DON’T TELL ME TO ‘SMILE’

At 12-years-old, the men near my school would leer at me as I speed-walked past them in a regular pair of denim shorts and a t-shirt. My mother told me to ignore them, so I did. There was nothing I could do.

I was 14 when I saw the same man every single day on my route to school. What seemed like a coincidence quickly became something more when I spotted him darting around my apartment building. I had to find a new route to school. There was nothing I could do. 

I am tired of feeling helpless. Tired of being told to ignore individuals who go out of their way to make me feel uncomfortable, individuals who receive zero consequences for their disgusting actions. Who instead, are constantly encouraged by the false ideals of society, including victim-blaming.

At 18-years-old, I have been the target of obscenities, undesirable attention, and uncomfortable physical advances again and again, regardless of my many precautions. 

I am not alone. 

According to a 2019 survey conducted by the University of Chicago, who interviewed 1,182 women and 1,037 men across the nation, 81% of women and 43% of men had experienced sexual harassment/assault at some point in their life. 

Among these cases, verbal sexual harassment was found to be the most common, affecting 77% of women and 34% of men in the same survey. 

In a 2014 poll regulated by YouGov, a market research company, focusing on verbal sexual harassment, 72% believed it was never appropriate to catcall. Men were found more likely to say it was ‘sometimes’ or ‘always’ appropriate. When asked if they considered the catcalls as compliments, 55% of Americans said it was harassment, 24% were unsure, while only 20% believed to be complimented. 

While I am fortunate enough to live in New York City, widely considered as one of the safest cities in the world, street harassment has become a normalized piece of city life.

After a sexual harassment encounter with a man on the same train, I remember looking at a friend in shock as she shrugged the situation off.

“It’s so common. It doesn’t even matter anymore,” she said.

What seems like a ‘little thing’ soon becomes a ripple effect. Even catcalling, a seemingly harmless way of ‘complimenting’ women, is in reality, a rude and creepy attempt at receiving a woman’s attention. Catcall culture revolves around power hierarchy, oftentimes striving to paint the man as the ‘dominant’ figure whenever he sees an ‘open target’.

When we begin normalizing this kind of behavior, we are condoning the same culture that allows individuals to get away with rape, with occupational sexism, with slut-shaming, among other injustices. When we ask women what they are wearing or tell them to ‘cover-up’, we are invalidating the victims and granting satisfaction to the very individuals who thrive by exerting power over others.

Women share their sexual harassment stories:

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

“I have had instances of being followed on the street and looked at for an uncomfortably long amount of time on the subway, to the point that I would have to move cars. I find these situations just as unsettling as being catcalled on the street because they are less obvious to those around, but still perpetuate a culture of objectifying women and making them feel unsafe when they’re alone.” – Adele

“Instead of being able to enjoy childhood, girls are taught how to handle being catcalled when walking down the street while boys are typically oblivious to the challenges they face. