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Just Drive on By – Quietly

Teresa M. Nichols

Self Reflective Essay

November 3, 2010

Just Drive on By – Quietly

I recently read a wonderfully written, thought provoking essay by Brent Staples, “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space”. In his essay he describes how just being a black male while in public brings out fearful reactions in others, especially women fleeing and how their reactions affect him personally. He said, “It was in the echo of that terrified woman’s footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I’d come into – the ability to alter public space in ugly ways.” I found myself identifying with the unwarranted effects his mere presence had on others in public places. As a young white female pedestrian I would watch the behavior of some men change from civil to vulgar once they spotted me. This would happen in public, in broad daylight, without any prompting on my part, just because I was a woman. In a phone interview Sue XYZ shared with me her experience, as a female pedestrian, of uninvited male harassment. Her frightening experience was very similar to mine, so I researched to see how common this was. I found an informative website, called Stop Street Harassment, about harassment of women in public places by men. On this journey of mine that began with the reading of Staples’ essay, the sharing of my own and Sue’s experience, the website’s knowledge of street harassment, I found an interesting common thread of stereo-typing, unprovoked actions of others, and fear.

In 1973 Brent Staples arrived in Chicago as a twenty-two year old graduate student. It was then and there that he first began to know just how his mere presence in public could cause fearful reactions in others, especially women. As for me it began in my teens, late 1970’s and continued regularly until I purchased my own car when I was in my mid-twenties. I, like many in our great city, walked and rode the public bus nearly every day all over Portland. It was a healthy, inexpensive and often enjoyable way to get around town. I enjoyed the wide variety of passengers to watch and often talk with, from the elderly with their fascinating stories to the babies that often smiled back. The more people that were around the safer I felt. It was getting to and from the bus stop as well as an occasionally unoccupied bus stop that could sometimes be unnerving. The frequent obnoxious remarks from some men were annoying and sometimes downright vulgar. One time a man pulled over to the side of the road. Thinking he wanted to offer me a ride like so many others, I began to say, “No thank you”. But, when I looked his pants were wide open! In shock and disbelief I shouted, “NO!” I quickly turned and ran the rest of the way to work. For the rest of the day I felt angry at men in general and didn’t want to look or talk to them.

Just drive on by, I’m not a bit intrigued by your catcalls. Just go away and let me walk to my destination in peace and quiet. But no, some menacing male drivers were quite persistent which I found extremely annoying and sometimes frightening. They would drive by as slowly as a snail and I would ignore them and look the other way. Then they would go around the block and snail by again. Isn’t this a form of stalking? I would reach in my purse, making my actions so clear that anyone near could see exactly what I was doing. I would pull out a pen and look right at their license plate as I write on my hand. I figured a piece of paper could easily be lost, but my hand would go where ever I went. In a flash they would be gone never to return. Better them than me to never return. I didn’t want to be the next name on the list of missing persons or in the morgue. Who are these men driving around our streets? Why do they feel the need to stalk and holler vulgarities at me? This was a question I had asked myself too many times as I walked down the street.  Who do they think they are? Who do they think I am? I don’t know them and they don’t know me!

One day, a bus driver didn’t stop to pick me up! He looked right at me as he drove on by. I was so baffled, then angry. Why? I was standing right next to the sign! I saw him look me in the eye, and yet he didn’t stop! Then some snail decided he was going to make his move. Around and around the block he went. By this time in the evening buses change from a ten minute to a twenty minute schedule and I wasn’t sure exactly how long it would be until the next bus. I felt like a sitting duck. So while the snail was going around the block again, I quickly crossed the street and kept on walking in the direction I needed to go. It worked! Snail saw I had crossed to the other side of the four lane street and drove off. Once I knew he wasn’t retuning I crossed back just in time for the next bus. This time the bus driver, a woman, did stop to pick me up. I told her that the previous bus driver looked right at me but didn’t stop for me. She apologized and said, “He probably thought you were one of the new working girls now working that part of town. It would be better to wait for the bus at the main intersections, because the prostitutes tended to stand around the side street bus stops, rather than busy intersections.”

