Today is a beautiful September day, crisp enough to want to wear leggings with my skirt and sport a modest, long-sleeve shirt. I'm sure I look nice, but am conservatively dressed, not that it should matter. It's true, I probably care about my appearance more than I should. I was, after all, a bit of a plump kid and was made fun of a lot all through grade school, which left me with poor self esteem in high school and college. My story is, however, in no way unique, but it may explain why I enjoy looking nice sometimes. I like to think that I've grown out of my awkward stages and into a mature, caring, lovely, and professional woman who no longer needs to care what other people think because she knows that how she feels about herself is infinitely more important. So I like to look nice, for myself. I like to wear what I want, whether it is trendy or not, simply because I feel like it. I have a choice.
I don't feel like I dress particularly provocatively, and in fact would feel very uncomfortable doing so, but I do enjoy wearing feminine clothing-- skirts, blouses, and my red leather Danskos at least once a week. Red shoes are kind of a family tradition. Sure, maybe I try to look nice. But that's no excuse for the insulting, demeaning, derogatory comments I'm subjected to on a daily basis. I am not the cause; I am the victim.
It took me a long time to realize how severely the sexual harassment was impacting me. The men always act so suave, making passing comments that they never get called out on, or saying "sweet" things in public places where I feel awkward bitching them out. But after working for two years around dozens of men who hit on me persistently and occasionally cornered me in my office, I realize that it was, in fact, affecting my ability to work. Fortunately, my workplace took my complaint very seriously and made some rapid changes that helped make it more difficult for patrons to harass me: my office was rearranged to provide me with two emergency "escape" routes, and I was given a "code word" so that if I felt threatened I could call another staff member and they would show up at my office to bring me to the front desk, away from the persistent men.
Unfortunately, this could not be repeated outside of the work place, and although I managed to escape the negative comments at work, I continue to be haunted by them in my daily life. Just today, on this crisp, beautiful day, I walked the three blocks to my lovely community garden plot to harvest the rest of my tomatoes before they got frosted, and not ten steps from my front door the comments began. In that short walk there and back, a mere six blocks total, I was catcalled by ten or more men. These are a selection of different comments I heard from complete strangers hollering from porches and street corners:
"Look at that ass! You gonna say hi, girl?"
"Hey librarian, where you goin'? You look nice today."
"Mmm, hey beautiful."
"Hey gorgeous, come here."
"Damn, girl! You're so sexy with them glasses!"
"How are you doing today, beautiful? Lookin' fine, lookin fine."
Plus, even though I was obviously on the phone having a conversation with someone, a man who passed me on the street turned around and started following me, hollering inappropriate and aggressive comments (they went something like, "hey beautiful, mmm you have some sexy dreads! How long you had them? Hey, you're not gonna talk to me? What's the matter gorgeous? Come on bitch, let me introduce myself! You just gonna walk away?" etc, etc for two blocks) while I completely ignored him and tried to finish my conversation. As soon as I was off the phone the man physically obstructed my path by jumping in front of me, and began harassing me persistently. The first words out of my mouth were, "I have a boyfriend, I'm not interested," so he continued in a manner which made me instantly feel guilty: "What, a guy can't make friends? Why can't I just be your friend?" to which I tried my best to reply firmly, "I don't even know you, how can we be friends?" The conversation continued, with him smoothly talking around my every reply, dodging my questions but asking a million questions of me, and mixing in harassing comments (ex: "Where do you work, beautiful?" to which I replied, "Where do *you* work?" to which he replied, "hey, give me a break, I'm new here. We could go smoke some bud sometime, how 'bout you give me your number?" to which I replied, "I don't do that, I'm just trying to go to my garden," to which he replied, "well I like to do other things too, like watch movies. You wanna go see a movie? How 'bout you give me your number? I can't wait to see those sexy dreads of yours again." Etc. Etc. Et fucking cetera.).
I somehow managed to finally walk around him (it took me several tries, with him repeatedly stepping in my path) and I dashed to the Pine Street garden and locked myself in (thank goodness I have a plot in a locked garden!), heart racing, blood boiling. I kept playing the episode over in my head, growing angrier and angrier, and trying to dissect it. Want to know what the fucked up part is? My first thought was, "I shouldn't have worn this skirt today." My second thought: "Was I too mean?"
And then I realized... fuck! I have EVERY right to wear that skirt!! I have every right to walk down the street wearing whatever I want! I have every right to be firm and bitchy to a guy who is only pretending he wants to be friends. What he really wants is obvious, and it's degrading to myself and to other victims to allow that kind of behavior and those kinds of comments to continue. In fact, I wish I had been ten times as mean and aggressive! I wish the badass Dreaded Librarian side of me had reared up and come up with something witty and pointed to say, something that would show him what a strong, intelligent and professional woman I am. Something that would intimidate him in the same way he intimidated me. I wish I had pulled some Lisbeth Salander-style move on him.
But mostly I just wish that I could walk the three blocks to my garden in peace, relishing the sunshine and autumn air. I was raised in the sunshine and crave it, yet too many days are spent inside in our tiny apartment by myself merely because I, Molly Ladd, am afraid to walk out the door. To clarify, I'm not afraid that anyone will physically hurt me. Sure, it could happen, but I'm pretty sure I could kick the shit out of someone just enough to get away if I needed to. I feel physically safe in Lewiston. But what most people don't seem to understand, but what I assume 99% of victims know in their subconscious, is that sexual harassment is terrifying. It instantly makes you feel diminutive, objectified, and worthless. It can turn your bright, September day into a dreary, cold, dark day in March. It makes you feel worthless, and no one wants to feel worthless. So, all too many times, I stay inside.
So I'm writing this to get some of these feelings out. And I'm asking, begging, for two things. First of all, I'm asking for those being subjected to sexual abuse to stand up for themselves. Don't let the abuse continue. Report it, and support each other. Secondly, I'm begging everyone to pay attention and stand up for people who are being subjected to harassment. If you see someone on the street catcalling or following someone, speak up! Tell them to knock it off, and offer to walk with the victim. Call the police. Do whatever you feel comfortable with given the situation, but don't let it just slide by unnoticed. Sexual harassment it serious, and I'm seriously sick of it.