Street harassment and a woman’s worth.

Last night, my sister and I were on a mission. She wanted to buy a dress. She was tired of her clothes and wanted something new, something fun, something to make her feel good about herself. And since my sisters and I can never seem to do anything alone, I was recruited to go with her. At 8:15pm. To a mall that closes at 9:00pm. Lovely.

We pulled into the parking lot and gathered our purses. As we were about to get out of the car, we noticed two guys not more than 20 feet away trying to impress God only knows who with their skateboarding skills. In unison both of us quietly exhaled and emphatically asked, “Really?” If it hadn’t been dark and if there had been more people around, it might not have mattered. If my sister had been with her boyfriend, it might not have mattered. But we were just two young women walking through a dark parking lot alone with who strange men lurking about, so it mattered.

And even if I wasn’t concerned for my immediate safety, I could imagine the less-than-pleasant things they might say; the things I’ve heard before from countless other men who see whistling, rude gestures, and suggestive compliments as “flirting.” And in the darkness of the night, that was enough to flip my smile and slump my shoulders.

Because, honestly, no woman has ever thought to herself, “Being called at like an animal is the way to my heart.”

Never, not once, have I ever been so starved for attention or compliments that a sketchy man on the corner telling me how “fine” I looked made me smile. Never has an inappropriate gesture or dirty pickup line made my day. They may give me something to tweet about, but never have they made me feel good. Never have they been the reason for the spring in my step.

Receiving such a “compliment” has a tendency to make women question themselves. What have I done to attract such distressing attention? we wonder. Is it because of what I’m wearing? How I acted? Was it because I smiled at him? Is it because I’m by myself? What did I do wrong?

And since the men don’t change, we try to change. We try to make ourselves as invisible, unapproachable, and off-limits as possible. We wear rings to imply we’re married (even if we aren’t). We wear headphones in our ears, or fake a conversation on the phone. We shield ourselves with a book or magazine. We cover up, hiding our sexuality under layers of scarves, sweaters, and coats. We wrap ourselves in invisibility, hoping and praying that we’ll just blend into the background. We pray that no one will see us. We don’t want to be noticed.

We change who we are, becoming someone unlike ourselves.

I was rather oblivious to this sort of harassment until I spent a semester in the Middle East. At the young and relatively naïve age of twenty, I left the country for the first time, flying thousands of miles away with people I had never met into a culture I knew nothing about. It was a surprise to say the least., walking off the plane into Egypt. It was nothing I had expected.

One of the first things us ladies were told about was the Egyptian men. They were “a different breed,” we were warned. Not all, mind you, but many would see a young American girl and make assumptions. They assume things, because of the feminine image they see courtesy of Hollywood. American women like sex; they are easy. And they like to be approached.

Of course this isn’t true. But in order to make our lives easier, the young ladies on the trip did our best to become the opposite of the Hollywood woman. We covered ourselves practically from neck to ankles. (And trust me, wearing long skirts and long-sleeved tops in the desert is no picnic.) We tried not to go to crowded, strange areas without one of the male students with us. We didn’t talk to strangers. We didn’t respond to comments. We always said we were married.

But there is only so much you can do when the root of the problem is something outside of yourself. There are only so many preemptive measures you can take before you just have to put your faith in the goodness of human nature.

We weren’t always lucky. Each of us, at some point, was touched without permission. We were called names and see as an object. One woman was propositioned, a man offering her money for a night in bed. One woman witnessed a man expose himself as she tried to buy souvenirs. In public places, surrounded by people who seemed not to care, we were harassed and objectified. And the only thing we could do was walk away and pray it didn’t happen again.

It seemed extreme, the behavior of the men in the Middle East. What a distressed culture, I thought to myself. It wasn’t until I returned home and walked around downtown Portland one afternoon, that I realized that it wasn’t just the men in Egypt. It was everywhere. It is the burden of every woman, the product of every broken man. And my heart became heavy.

