The Moment I Recognized Sexual Harassment in My Life


The other day my boyfriend said he didn’t know what I meant when I told him I got “yelled at” while walking down the street to the grocery store. I clarified by, instead, calling the comments as “cat calls.” But even that term did not seem to fully express the plight of a young female walking down the street in an unforgiving neighborhood. But hey, I too thought I had known the meaning of “cat calls” before I moved to New York; before I moved to Washington Heights. That is, before I experienced the terror of constant street harassment first hand.

Back in Nebraska, when I was about twelve years old riding my bike up and down the hilly streets on my way to the swimming pool, I would get honked at. I guess more accurately it was on my way back from the pool, wearing my bikini top and shorts, hair still dripping, with the smell of chlorine setting in. The smell my dad called summer. At the time, I was flattered. I was an awkward middle schooler who had never been asked out on a date. A few honks and whistles from beaten down rust buckets was validation to my maturing into a fully sexual being. Plus, I felt I was encouraging the attention by not throwing a tank top over my rapidly drying suit and by riding down the busy street rather than the side streets. I sacrificed the freedom of cruising down the middle of a newly paved side street for male attention. And that is what I thought cat calls were.

But I was twelve. I did not yet understand the fear I should have of men. The threat of rape in every leering glance late at night. That was Lincoln, Nebraska– a safe haven for children and women alike. Safe and family friendly.

As I got older, I started to understand that this was not desirable attention, however. My more liberal and feminist friends would argue rabidly that women were not the property of men; that they had no right to be able to yell at us so. Women are to be respected, we are not public space for male comments.

But I could not yet fully understand or empathize with their “feminist rhetoric.” I was raised conservative. I was raised to believe that women entering the workforce was the cause of a lot of social ills. If two income households were not the norm, then a single income household would not have been put at such a disadvantage. Women were to cook, clean, sew, and take care of the men. Women were to be independent and strong, but not put up a fight. Male attention was still desirable. I still wanted that validation, even after I had my first two boyfriends.

Male attention became something I felt I could control. After dance class on a Thursday night I would go meet my friends downtown at the best pizza place in all of Lincoln. This place, Yia Yia’s, was smack dab in the middle of the bars on “O” Street. I was fully aware of the responses I would get, walking from the parking garage to the restaurant in only my leotard, tights, and barely-there booty shorts. I knew I would get stares for my, seemingly, scantily clad derriere (the tights were my rationale against the otherwise slutty nature of my attire). I would get honks walking to the restaurant (which doubled as a bar by night), and could feel the eyes on me as I swayed my hips up to the counter. I thought I was in control of the situation. I thought that I was the one who controlled when I was stared at, or when men felt the desire to tell me just how much my appearance turned them on. I was just coming into my sexuality– just learning about the power I had over men! How was I to know that, unfortunately, my intentions and attire had nothing to do with the responses I garnered. I would’ve been yelled at whether I liked it or not; whether I tried to incite the yells or quell them.

For a while in high school I became the feminist I was raised to despise. I preached about how women’s bodies are not there for the pleasure of men. That I should be able to walk down the street and feel perfectly safe; perfectly comfortable in whatever I was wearing and whatever I was doing. But I still lived in Nebraska, in a bubble of safety I didn’t know could be burst.

My move to New York was simple. I moved into my dorm, lived a protected life on campus, and never went out unless I was in a large group. I had walked through semi-bad neighborhoods in Lincoln and survived, so why would I not be equally as confident in Manhattan? I mean…it wasn’t Brooklyn or Queens. And I had taken a self-defense class my sophomore year of high school. But even then I lived in the safety bubble I had always known. Columbia’s public safety protected me on campus, and my group of friends kept trouble at bay off campus. I was confident, I was tough, and I would never let a man get away with touching me– even with his words.

