As a freshwoman at Spelman College, I had to attend a self-defense course, sponsored by the campus public safety department, during freshwoman orientation week. It was raining that day, we all were hyped about being away from home and experiencing the real world (and some were upset that we were required to stay on campus during the entire week of orientation, and we couldn’t go to neighboring Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College.)
During the self-defense course, I remember feeling uneasy. I knew that the information I was learning could be potentially useful if I needed to utilize it…and that’s the thing. I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to feel that I had to be constantly on guard and suspicious of every man that showed interest in me or walked towards me while on campus or on a busy street. I stayed away from dating and relationships until the week of college graduation, when I finally asked the guy I had been interested in for several months to be my boyfriend.
Also during orientation, my classmates and I sat through a public safety lecture, where we were told the story of a young woman who went on a date with a fellow male classmate from the Atlanta University Center. They knew each other pretty well. Pretty well enough for the young woman to feel comfortable in going back to the classmate’s apartment after a date. After several minutes of lighthearted chatter in the living room, the classmate walked down the hallway towards his bedroom. After what seemed like an unusual amount of time, the young woman, being concerned about her classmate, walked down the hall toward the young man’s room. As she reached his bedroom doorway and called out to him with no response, she walked into his bedroom. The classmate, who was standing behind the door, reached from behind the door, grabbed the young woman, pulled her into his bedroom, and sexually assaulted her.
Going back to that self-defense class, I did zone out a lot. Learning ways to defend yourself should make you feel empowered, right? For some reason, I didn’t feel that way. It made it feel even more nervous. I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to defend myself physically, and it made me feel sad about living in a world where women had to constantly be on the defense. But the mood of the class was somewhat lifted when we received our whistles. My college classmates and I, attending an all-female college, received whistles during freshwoman year to assist us in self-defense. In the Atlanta University Center, we were the only students who had whistles, and the idea behind the whistles was that, if we felt that we were in danger, all we had to do was blow our whistles, and someone—be it campus public safety, fellow students, or students at the colleges nearby—would come to our aid. We all joked about it throughout college, of course, and thankfully, I never had to use my whistle while in college.
Flash forward, 10 years since my first year of college, and I still carry my whistle on my keychain. Living in New York City, I’m used to walking and taking public transportation to get from point A to point B. I’ve been in New York City for almost 4 years now, and I’m pretty much perfected my “Don’t mess with me” face while I’m out in public. Accompanying my mean mug are my earbuds for my iPhone’s music. I’ve gotten in the habit of walking everywhere, at all hours, with my earbuds in my ears (but now I take one earbud out when I’m out at night or in an unfamiliar place). Despite that, my keys, with the whistle attached, are always in my hand. Most times, my fingers are wrapped around the whistle in case I need to use it.
Oftentimes, I want to blow my whistle at the men who subject me to street harassment…
I want to blow my whistle at the old men who approach young girls, even when they know these are very…young…girls.
I want to blow my whistle at groups of men who stand by and laugh, join in, or (disappointingly) stand by and do nothing when one of their friends street harasses a woman or girl.
I want to blow my whistle at any person—male OR female—that believes that what a woman or girl is wearing, what time of day or night she’s out in public, or what she’s been drinking makes her more susceptible to street harassment or violence (or that “she should have known better.”)
I want to blow my whistle at these men who look at women and girls and fail to see that we are someone’s daughter, sister, mother, cousin, best friend, niece, or granddaughter.
I want to blow my whistle at the people who say, “Get used to it” or “That’s just how men are”.
I want to blow my whistle for all the women and girls who see street harassment as an everyday occurrence in their lives.
I want to blow my whistle at all the men who feel that I can’t possibly get to where I need to be without them trying to brighten my day by complimenting my looks or by walking too close to me, or even touching my arm as I walk by. I don’t need for you to tell me I’m cute. My mother told me so, and my mom would not have lied about that. *snaps fingers*
I want to blow my whistle at myself and at the many people who sometimes feel that street harassment and violence against women and girls is too big of a problem for anyone to solve.
I want to blow my whistle because, at times, I do feel sorry for these men who knowingly (and unknowingly) participate in street harassment. Somehow they got the idea that it was ok to feel that they could have control over women’s bodies by address her by her hair color, the size of her breasts or buttocks, or by her skin color.
Heck, I want to blow my whistle at the women and girls who think being addressed by your hair color, the size of your breasts or buttocks, or skin color is actually appropriate!
Every woman, regardless of race, age, and geographical location has experienced street harassment. You may not know it by name, but you know recognize the signs (men stopping what they’re doing to stare as you walk past, men reaching out to touch you, or men saying sexually suggestive things to you) as well as the symptoms (feelings of uneasiness, anger, annoyance, and fear for your safety.) If a man can wake up, prepare for his day, leave his home, and get from point A to point B without expecting any unwanted advances, why is it so absurd that women can’t expect the same?
And it’s great to see that I’m not alone in my thinking. There are many awesome organizations out there like Men Can Stop Rape, The Line Campaign, Hollaback!, MasculinityU, Gender Across Borders, Meet Us On The Street, and Stop Street Harassment who are raising awareness locally and abroad about the street harassment. And this week is also International Anti-Street Harassment Week. When we all decide that everyone deserves the right to be in public and feel at peace, that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, and that everyone should be encouraged to see street harassment as a nuisance and not be afraid to stand up to it, our streets will feel much safer.
Until then, I carry my whistle.