This was news to me. How dare he think that of me, then I realized what the snail was probably thinking, too. It never came to mind before. It must have showed on my face as I began to process all this new information. The bus driver tried to assure me. “You really don’t look like one of those girls”, she said. Now I know who they think they are! Now I know who they think I am!

My cousin Sue XYZ, who lives in Colorado, has had experiences very much like mine. I found out that she made similar decisions about how to handle them. Sue shared with me her most frightening personal experience of male drive-by harassment she had encountered while taking a walk when she was out of town on a business trip. She said, “I was in Las Vegas on business attending a Trade Show and we had a break so I decided to get some much needed fresh air by walking to the public park and back. When I began my walk back I noticed a man sitting in his idling car watching me, then he began to slowly follow me, which was frightening, so I ignored him.”

Handling this situation much like I have in the past, Sue crossed the street in hopes the driver would leave. She quickly crossed to the other side of the street. Then, he just as quickly made a u-turn. So, she crossed the street again. He made another u-turn and continued to follow her.

This was very unsettling when crossing the street didn’t discourage the driver from following her, so Sue became more creative by pretending to report him. She said, “I saw a man in a security uniform on a piece of property and called out to him, but he didn’t respond. I pretended to continue a conversation with the uniformed man as I pointed to the man in the car. This did not deter the driver of the car and he continued to follow me.”

Sue, now very frightened after all of her attempts failed to lose the driver, quickly ducked into the first business establishment she came across and called for a taxi. She said, “I took the taxi back to the Trade Show which was only six blocks away and I stayed there.”

Sue recalled another time she walked down a public street and encountered a man that made her laugh a lot. She said, “I was walking down the street when a naked man jumped out of the bushes and proudly shook his thingy at me. I just looked at him and began to laugh and said ‘cute’. Then the naked man, seemingly embarrassed, jumped back into the bushes to hide. I couldn’t stop laughing as I continued down the street.”

This time Sue did not feel frightened or threatened. It seems that her comment of cute and her continuous laughter may have had an effect on his ego and self-esteem. She said, “His face quickly turned bright red and he just as quickly jumped back into the bushes. I felt empowered and confident!”

It was an enlightening conversation I had with Sue. Our stories were quite similar and I began to understand this was not a problem unique to me. I began to wonder just how common a problem this was. I conducted an online search using the phrase “harassment of women pedestrians”. I was surprised when my search gave me several results. The one that quickly caught my attention was this website, “Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women”, at http://stopstreetharassment.com/book/index.htm. Just reading a small bit of the page quickly made it clear that street harassment is a common problem for many women. Then I clicked though to the main page. Wow! A map! The caption above the map said,”80 to 100 percent of women worldwide face at least occasional unwanted, harassing attention in public places from men they do not know just because they’re female. In many countries like the United States, this is called ‘street harassment’.” It is amazing how much information there is on the subject for women as well as men. This website is fully armed with many useful links, definitions, statistics, personal stories, educating men and empowering women. There are several more links under resources for articles and books, posters, videos and audio.

Holly Kearl founded the website in 2008 and has written a book which was published August 2010. The book includes experiences of more than 1,000 women and many anti-street harassment activists who contributed to the content. Holly Kearl states, “We need a full-blown global anti-street harassment movement to end this global problem before women will have equal access to public spaces.”

The website opened my eyes to the fact that catcalling men and drive-by snails didn’t discriminate which women they harassed. They really did not care what age, color or size I was, just the fact I was female was enough to harass me. Taking into account my own experiences and the very similar experiences of my cousin Sue, I can see now that keeping quiet is not part of the solution. As the website has made very clear speaking out and sharing with others is the road to a common solution. The catcalling and drive-by snails are not experiences to hide or be ashamed of. Not much can or will be done until the problem is brought to light and addressed as a real problem that affects not only women but men too. Not all men behave in this childishly disrespectful manner. I have received catcalls while in the company of men who found it very distasteful and were angered by it. There are many men who strongly disapprove of such behavior, and a few who are working to end it. Together we can make a difference for our future generations through sharing of experiences, educating and creating solid solutions for a common problem.

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