves from men?

Women have the right to live as freely and peacefully as men do. We have the right to live through mundane moments—to simply exist as a woman—without the fear of getting harassed, assaulted, or even killed.

Another Twitter user points out that Diamond smiles and laughs in the video while the men crowd her, suggesting that Diamond is condoning their behavior when she does this. Several women correctly noted that laughing and smiling is a defense mechanism. Sadly, this submissive act is the most reliable weapon that a woman has in a world that is at toxic masculinity’s mercy. We deploy this behavior to keep from being physically beaten or even killed for rejecting a man’s advances. Women suffer the injustice of modifying their lives and sacrificing their comfort to avoid being victimized by men.

“No woman should ever have to change things she normally does because of the presence of men…Stop victimizing women for being women,” @NaomixSuicide says in the thread. And she is correct. No woman should have to alter her routine because of a man’s presence. However, tolerating risks to our safety in hopes that we will leave the situation alive is the reality of navigating public spaces as a woman.

I don’t remember when I first experienced street harassment. I have fuzzy, uncomfortable memories of interactions with boys in my neighborhood when I was in the fifth and sixth grade. Their eyes lingered on my body at the swimming pool or they made sly comments while I walked by in our apartment complex—but my clearest memories of harassment took place during high school. I remember visiting my (step)sister’s mother when the mom’s adult male friend remarked, “I hate to see you go, but I love to watch you walk away,” as we left his house. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I shrunk inside myself because I knew that something gross had transpired.

It was after my sister shouted, “You nasty ass! That’s my baby sister!” and explained to me what had happened that I understood why I felt ashamed. (For those who don’t know, the friend’s comment was a coded way of saying that I had a nice ass. I was 13.)

I have been harassed and groped while at school, while on public transportation, while walking down the street, while eating at a restaurant, while participating a political protest, and while attending church. Women are harassed so often that it’s probably safe to say that we have been harassed in every space we share with men. And that’s why society teaches women to submit to toxic masculinity. We are told not to dress provocatively—even though we are harassed when we are fully clothed. We are told not to go jogging at night—even though similar limits are not imposed on men’s exercise schedules, and we are in danger at any time of day. We are told that we should be thankful men are expressing unsolicited interest in us—at the same time, we are not supposed to encourage unwanted advances.

When we police women’s activities, we create a fear-based culture that subjugates them. In reality, harassers should be the ones to curtail their obnoxious behavior.

There’s a gas station that is a one-minute drive from my house. I have never gone there because a group of men loiter outside the convenience store. It is the easiest place for me to get gas, especially when my two daughters are with me. But my experiences have conditioned me to be wary of men. This shouldn’t be the norm, but it is. So I opt to go elsewhere, or—as is the case most times—I don’t get gas at all.

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