Stories & Conversations: Seven Stories of Street Harassment
By Amy Agigian —
“It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.” – Michelle Obama
Every day, Brooklyn College women leave their homes armed with headphones, their lips pressed together to make their faces stern and unapproachable, and ready to walk quickly, hoping to fend off the unavoidable shouts and whistles from men.
For many, shouts of “Hey, Mama” and howls in their directions are not uncommon but have become routine for them since teenhood, some as young as 12 or 13.
The unwanted sexual attention is so regular it can be expected and the feeling of vulnerability is unavoidable. Many women are left feeling scared, fearing violence. The ability to express themselves in the moment is stifled. Though the women all know that sense of dread, discomfort, and fear, each reaction to harassment is different. Some shy away or dress differently, others give short, cordial replies, and others respond aggressively — but all do so with a sense of caution.
These women are not alone. A national study conducted by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, found that 65 percent of women said they experienced some form of street harassment in their lifetimes.
In a similar study done by Cornell University and Hollaback!, a nonprofit whose mission is to connect women and activists to document and speak out against street harassment, 85 percent of women in the United States said they experienced street harassment before the age of 17. The same study found that an overwhelming majority of participants felt anger, anxiety and/or fear when being harassed.
Street harassment isn’t just a common occurrence in women’s lives — it’s a cause for distress. A study done by researchers from the University of Missouri-Kansas found that sexual harassment increases women’s fear of crime. Women of color were especially affected; African-American women felt more afraid of crime and had more psychological stress than white women.
To see what these statistics mean on a more human level, I interviewed seven Brooklyn College female students about their first experiences of catcalling and their reactions and emotions during their most recent encounters.
Age of first catcall: 10 or 11
Length of commute: 40 – 45 min
Shahnoza Holboeva has a round face with straight eyebrows. She loves to wear dark colors and has a black hijab wrapped around her face. She said being covered hasn’t stopped the street harassment, but it has changed the kinds of catcalls she gets.
Holboeva started to wear a cover two years ago to be closer to God. She started off by wearing niqab, a covering that only reveals the eyes, but her parents encouraged her to make the change to hijab, fearful of violence toward their daughter.
Holboeva said she did get racist comments, but didn’t want to make the change. Eventually, she did, in order to make her parents feel more secure.
Holboeva said before that she had ‘typical’ catcalling experiences. “People would be like, ‘Hey mama’ or ‘ Hey you should smile.’ But once I started wearing the scarf it started to quiet down for a while, but there still are men who have no limits,” Holboeva said, her words just a whisper.
Holboeva said that when she walks, men will ask her what’s underneath her scarf, which to Holboeva is infuriating. Hijab isn’t used to cover, but is religious and spiritual. When men sexualize it, it not only makes her self-conscious, but angry.
“We don’t do it because we don’t want them to see anything, but you would assume because I am not wearing revealing clothing that they would shut up,” she said, as annoyed as her personality will allow. “That angers me even more, kind of, because it kind of shows they don’t care that you’re covered.”
But Holboeva doesn’t respond to sneers and sexualization of her hijab because she, like many of the other women, is fearful of retaliation. She said she’d rather stay quiet than be attacked and shares horror stories she’s heard of women being groped, followed, beaten, and killed.
“I was very angry, but I didn’t say anything because, you know, there was a lot of them so I passed by very quickly. It was very uncomfortable for me,” said Holboeva. “I am really tiny so I try not to get in trouble. So whenever that happens, I kind of just start walking really fast and I even avoid eye contact. So it doesn’t go any further.” When she is catcalled, she becomes more aware of how she is walking and tries to minimize the amount her body sways. She looks down and she keeps walking.
“You feel weak in that moment because this whole catcalling thing is because men want to show this power over you and they show that. Even though it’s not true that they are superior to us in that moment you feel lower or weaker. So that moment is so scary.”
Though these moments are scary for her and she wants to avoid conflict, she also trusts in God.
“I trust that God will take care of me and that even the bad things that happen to us have some positivity and good in it,” said Holboeva. She tries to apply this faith to everything in her life. “It’s hard to put one’s faith in everything to God, but it is also the peaceful and safe thing to do.”
Alexa Sasha Marshall
Age of first catcall: 11
Length of commute: 45 minutes
Alexa Marshall is a senior at Brooklyn College with a large toothy smile that dominates the bottom of her face, but is perfectly fitted to her amiable personality and almost contagious air of happiness. Dreams of grad school and thoughts about thesis deadlines are constantly on her mind.
But none of this comes through when she is making her way down the street. She said that when she is making her way from point A to B, she has her headphones stuffed in her ears and her music turned up. She trades her vivaciousness and her smile for a stern face and quick pace. Not one for confrontation, catcalling makes her uncomfortable and afraid.
