BY ELIZABETH TSUNG
People have been hitting on me ever since I was a sophomore in high school, and I’ve always felt repulsed by it. Growing up and living in NYC, I experience street harassment more than ever; perhaps it’s from how populated this city is, or maybe, there are more confident people here. I lost count at an early age on how many times I’ve been catcalled, and I’m sure others can relate. It’s become a hazy memory in my head, but I can still remember how I felt — weak, defeated, pathetic. I miss living in the Midwest when raccoons and wild animals were all I had to be afraid of and people seemed more respectable there.
Some people I know think I’m overly sensitive for not enjoying being catcalled, but I don’t know how any woman can see it as a compliment. Not only do I see it as a threat, I am absolutely terrified of responding to a person only to have him or her retaliate against me.
About a year ago, a man whistled at me and told me I had sexy legs. I told him to STFU, only to have him follow me for a few blocks before he got bored and went away. My palms started to sweat and I almost called 911. I consider myself lucky to have gotten away — lord knows what could’ve happened had it been someone else, someone more violent. Maybe it’s because I am a victim of sexual assault that I am overly sensitive to this topic, but I don’t think it warrants me having an excuse. Every person should be concerned about street harassment, as meaningless as the situation may seem to them. Street harassment victims should also never be told it was their fault, or they could’ve worn different clothing. Just like rape victims, street harassment victims should not be blamed for what happened.
According to Stop Street Harassment, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment around the world, in a study of 2,000 participants, two out of three women and one out of four men have experienced street harassment in their lifetimes. A person’s income did not factor in the amount of times he or she has been catcalled; however, people of color (including myself) and LGBT+ are at greater risk. Women are also catcalled at least three times more than men before they turn seventeen. This epidemic is a topic that is incredibly under-researched, but don’t these findings call for greater action?
Being an overly inquisitive teenager, that trait never left me as I grew older. A few years ago I experimented when I saw someone walking towards me and looking at me in a way that made me uncomfortable. At first, I walked with a child’s pocket knife in my pocket. I never felt any safer carrying a weapon; in fact, I hated that I even resorted to violence. So I picked my nose. I dug my fingers so far up there that when I got home that night, it bled and it hurt to breathe. When the man got closer to me, he looked away immediately and I saw his eyebrows crinkle in disgust. I will never forget that image because I felt so safe then, knowing that my unladylike attitude drove him away. I started doing this more and more, picking at invisible food in my teeth and walking with a limp (which I later learned was problematic), and doing all sorts of things to turn men off. Eventually, I started assuming the role of a nasty, unkempt woman, even at times when I didn’t feel threatened.
I recently realized how unfortunate my situation was. In a world where businesses and media thrive on telling women they’re not beautiful, acting out in vulgar ways completely depressed and drained me. I kept telling myself it was for survival, I was acting out of survival; and it was, but I hated that I had to do that and wanted things to change.
Street harassment doesn’t always stop there. It is a serious threat to our rights as humans to not feel safe in a space or have access to resources when we encounter this. Street harassment may seem unassuming, but It can escalate towards rape and murder if a perpetrator feels threatened or humiliated by their victim. Sometimes their victims haven’t even done anything to trigger them, yet they still act out in unsettling ways.
I don’t remember when I became so brave, but being able to talk about this with other victims gave me the confidence to walk around without feeling intimidated anymore. Now I always hold my phone in my hands when I walk. When men and women call at me these days, I have no issue snapping a picture of them, telling them I’ll report them to the police. Often enough, they back off and say it was just a joke. Maybe it was, to them, but I’m not taking that chance.
Elizabeth Tsung is a Taiwanese American second generation New Yorker. She collects tabby cats and fairy dust.