12/29/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

When Is Street Harassment a Big Deal?

Andrew Cribb via Getty Images

Last week, I walked to the grocery store. Then I walked home. No big deal.

Nothing stood out about this half-mile walk. Except for my decision to buy lentils for the first time, nothing about this day was special. And unfortunately, nothing I experienced in the two-block walk between my house and the neighborhood soccer field was out of the ordinary.

Approaching a group of men I see frequently, I stopped thinking about the proper cooking time for lentils and started thinking how to proceed. The men had stopped talking and turned to face me as I approached.

Should I make eye contact? Avoiding eye contact seemed rude. But if I looked them in the eye, they might want to talk to me.

I like talking to people, so that could be fine. But what if I don't respond quickly enough, or the right way? If I keep walking, will they try to stop me? Will they follow me?

Should I say hello first?

Should I smile?

Should I cross the street, or does that make me seem like a b*tch? Also, I don't need to cross the street -- they see me every day, and they know that. Wait -- Do they know where I live?

Last week, published a thought-provoking post that referenced a University of Mary Washington study on street harassment. In a nutshell, the study and the article posited that public sexual harassment can lead to "insidious trauma" on the part of its victims. Women in the study who reported frequent sexual harassment showed signs of trauma and symptoms of PTSD -- and those signs were significantly worse for women who had been sexually assaulted.

I have never been sexually assaulted. I count myself lucky to have never been raped, molested by a family member or taken advantage of sexually by a partner. Save for the occasional groping on a Saturday night at a bar (an experience that, sadly, most women have come to expect), I have been blessed to live a life free of unwanted physical advances by men.

This leads friends and family to beg the question of why I care so much about street harassment. And as the Board Chairman of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a grassroots, Washington D.C. group fighting public sexual harassment, the question is begged of me often: Why, in a society where rape runs rampant and women die at the hands of their boyfriends and husbands, should I devote so much of my time to something that is "not a big deal"?

At CASS, we believe sexual assault exists on a spectrum. This spectrum includes behaviors like stalking, fondling, unwanted penetration, grabbing and, yes, cat-calling. This spectrum is defined differently across groups of women and LGBTQ-identifying individuals (which this study did not include) but the basis is the same:

Rape happens because of the culture we -- both men and women -- have created.

We tell a woman it's "not a big deal" when a strange man stares at her, tells her she looks beautiful. What we're really saying is that his comments are OK. Fox News says we should feel complimented, adored and, if we've reached a certain age, flattered and fortunate to catch a man's eye.

You don't want to be told you're beautiful? So what? It's a free country. Get over it. Get over yourself.

We give men the freedom to comment on a woman's body, whether they know her or not, and we at CASS posit that this is a dangerous slippery slope. This "boys will be boys" mentality is assigned to every kind of inappropriate behavior -- from the 8-year-old boy on the playground who lifts up a little girl's skirt to the hedge fund manager who asks a waitress if he can take her "to go."

The problem is that men -- yes, all men -- define for themselves where the line is between appropriate and inappropriate, between complimentary and criminal. And when we tell men that it's "not a big deal" to comment on a woman's body, and that her refusal to accept the compliment is hyper-sensitivity, we've given him ownership over her autonomy. We've taken away her ability to say "no."

Sound familiar?

Are all cat-callers actually rapists deep down inside? Come on -- of course not. But when we tell a man he can freely stare at, comment on and intimidate a woman, we open up the idea, subconscious though it may be, that a woman's body is his to enjoy. And the woman has absolutely no idea how the strange man on the street will choose to enjoy her.

When I am alone and approach a group of men, my mind clicks over to problem-solving mode, which for me is a furrowed brow, a blank stare and clenched teeth. I don't even realize I'm doing it. I don't consciously tell myself to stop thinking about lentils and start thinking about surviving the last two blocks home. But after roughly 18 years of catcalls, of grabbing, of following or even of silent eyes watching me as I walk by, this is my body's reaction. And I cannot turn it off.

Maybe this reaction -- developed subconsciously after the first time a strange man called me a slut at age 13 -- is a result of what the study refers to as "insidious trauma." Maybe not. But feeling as if my body is not my own, that I exist in a public space for the enjoyment of others, and that my behavior should reflect that for my own safety has caused me anger, tears and feelings of overwhelming defeat in my life. Put another way, street harassment has changed the course of my entire life.

People should be allowed to go grocery shopping without feeling fear. Women should be able to walk the streets of their neighborhood without tapping into their fight or flight responses. And public spaces should be safe ones.

It's a big deal -- to me.