Leave Women Alone: Ruminations on Urban Safety

Salon recently published an article about street harassment of women that was spot-on:

Regardless of where the harassment takes place, or its virulence, street harassment reflects widespread acceptance of the idea that women’s bodies are a public resource and that men are entitled to them. It derives its power from the threat of violence that simmers under the surface of every interaction, even the “flattering” ones.

Street harassment is widespread, pernicious, disturbing and even deadly. It is tied to race and class. I am an urban-dwelling young woman with a penchant for traveling alone. Much of my thinking–and ambivalence–about Detroit, my new city via Chicago, has centered on street safety.

After a month of living in Detroit, my experience has been that people–men, really–are a lot more aggressive. Maybe it’s because I’m super conscious of it, being in a new place, but I don’t remember harassing behavior happening with such frequency in Chicago. I get approached, hollered at, and just generally jostled out of any sense of peace. When walking from Midtown to Downtown, one man yelled after me “what’s the matter, you can’t speak?” after I ignored his comments. This is trying. I’m well aware it’s far from the worst that can and does happen.

It’s really one experience in particular that’s been bothering me. For some context, I live in downtown Detroit, which is generally regarded as the safest part of the city, being well-policed by Quicken’s private security force. I may or may not have pejoratively referred to it as “Disneyland” at one point. I was walking home alone from the Jazz Festival, a massive event that draws thousands of people not far from where I live. I turned off Woodward and, a block away from home, was met with a man who veered across the street toward me and asked if I needed an escort.

Tight smile. “Oh, no, I’m fine thanks, just a block from home.”

The guy doesn’t listen, and follows a few feet behind me for the next block. For all of the faith that I place in words, I can’t possibly explain what it’s like to have a strange man walking close behind you at 10 pm in an unfamiliar city. Every time I think back on it, it becomes progressively more upsetting. This is difficult for me to write, and I do it with the awareness that others have had far worse encounters.

I don’t know if the guy was misguidedly trying to be helpful, or messing with me, or something else. It makes no difference. I also have no way of assaying if I was in “actual” danger in the scenario. But here’s the thing: if I perceive myself to be in an unsafe situation, then in a very real way, I am. In large part, safety is about perception, which in turn governs behavior.

I defer to my wise friend Erika here, defending the legitimacy of that fear:

It doesn’t matter if the fear is irrational. It’s still a fear, and it’s still a real experience for the woman who doesn’t know you or your life or your motives, and who probably came by her fear through experiences you a.) know nothing about and b.) won’t understand because you’re unlikely to have them yourself. By defending your right to walk up to a strange woman in the street and say anything, sexual or not, you’re effectively saying, “my right to come into your space and speak to you if I feel like it is more important than your right to feel safe.” Context matters. If you don’t know a woman, don’t put her in that position.

This. And still, I worry about how my own attitude of fear could swing too far in the other direction, and how that fear can end up dictating my every decision, in some hideous microcosm of post-9/11 America. If anything, my tendency has always been to stake myself as far as possible from the Fear Rules Everything Around Me team. I’ve been cavalier about my personal safety, and fortunate enough not to run into any major incidents.

Even this: on February 12th, 2013, my apartment in Chicago got broken into, and my laptop–with weeks and weeks of stupidly un-backed up thesis research–got stolen. I was out at my BA seminar, the one class I was taking that quarter–which was a period where I was spending the bulk of my time in my apartment, working.

I was lucky not to be at my apartment when it happened. I don’t know what would have happened if I was home. Lucky, lucky, lucky. And indeed, how disturbing is it to realize that my own safety lies well outside my locus of control?

“Safety is an illusion.” “This is what happens when you live in a city.” How many times over have I heard things like this? I heard it when my apartment, my home base for 2 years in Chicago, got robbed. I’ve heard it in reference to catcalling on the street.

I abhor this attitude because it’s a short hop from there to victim blaming. You shouldn’t have been walking alone, in that neighborhood, that late at night. You shouldn’t have been wearing that.

No. Guess what: it happens no matter what you’re wearing. And it happens a block from home in what’s purported to be Detroit’s safest neighborhood. No: I shouldn’t have to fear for my safety every time I step out of the door. As Soraya Chemaly writes in the Salon article, “Going to school, commuting to work, or meeting friends should not have to involve an assessment of whether or not you are putting yourself in a “dangerous situation.”” But it does.

It’s extremely disquieting and incredibly frustrating to feel that I have so little control over my personal safety. Do I have the right not to be disturbed, by harassment or other intrusions, out on the street? How complicit am I in what happens? The experience of the guy following me–and this was relatively trivial, I know it–destabilized what little sense of belonging I had here. I don’t walk on that street anymore.

From someone like me who is unflaggingly polite–as I defaulted to doing with the man who followed me–even when I perceive myself to be in danger, and prone to shoulder blame that’s unwarranted, I don’t know what to do about these matters. I feel powerless and deeply resentful, constrained by dynamics that are far beyond my control. As Jamie Nesbitt Golden puts it, the onus is–should be–on men to “leave me the fuck alone when I ask.” But as women, we’re consistently not left alone. Even when we do ask, and even when we tell.

This isn’t okay. It’s not okay for women to be routinely harassed and objectified on the street. It is not unreasonable to demand this; it implies a bare minimum of basic respect for women. Not all men engage in harassing behavior–and those who do may have the best of intentions–but it needs to stop. Please: there are only so many tactics women can adapt to fight this. It needs to stop.


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