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What Not to Say When a Woman Shares Experiences With Street Harassment

02/25/2015 06:35 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

"Oh, I can relate to that. I remember this one time when I was 11 years old and walking home from school, some older kids said something nasty to me."

This was a response I received from someone I care very deeply about, after I shared the myriad ways by which, as a young girl, I had been harassed on the streets of Brooklyn. Two instances of that harassment stand out among others too numerous to count:

Such as the time I was 15 years old and walking along the cement expanse known to Bensonhurst locals as Bay Parkway. As a kid, I really, really enjoyed going "down by the water" (for my family, this was code for visiting the popular "Caesar's Bay" promenade. The promenade affords locals a stunning view of the Verrazano Bridge, and also the sunset if you happen to be there at the right time). My childhood consisted of frequent trips going "down by the water" with my parents; a ride down Bay Parkway, the most direct route to "the water," got us there by car in under ten minutes (and sometimes only mere minutes if we beat the red lights).

As I became older, I was given the freedom to walk to the promenade on my own during the day, about a 20 minute walk from our home in Gravesend. We did not construe our neighborhood as dangerous, by any means (I still do not construe my old neighborhood as dangerous); for me, my legs were my main source of transportation on most days, and this was a normal, necessary aspect of my childhood. It's just Brooklyn, to me. No matter how far away life takes me, Brooklyn is home. Nothing more, nothing less.

As a kid who loved water and exercise almost equally, I absolutely loved my walks to the water. And on this particular day, a sunny, comfortably warm day in 1996, I committed the crime of not crossing that large, perpetually high-traffic, four-lane street to avoid a small group of guys--3, I think--who happened to be walking toward me, in the opposite direction.

I did not know them; they seemed a little too tall, their faces a little too stubbly, and their voices a little too deep for me to recognize them from my sophomore class at the local high school. As the distance between us decreased, I heard them laughing and cursing at each other. The precise transition from walking along Bay Parkway uninterrupted to being pinned against the black, wrought iron fence which separated pedestrians from a nearby apartment building eludes me to this day. The tallest, most muscular one of the group wrapped his leg around my entire body (it seemed) and began thrusting until I pushed him off of me with all of the teenage might I could manage. I knew intuitively that his loosened grip on my body was much more inspired by the fact that his assault occurred on a busy street in broad daylight, and had virtually nothing to do with my physical strength.

They laughed, joked, cursed, and continued their trajectory in the opposite direction, as though nothing had happened. The contact occurred for only a few seconds, and over clothing. No harm, no foul, right?

I remember feeling disturbingly "lucky" that that's all that happened.

Do not tell me I am "lucky."

I continued with my plan to head to the water that day, but this time, rather than just enjoy the bridge and the choppy waves of the Narrows waterway, I continued my plan with a new goal: To forget what I had just experienced. To forget that a stranger felt entitled to put his stranger-hands on me without my consent.

I have altered my "behavior" as a result of this event. As an adult, I have made it a habit of crossing the street when I notice a group walking in the opposite direction. Whether I am in a Midwestern suburb or a big city, I am now sure to cross the street from others to the extent that I can do so safely. Am I being overly cautious? Probably. But I am approximately 0% interested in finding out whether my precautionary measures are warranted in a given situation.

Do not tell me I am "overreacting."

Another experience stands out alongside that unfortunate Bay Parkway encounter. I am now 16. On this particular summer day, I had made it all the way to the water without incident. I remember leaning against the railing, my back to the distant, endless rush of the highway traffic that ran alongside the promenade and all it offered. As I recall, I was deep in thought about something school-related. After all, I was a teenager. I likely had college, SATs, friends, and boys on the brain, and not necessarily in that order.

I can only make hazy assumptions about the thoughts that may have been occupying me at that moment; however, the memory of the single event that disrupted my thoughts--the strong, groping hand in pursuit of a path up and under my shorts--is crystal clear. I remember the sharp, startled intake of breath as I turned around to see who the hand belonged to. By then, he and his voyeuristic sidekick were speeding away, perhaps victoriously, on their bicycles.

The hand, mind you, made enough contact with enough naked skin that would send most fathers into a fiery rage, had they known that the skin belonged to their teenage daughter.

My heart never pounded so hard; my gag-reflex never so triggered before that moment, or even since. Perhaps most disturbingly, I was deeply embarrassed: Had anyone seen this occur? Did anyone in a passing car happen to notice? What would people think of me for my role in a violation of personal boundaries that I--in my teenage mind--inspired? Would my parents yell at me if I told them?

Nausea and heart palpitations aside, I remember feeling disturbingly "lucky" that that's all that happened.

Do not tell me I am "lucky."

I have altered my "behavior" as a result of this experience. I did not return to my sacred place, "the water," alone.

Do not tell me that it took me long enough to reach that conclusion.

I never shared these stories with my parents. The ounce of freedom I had as a teenager of strict parents who were tasked with raising kids in a big city depended on it. My freedom trumped my need to inform the adults that my personal space and boundaries had been violated. In my teenage mind, the options were obvious: My freedom or my stories.

As I think about my experiences, I think about the consequences of sharing them, even as an adult. Particularly as a college professor, I think of the (many) young women I meet, and to be honest, I cannot help but to worry about them; I wonder about how they handle street harassment and uninvited physical contact, whatever the kind, whatever the extent, whatever the circumstances. I wonder about how they handle thoughtless responses.

On behalf of my students: Do not tell them they are "lucky"; do not ask them what they were "wearing"; do not compare one version of street harassment with another version of (seemingly more extreme) street harassment. This is not the Street Harassment Olympics, and you are not the moderator.

And of course I think about men who are inevitably implicated in these issues, even if many of them cannot claim to have experienced an errant hand up their shorts--or something worse.*

*This is not to say that men do not experience harassment or abuse, sexual or otherwise. In the event a reminder is warranted, this article is about my experiences with street harassment.

As such, I am reminded of Richard Branson's wise words: "Listen more than you talk. Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak."

My previous article addressed women; in this current post, I wish to lovingly address men.

Think about the women in your life; think about their stories of harassment and uninvited attention - we all have them. If their stories of harassment remind you of that one time two decades ago when someone said something to you that made you feel badly, you are not listening.

It is OK to lack the ability to relate to certain experiences. In fact, admitting that you are not able to relate to something is the preferred response. It means that you are listening. Sometimes silence, accompanied by a caring heart and open ears, is the only appropriate response.

I am grateful for the many men who cannot fathom making women uncomfortable with their surroundings; the men who cannot fathom these stories. But it might be said that undermining--or worse yet, evaluating or flat out denying--a woman's stories about harassment is a step in that direction, however well-intentioned you may be. If a story upsets you, direct your anger appropriately. Do not blame the women who have had to alter their view of the world because of their experiences with being women. Blame the men who have made it more difficult for you to fathom this kind of world.

In short, be the kind of man that women who experience street harassment need in their circle--the kind who listens more than he speaks. That is a version of #yesallmen I can get behind.

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