To get downtown, I have to walk over a bridge, adjacent to a lane of often busy traffic. As any woman who lives here will tell you, this bridge is an epicenter for cat calls, whistling, and shouted comments from male motorists. You get used to it. You start to expect it; you even develop an ability to predict which vehicles are most likely to contain men who will harass you.
On this particular day, traffic was stopped as I was crossing the bridge. I’m walking, trying not to make eye contact, when a man leans out of the window of a truck and says to me, “Heyyy, baby, give me a smile!” I don’t look at him and keep walking. Then, in my peripheral vision, I see him lean back out the window and he screams at me, “You stuck-up BITCH!”
It’s jarring to be called a “bitch” by anyone, much less by a man you don’t know, who feels justified calling you that because you won’t smile at his leering, pock-marked face after he demanded that you do. Even though nothing physically happened to me, I was upset by the incident for the rest of the day. I finally realized why I couldn’t get the encounter out of my head: This was the first time, in my young adult life, that I actively felt like an object.
We talk about “the objectification of women” all the time. It’s a phrase I’m very familiar with and I’ve sat in university classes about just that topic. But I never really thought it applied to me. Women in the media are objectified; models on billboards are objectified; actresses are objectified… but me? I’d never felt that way before.
Like any young woman in my general age bracket, I’m fairly acclimated to street harassment, but this is the first time that it made me feel angry, exposed, and even a little frightened. As I finished walking down the bridge, I grew increasingly self-conscious. I wanted to disappear. (And, alternately, slash that truck’s tires.) I had never expected to feel this way, but there it was, that feeling I’d only heard proclaimed from podiums or academic columns: I am a woman and I am therefore an object, free to be publicly evaluated, insulted, bossed around, and lewdly scrutinized.
I don’t really have an “action point” for this post. I don’t have any happy promises to wrap up the ending. Recounting the little incident still makes me feel furious. I take refuge in expressing anger (and sometimes bits of humor) about the culture of street harassment with other women, especially Stephanie, who has lots of stories in this dehumanizing department. But we don’t have any solutions. You get used to it, you adapt. You vaguely dream of a world in which your daughter might be able to exist as a human being, free to walk on a public street without being regarded as a sex toy, a manipulable body who owes mankind a smile. But that is often too hard to imagine.