I just got home from a very late night in the lab, after having myself quite a scare.
At around 10pm I finally managed to finish up my work, after a stupid experiment was refusing to go as planned, and exited the main building of the Biology Department into the fenced area where my bike was locked up. Through the chicken wire fence a group of six men on bikes spot me, and one of them comes closer to the fence to whistle at me. The first and only thought to enter my head: Shit
Something you have to understand about where I work is that it is in an area that is only populated during the day, surrounded on three sides by office buildings and banks, on the fourth by a canal and pedestrian walkway. It is because of this that it is a notorious area for drug dealers at night, which in this part of Italy consist largely of North Africans, infamous for their distaste of women. There has been more than one woman beaten, raped or violently mugged on these streets immediately surrounding this building either at night or on Sunday, when no one is around.
My brain immediately went into survival mode. I can't go back inside, like hell I'm sleeping in the lab tonight. I can't call anyone, everyone I know well enough to have their number is on holiday. I stand no chance if they intend to chase me and catch me, I might have a shot if there was just one or two of them, but six? My chances plummet to zero. I can loop around the back, exiting the side gate, which would give me enough of a head start to either (a) not be seen by them or (b) having a good enough chance to out-bike them to the nearest street with the highest possibility of traffic and make my way home from there. So that's what I decide to do, and as I leave I see in the distance a few people walking back up along the canal. Phew, people! And that's when I remember: the kiosks. There's kiosks set up along the canal for the summer that are open all night. They must be full of people, I'm safe. Those men that freaked me out were probably just pumped about going out for a night on the town, not spotting and pointing a possible target. Crisis averted. And then I started to get angry.
Those men probably have no idea the sheer panic that they put me through. They were at best blissfully oblivious at worst wholly indifferent, and all for what exactly? What do men expect women to do when they whistle, make kissing noises or vulgar gestures? Am I supposed to swoon in delight, run after your car or bicycle and beg you to take me home with you? Am I supposed to be impressed or flattered by this cowardly gesture of vulgarity after which you run away lest you have to confront the inevitable rejection? Are you just trying to make me uncomfortable in my own skin as a way of dealing with your own sense of inadequacy? For what fucking reason do you justify putting women in this position day after day after day?
I used to get a little annoyed with the direction the conversation of street harassment inevitably took: that women never know if the person harassing them means them harm and having to live with the insecurity of their physical inferiority. I thought and still think that it is justifiable in such a small portion of cases of harassment to be condescending that it is constantly brought up. No, I don't think that the construction worker that whistles and licks his lips at me as I walk to work is going to hop over the rail and rape me in broad daylight in front of all his coworkers, and if there are women who are afraid every single time a man makes a rude gesture their way they have their own problems and do not represent the majority. Street harassment is annoying and represents a cultural acceptance of the lack of respect and value that women still have in our society, first and foremost, the "fear factor" is a very distant runner up.
However, after what happened tonight (as well as what happened to me once in college, walking the far more dangerous streets of Dublin one night, having to defuse a potentially devastating situation in which a car full of five obviously high guys were aggressively trying to convince me to get in the car with them to go to a party), I realize that the fear that street harassment can inspire in women, while not being the central problem, is still one that is important to discuss.
The end point is this: at best, harassing a stranger in the street will make them feel annoyed and angry, as well as a little uncomfortable. At worst, it can cause them to panic and fear for their safety or lives. Considering all of this, what reasons do you have for harassing people on the street? Do you think it's just harmless fun, a dare amongst your friends? Are your reasons for doing this worth what you are putting them through?
What the fuck is your problem?