We sometimes forget we aren’t the only one with such a story. You aren’t the only woman to feel used and abused after a walk down the street or a ride on the bus. You aren’t the only one who dresses in the morning and wonders “Does this make me look too slutty?” You aren’t the only one who thinks you’re to blame.

And some days, we believe this. We believe it must be our fault if day after day we are subjected to the same vitriolic “compliments.” Aren’t we the common factor in all of this?

But this behavior? It is not a reflection of you. The hurtful comments and disturbing behavior is a reflection of the broken man who utters them, an example of the absence of God in our culture. Your worth, your beauty, your sexuality is separate from the harassment you receive. You did nothing wrong. Your behavior did nothing wrong. Your clothes did nothing wrong. Your desire to be happy, kind, pleasant, confident, cute, beautiful, stunning, and stylish is no excuse for how men have treated you.

You don’t have to hide your gorgeous self because of these men. God created you to be beautiful. He didn’t create you under a shroud of shame or invisibility. You are His crowning achievement. He created woman and saw that she was good. You are good. You are lovely. Your beauty is not a burden, but a gift. You are the daughter of the Most High King and a loving Father.

You are worth more than throw away pick up lines and suggestive behavior. You are worth more than being seen as nothing more than walking breasts and a sexual fantasy. You are worth more than to be the target of a man’s unfeeling compliments. You are worth more than a man who cares nothing for who you are, but only what you can give him. You are worth more and deserve more.

It’s time we demanded more. And it’s time we believed it.

And to the respectful gentlemen who are the exception: Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, I truly thank you. You are appreciated. You give us hope. You are the nice guys, the good guys, the men we long to find. You look at us without us feeling degraded. You compliment us without leaving our hearts and souls ashamed. You make us smile with your kindness, and there are no words to express how wonderful that feels. Never believe that being a good guy makes you less of a man. Being able to accept your masculinity and a woman’s femininity without making her feel worthless or objectified is a rare gift, an under-valued gift. I hope the men who aren’t so kind can see you and learn a different way, a better way. I hope you can be a light into the darkness our society has been covered by.

Thank you for reading! Feel free to share your thoughts. And maybe follow me on Twitter?

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6 thoughts on “Street harassment and a woman’s worth.

  1. My eyes where opened to this world when I was in a marriage and the family class in school, and we had a whole class where the Prof. had us discuss the anxiety that young women feel. It was such a blow to me since I was pretty ignorant to it’s existence. Now, I don’t believe I’ve ever was a real culprit, but the conversation was eye opening and caused me to be able to see things differently…I really enjoy this as a post and hope it opens eyes as mine where. Thanks for writing!

    • I’m so glad there were guys who took the time to read this! And I’m sure I can speak for the ladies when I say we appreciate that there are guys who take the time understand our frustrations, and who act respectfully. So thanks!

      Cassi

  2. I have to say I chuckled when you touched on Egyptian men being a different breed. The sad thing is that it’s pretty true. I’m Egyptian and even at the mere age of TWELVE whenever I visited I experienced looks and comments when I walked in the streets, heck, even laying on the bed by the balcony–fully dressed mind you–reading a book. But even here, like you said, especially since I live in the city, I get looks, comments, and such and all I can think is why are the only people giving me any attentions these slightly sketchy people? And even though I know I have worth and I was created with such care, it still makes me sort of doubt it. I mean, no one but these weirdos seem to pay any attention to me. It’s surprising the effects something like that actually have.

    • I struggle with that same thing- worrying about why I only seem get attention from the rude or sketchy guys. But what I think I’ve realized is just because the good guys aren’t giving me the same verbal, obvious, blatant attention as the weirdos doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention to me. It just means they are doing it differently. The nice guys aren’t going to use the same methods, so we might not see it right away. They are more subtle, I guess. BUT you should never doubt yourself; you should never doubt your worth or beauty. There is a guy who will recognize you for the gorgeous woman you are :)

      Cassi

  3. This isn’t something that I participate in but in reading this I’ve realized that I haven’t stood up against it when I see it happening. After reading the effects that it has on you, I won’t be able to ignore it when I see it happening.

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