That was, until I moved to Washington Heights the summer before my Junior year. Back in Nebraska I never would have admitted to this, but when you’re an attractive white girl living in a non-white neighborhood, you are going to feel uncomfortable. You will feel the eyes of literally every man you pass follow your ass down the block. You will be painfully aware that you are constantly being watched. Headphones will become your new best friend, because then, at least, you will have an excuse not to reply to their comments. You will be told to smile when you are tired after a long day of work, as if your exhaustion is not valid and you must keep up your appearances for their sake. You will be greeted with expectations of a courteous conversation in return. And if you choose to ignore them, you will be yelled at for being a bitch. You’ll be followed down the street. You’ll have to walk five blocks out of your way until he stops following you to ensure he doesn’t know which building is yours. All of this is to ensure that, in his drugged out state, that he doesn’t try to push his way in the doorway behind you. Because that happened two blocks down Broadway last month to another woman. Her street harassment ended in rape.

You will learn when and where you can wear your short shorts and too-tight dresses, eschewing them even on the hottest of days if you know you’ll be out too late with friends. You will learn that what you wear doesn’t really matter at all. You will learn which friends have beds you can crash on, and which nights you have to skip out on the fun to make sure you’re sober enough to go back to your apartment.

I did not understand the weight of street harassment until I moved to Washington Heights. Until when to Rite Aid to buy Advil for my splitting headache my first night there and, outside the store, was told by a man that I’d “make good money husslin’.” Welcome to the neighborhood.

But it is not only the Heights. I have learned that while there are places that I’m more likely to receive such comments, they can happen anywhere. A drunk man can follow you as you dart around a concert venue, trying to escape him, because his “clever” remark means you own him at least a sloppy drunken make out session. A black SUV can pull up next to you as you walk the final two blocks to your boyfriends apartment at 11pm on a Monday night with a man calling out “ayyy Mami nice ass” with the inflection that he knows he is doing you a favor. Frat boys can giggle and high five as they pass you on College Walk late after Friday night drinking at 1020, the local bar. It has nothing to do with where you are or what you are wearing. It has nothing to do with what time you go home or how sober you are.
You’ll learn that street harassment is not something you can control. And it’s not something that you welcome.

I’m ashamed that I was ever that twelve year old, coming home from the pool hoping and praying that some man would notice me. That some man,old enough to drive would want to honk his horn or yell at me. I’m ashamed that I ever found that flattering.
But I shouldn’t be ashamed. I reacted the way that women are told they should react. When the homeless man who spews conspiracy theories follows you down the street for not saying hello back to him, it’s because he wants you to know that his attention is special and should be appreciated– hell, you should be thanking him, even!
I grew up in Lincoln, one of the safest and happiest cities in the country. I had been honked at and yelled at from across the street, but I had no idea what it was like to be a victim of street harassment until I moved to New York– the New York that is not part of a college campus.

But now, looking back, I wish I would have taken it all more seriously growing up.
I wish I could go back and tell my middle school self the male attention I garnered was unwanted. I would tell her to keep wearing her bathing suit top and shorts on the bike ride home if that is what she wanted. But she should do it for her, not for anyone else. The yells she received on her bike rides home are no less traumatizing than what she would encounter eight years later walking home from the subway after seeing a concert late at night.

No matter what age you are, no matter how strong or tough you come off, and no matter how hard you strive to be “colorblind” and walk through sketchy neighborhoods with your head held high, the cat calls and honks and whistles wear you down. The comments are easy to handle at first, but after a week of being told to smile first thing in the morning when you just want to go back to bed, and being told your ass looks “fuckable” while you trudge home at night– you get weary.

I didn’t have to move to Washington Heights to experience real street harassment. I had to move to The Heights to recognize that I, like every other woman, have been harassed my entire life.

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Meet The Author

I'm Madysen, born and raised in Nebraska but now living out my dreams in New York City. I moved here to go to Columbia, but living in New York has become so much more to me. This blog is a space where I can share my experiences of reconciling my midwestern upbringing with the life I live in the city. But even bigger than that, this blog serves as a space where I can try to understand where I fit into the larger social world, where I want to go in life, and how I want to go about pursuing all of these endeavors.

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