“It’s like, I can’t protect myself from what other people can say,” Marshall said. This vulnerability in public isn’t a new feeling for Marshall, but something she’s been experiencing since she was 11.
She remembers the first time in some detail. She was 11, wearing a short skirt and walking home when a much older man locked eyes on her. He stared and she could feel his eyes on her as she walked away. That’s when he mouthed something derogatory at her. Though she can’t remember the exact words, she does remember how it made her question herself, her choices, and her safety.
She said this incident changed the way she carries herself in public.
“I didn’t really see it as something the man shouldn’t be doing to me, but that maybe I should, maybe this has something to do with the way I dress,” said Marshall. She said she covers up more, stays inside more, and must put up a facade when on the streets.
“When I was a child I walked the streets smiling, happy,” said Marshall, her tone becoming somber. “Now when I am walking around anywhere I have a straight face. I do not smile at all, and I listen to headphones, to my music. So that if anything is said I can’t hear it. I just try to block it all out.”
She said that now she experiences catcalling about once a day, and, despite no longer limiting her clothing, she still struggles with ways to react. Marshall, a friendly individual, loses her voice in these situations.
“I just try to walk away as quickly as possible and don’t even acknowledge it. Don’t even look in their direction or give that form of gratification,” said Marshall, her words becoming quieter. She said that she tries to look defensive and unapproachable, but when she does hear shouting, she says nothing out of fear. Marshall says the whistles and sexual statements make her feel “disempowered,” like she is not safe in this public space. She shares horror stories she has heard of girls being hurt after rejecting a pass and expresses her concern. It’s these stories that feed into a fear that makes her say “I can only ignore it.”
Aside from the catcalls ensuing fear, Marshall says a catcall reminds her that men have the power to objectify and assert themselves. “It reminds me that I am a sexual being,” said Marshall. “I am usually very in my mind and in my thoughts, but it reminds me that I am a woman, and I have a body, and that body is perceived as a sexual object.”
Length of commute: 35 minutes-1.5 hours
Namima has a strong presence, a stern face with angular features, slick black hair, and a fondness for red lipstick. She said she doesn’t get catcalled as often because of her new “don’t mess with me” street demeanor and more vocal attitude. This tough exterior though doesn’t change the fact that when she hears shouts, she is afraid.
“I carry myself pretty confidently,” said Islam. “I make this face, on purpose, like I look unapproachable on purpose so people leave me alone, and I always have my headphones in. Also, maybe because I look older they don’t want to bother me or maybe it’s because I look secure, like someone who would say something back.”
Islam really encourages women to speak up against the harassment. She believes asserting your presence in these situations can discourage the men. Though she refuses to be demure, she wasn’t always this way.
“Before I was like, really scared and unsure about what to do. I would be really timid, and now I don’t let it bother me. I either say something back or like curse them out,” said Islam. She said learning about feminism and patriarchy has inspired her to not take sexualization or street harassment passively.
Though Islam really vocalizes her disgust and encourages others to as well, she still takes precautions that make her feel safe. She said she’ll bring a jacket to cover up when she’s wearing a dress or something sleeveless so that she can cover up while walking. She brings flats to change into when she wears heels.
“I wish I didn’t have to do that, but it just makes me feel safer by having a pair of flats in my bag or keeping a jacket just in case a guy is staring at me in a disgusting way. Like I keep pepper spray too. I shouldn’t have to walk around afraid.”
Islam still has experiences that terrify her. Recently she recalls being followed by a man for blocks until she rerouted to a public space. But she said most of the time she’ll respond to the men by calling them disgusting or “cursing them out.”
Her fear during incidents like this still doesn’t change the way she views street harassment or her confidence.
“Don’t think of them catcalling as a way to bring you down,” Islam advises other women. “That’s what their motive is… for you to be uncomfortable. It shouldn’t. I mean, it will make you uncomfortable, but girls also need to realize they [the catcallers] are gross. Never let a stranger bother you. They’re stupid. Feel confident with yourself.”
Age of first catcall: 12
Major: Cultural Anthropology
Length of commute: 2 hours
Gabrielle Powell walks out into the street every day with what she calls her “stank face” on and her headphones on full blast.
“I’m much more aggressive when I am outside. Especially outside. My face. I got my stank face on. I always look like I’m mean and angry. I’m walking quickly,” say Powell. She has small almond eyes that can quickly go from mesmerizing to mean, but that doesn’t mean she’s not afraid.
“It makes me feel unsafe. I do not feel flattered or any more attractive or less attractive, but I do feel unsafe because I don’t know what turn that experience is going to take,” said Powell. “It can happen in the blink of eye. One minute they’re really polite. The next they’re screaming at you, trying to hit you or they’re grabbing you. I’ve been circled by five men. Like you never know how it’s going to go and you know that no one is going to help you.”
