I Need Feminism Because My Sister Shouldn’t Have To Experience Street Harassment

My little sister should have the same amount of confidence in + respect for herself as I do for her! (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez)
I need feminism because my little sister should have the same amount of confidence in + respect for herself as I do for her! (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez)

The other day I was walking down the street with two of my friends.  I had fallen slightly behind them when an older man walking towards us suddenly locked eyes with me.  I looked away quickly, but he angled toward me, eyes full of something very creepy and unnerving, and asked, “Are you free for a date?”

Being polite, I said, “No thanks!” and ran to catch up to my friends.  I looked back once and caught him staring at me, eyes still full of that same disconcerting energy.

I began to notice men paying attention to me when I was twelve, near the beginning of seventh grade.  I still looked pretty young, but I was very tall, so maybe men thought I was older.  Or perhaps my actual age was not an issue.  I didn’t particularly mind being looked at.  It made me feel noticed. These men weren’t being vulgar, and they did not make comments or make me feel uncomfortable.  But it wasn’t until I got a little older, maybe around thirteen, that I started to receive a lot of attention.

Thirteen was really the year I started walking around and going on the subway by myself.  This was when the looks turned into much more. Men began saying passing remarks like, “So beautiful,” “Hey baby girl,” and once simply, “Nice tits.”  I wasn’t sure how to react to a lot of these.  Not all were rude, and sometimes I didn’t take much notice. Sometimes I enjoyed the comments.

Enjoying this kind of attention from men is often the case for girls without a strong support system at home, or for those girls who feel unwanted or undesired. As Rachel Lloyd, founder of the organization GEMS writes in her memoir, Girls Like Us, “She was uncomfortable with her body and her appearance . . . and she carried that knowledge with her like a weight that she desperately wanted to put down.  Attention from boys, or men, always helped ease that weight a little.”

Although Lloyd writes about girls who have been commercially exploited, even girls who have not been commercially exploited succumb to the attention of boys and men. These girls are often sucked into a relationship or a situation that is not healthy due to their desire for attention from men.  For example, sometimes I liked getting attention from these men because it made me feel like I was wanted and special.

Certain ones, though, made me extremely uncomfortable, and stick out in my mind.  There was one time when two obviously drunk men asked me if I wanted to come home with them.  Another time, an older man groped me on the subway, and I ended up being late to school because I was so uncomfortable, I got off the train for a while.  Then there was the time a homeless man at church tried to kiss me.  Another time, two men on the sidewalk called across the street at me, asking “how much” I was for an hour.

During all of these instances, I was dressed very much like a kid with bell-bottom jeans, a bright pink shirt, long thick coat, and sneakers.

An Anti-Street Harassment Advertisement

Until I took this feminism course at my high school taught by my teacher Ileana Jiménez, I never realized how not ok all of this was and how much it was hurting me.  I had the attitude that no matter what we do, the way these men act will never change. At the same time, I had internalized the message that I was merely a sex object for these men and that it was somehow a good thing that they noticed me for my body.

I always assumed that in some way it was my fault for walking a certain way, looking men in the eyes, or wearing certain clothing.  After taking this course, I realize how fundamentally sexist this attention I was getting and my attitude towards it was.

The fact that these men felt they were allowed to make comments about my body is wrong.

The fact that these men felt it was all right to treat me as a sexual object, to touch me or ask me if I wanted to come home with them is wrong.

I never felt frightened to walk down the street, only resigned to what I expected to happen, which is perhaps the worst approach to street harassment. As Rebecca Walker writes in her essay, “Becoming the Third Wave,” “the ultimate rally of support for the male paradigm of harassment, sends a clear message to women: ‘Shut up! Even if you speak, we will not listen.’  I will not be silenced.  I acknowledge the fact that we live under siege. I intend to fight back. I have uncovered and unleashed more repressed anger than I thought possible. For the umpteenth time in my 22 years, I have been radicalized, politicized, shaken awake.”

My sister is fourteen years old.  She looks younger than I did at her age, but as I said before, I’m not sure how much age matters to these men.  I hope that she has never experienced anything along the lines of what I have experienced.  Even before I took this feminism class, I knew I wanted my sister to attend my high school.  I knew that she would be taught things she would not have been taught at any other school.

I know that my teacher, Ileana Jiménez, has been involved with the anti-street harassment movement including work with Hollaback! and with Holly Kearl’s Stop Street Harassment blog and activism. My teacher has also written about street harassment on her blog.  These are the sorts of things that should be taught to young men and women in all schools.

I hope my sister realizes that even the “positive” comments like “So beautiful,” are a way of putting women down.  They are a way of making women into sexual beings, with a complete disregard for personality and accomplishments. I am not telling her to engage in an argument with every man who says something to her on the street.  I just want her to understand, in a way that I didn’t at her age, that these comments are part of a systemic problem of sexism and misogyny.

It is not just some random uneducated man on the street, but a society that feels it is ok to hyper-sexualize women and make them feel less important by only focusing on their physical traits.  My sister is already much more sensible now than I have ever been, so I have faith that it will take her much less time than it did for me to realize how much there needs to be done to protect and empower ourselves and all other girls.

As Audre Lorde writes in her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,”: “Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is a difference between the passive be and the active being.”

3 thoughts on “I Need Feminism Because My Sister Shouldn’t Have To Experience Street Harassment

  1. Fantastic post!
    I really found it interesting reading about your own personal experiences of street harassment. It’s sad to know, that I don’t know one girl that hasn’t been commented on by someone inapropriatly, or who can say that they’ve walked down the street and never felt a mans creepy stare.

    It’s almost come to the stage that women are scared to walk anywhere alone. But as you wrote: “I never felt frightened to walk down the street, only resigned to what I expected to happen, which is perhaps the worst approach to street harassment.”

    Your awareness of what your sister is going to experience and how you want to help her is truly admirable. You’re a great sister, and she is lucky to have you.

    Women and young girls need a role model, like you – to help further the message that women aren’t sexual beings and aren’t walking down the street for harassment.

  2. I think most girls experience some sort of street harassment is their lives no matter what variation of it. That in itself is horrifying. I thought it was interesting and very relevant how you wrote about the comments on the street that might not be seen as street harassment or the comments that might be seen as compliments. As you too state in your blog post, I have realized that these types of comments are also degrading and dehumanizing.

  3. The advertisement that says “my name is not baby” is very powerful. Street harassment is also a prevalent problem that goes as a joke. People let it be and don’t take it seriously until it becomes a serious problem like rape, and then when that does happen they blame the victim and what she was wearing as if she “asking for it”

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