I’m fourteen, running late for Global Studies. Breakfastless, I bolt out the door to catch the six. Instead of turning right as usual at Lexington Avenue, I take the shortcut to the station. They’re sitting at the front stoops again, right where the houses end and the deli begins. It’s humid, but I’ve put on my baggiest sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt, so maybe today they won’t say anything. I look down at my feet and try to look preoccupied, or sad, or unapproachable, or something. And I walk faster. But they turn around and stare, all of them together, and don’t move, blocking the sidewalk. They make me push through them. I can feel them, bigger, older men, looking down at me as I approach. My entire body is tensing up, dreading an unwanted touch, a crude word. I want to crawl into a hole.“Hey, come back, China doll,” one says. Something in his voice makes my stomach turn. I wish I had simply woken up on time.
I’m fifteen and sweating under the June sun. The subway ride home was sweltering, and the ice cream truck beckons. Naturally, I order a vanilla milkshake. Then—a touch to my back, an ugly whisper: “you’re so sexy, baby.” I freeze. Was that someone’s breath on my ear, or just the heat? I turn around and see a fat, balding man strolling away into the crowd. As though he had done nothing wrong. My skin is crawling everywhere. Instinctively, uselessly, I am rubbing my ear, but I cannot get rid of his awful, lingering presence. He’s taking his time walking away, and I know that he knows I am watching him and that I am too scared to say anything. I hate myself for being a coward. I hate myself for being scared. Families around me chatter and laugh, enjoying the beautiful day. The ice cream truck lady leans out. “That’ll be $2.25.”
I’m seventeen and plastic bags of bai cai are killing my arms. My mom and I speed-hobble downstairs at the Flushing station, only to find that the train isn’t leaving for ten minutes. Dropping our groceries in an empty car, my mom pulls out the weekend World Journal and I turn to my copy of Life of Pi. A man boards and sits across from us. He immediately begins staring at me. Intently. Willing my mom not to notice, I read. And he stares. He stares and doesn’t stop and I’m trying to muster the courage just to look him in the eye, but I’m afraid. What if that encourages him to do something else? What if my mother sees? I wish that he would just look away, even for one second. But he doesn’t. After a few minutes, I put down my book and look up at his face. He is old, older than even my father. I expect him to put his hand on his crotch, to grin obscenely, or to lick his lips, or maybe all three. Instead he just stares. Should I be relieved? People start filtering into the car. Eventually, he looks away.
I’m eighteen and refreshed from an afternoon run in Central Park. I’m calling my boyfriend to let him know I’m coming over. The man walking across the street towards me is leering pointedly in my direction, but I figure he won’t say anything since I’m on the phone. I’m wrong. He makes a point of brushing past my arm and sneers: “I like the way you show off them legs.” For once, I react quickly. “No, it’s just hot.” I’m walking away as fast as I can, trying to put distance between us, when he yells, “fuck you, bitch.” I turn around. He looks angry, surprised, embarrassed. I should be angry also, but all I can feel is satisfaction, an unfamiliar and fervent satisfaction. “Say it louder!” I scream across the street. “I don’t give a fuck.” I’m aware of how stupid I look and everyone is staring at me, but it’s true.
Finally, I just don’t give a fuck anymore.
How many leers, how many unwanted comments and touches does it take to take away your right to walk on the same sidewalk, to ride the same subway, as anyone else? How many times must you watch the smile on a stranger’s face widen in perverse excitement at your revulsion? Once a month? A week? More? If my experiences were limited to the above encounters, perhaps I would know.
I was sexually harassed on a regular basis from the year I turned fourteen until the year I left for college. I tried so hard, every day, to ignore it. But I couldn’t. It changed me. The irrepressible nervousness when a stranger approached. Being afraid to look any man on the street in the eyes. Worrying I was being followed. Not wanting to leave my house unless I had to. Crying. Not crying until I got home, then crying. Hating myself for crying. Playing the faces of dozens of men back in my mind—I remember them all. Wondering what would have happened if I had bumped into them in a deserted area. The rape nightmares.
But the worst part was how it warped my own view of myself. Maybe it was my fault, I thought. Maybe I was asking for it. It was because I was small and weak, I thought. I hated myself for my own helplessness. Hated myself every time the snappy retort, the “leave me alone,” the “stop,” bubbled up furiously in my heart only to wilt in my throat. The tiny, illogical, and unshakable fear that no matter how hard I worked, I would never amount to anything more than a body. That my feelings—my disgust, the anger and loathing written all over my face—would deter no one because they simply did not matter. That it would only get worse as I grew older. That my only worth was sexual. That I was less than human. That I was nothing.
I have never shared my full experience with sexual harassment before. I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want to burden them. I didn’t tell my friends because I didn’t think they would understand. And I didn’t tell anyone else because I didn’t think they cared. As a result, I believed that I was alone in how I felt, that I was “overreacting” to normal, socially accepted behavior.
I am sharing my personal experiences now as part of the first-ever International Anti-Street Harassment Week in the hopes that it can inspire people I know, and people of my generation as a whole. As a child, I felt completely helpless about my own situation. I hope that today, I am at least able to encourage others to treat sexual harassment in public as a serious issue, and to take action to protect themselves and those around them.
If you are a woman, especially a young woman, who has had similar or worse experiences, know that you are not alone. Do not keep your problems to yourself. Reach out and talk to loved ones. There are many resources and organizations which offer better advice than I can; they are listed below. The movement to report, protest, and ultimately end sexual harassment in the public sphere is springing up all over the world.
If you are someone who is unfamiliar with this subject, thank you for reading. If you support safe streets for women and children, please share this link or comment below. I’d be happy if I could reach just one person with this message.
Got Stared At
Stop Street Harassment
Men Can Stop Rape
The Pixel Project
Make Delhi Safe (India)
Young Women for Change (Afghanistan)
Collective Action for Safe Spaces (Washington, D.C.)
Facebook pages: SlutWalk, Freeze the Tease, Zero Tolerance Campaign, New Yorkers for Safe Transit, L.A.S.H. (London Anti Street Harassment) Campaign
Alice Xie is a a New York City native. She is currently a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.