Powell said she’s afraid that street harassment could turn violent. Her fear of not responding spawns from her first catcalling encounter when she was 12. Powell said she was going to the store for her mom when a group of men started calling out to her saying things like “Pssst, come here, come here.”
Powell continued, her voice shaking and speaking a bit faster. She said she ignored them, and then the men’s taunts became aggressive, saying things like “Oh, you can’t hear me? You think I don’t know you can hear me. Get back here, bitch.”
Powell said she quickened her step and elongated her stride, terrified, when one of the men threw a bottle in her direction, barely missing her. She ran home, tears welling in her eyes.
“So I usually keep my headphones in because I am afraid of outright ignoring them, and so that I have an excuse for why I didn’t hear you,” Powell said. “If my headphones are out, I do acknowledge them whether it’s ‘no, thank you’ or whatever, I always acknowledge them. I don’t ignore them, ever.”
Powell doesn’t ignore them because she knows they want a reaction.
“Part of it is them feeling some type of power because I imagine they know they’re not going to get most women this way, but I think they like knowing they freak you out,” said Powell. “They like knowing they have that control because when you say ‘no’ they don’t hear ‘no’ they keep going until you’re either afraid or aggressive. I think they do it for sport.”
She said she won’t let their attempts at dominance stifle the way she expresses herself. Though she is afraid and does feel unsafe when sexual words and gestures disrupt her day, she said she won’t let it disrupt her life. She said she refuses to build her life around men’s attempts to make her afraid because sexual assault can happen anywhere. Fear of it shouldn’t stop you from living life.
“I refuse to dress a different way. I refuse to stop going out when I want to go out because it really doesn’t change anything,” Powell said with a sense of strength and certainty. “I’ve been dressed in low cut shirts and shorts. I’ve been dressed in a long dress down to my ankles. It doesn’t matter. If they want to harass you they are going to harass you.”
“Listen, I don’t know the answer on how to end catcalling, but I do know the answer isn’t for us to change who we are and how we live our lives because of fear,” Powell said with an assurance. “There’s always going to be a fear of something, and I am not willing to let fear of these people stop me from doing what I want to do.”
Age at first catcall: 14
Major: Women’s Studies/Psych
Length of commute: 10 min walk
Since her recent move and her shortened commute, Senk hasn’t been hearing as many calls from men in the stroller dominated sidewalks of her neighborhood. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t experience catcalling or that she doesn’t anymore. Even though it’s not every day anymore, she still does experience it. Senk said she understands the fear and anger that comes with the shouts from men.
Senk has a clear sense of style and calmness about her. She is sweet and soft-spoken. Despite her image, her politics are radical and her patience for harassment thin, but, like the other women, she is still afraid.
“In my head, I am very like fuck all these systems and the patriarchy and systemic institutions, and I am just like bring down these walls, but at the same time you have to get through your every day without getting hurt,” said Senk, her tone changing abruptly, her words becoming a little quicker. “I know that things can get violent, so I mean, for as radical as my head is, I don’t necessarily vocalize.”
Senk said when she steps foot on the street her demeanor changes.
“I kind of close off, my body language, I will have a really angry face on when I am walking because I just don’t want to be fucked with,” said Senk. Her mission is to get to her destination as quickly as possible. She keeps her eyes locked on the ground and her pace quick to avoid not only the bad mood the catcalls put her in but the insecurity they make her feel. She said it keeps her from enjoying her surroundings.
What Senk hates the most though is how these catcalling incidents provoke an anger in her that can linger. Senk said it takes away from her grocery list writing, her book reading and her music, the things she likes to do on her commute. Even worse, it forces her to disconnect and distance herself from those around her.
“Naturally, I don’t need to [be] completely within myself. I can talk to people and look around…. So it makes me angry that you have to put me in this bad mood.”
If she is catcalled she maintains her quickness and stays quiet. Occasionally, if the same man has been pursuing her, she will become aggressive, but she said it’s rare.
“It was more of ‘I won’t even look at you’… I am more of ‘I just don’t even want to look at you because you are not going to affect my day.’ My main thing is to just walk past quickly and like I said, I’m a fan of the finger, but they just laugh it off.”
Senk believes the men aren’t really phased by her anger or her fear, but that they enjoy it.
“It’s because I feel that men have an entitlement in this society. It’s just that they’re asserting something over us,” said Senk. “They’re asserting their presence, but it’s like why can’t I just go about my day without your presence? I don’t feel the need to say things to strangers. I think that it happens because men definitely feel that a lot of spaces are their spaces, even public spaces, and they just want to remind you of it.”
My conversations with these women have opened my eyes to how common street harassment is and how much impact it has on women’s daily lives. Every day these women walk into the world and face the fact that they are seen as objects by some people. Feeling the fear and uncomfortable in public space have become routine. So common that we forget this should not be a shared experience. It has made me realize that we need to do more to make the streets safe and comfortable for women.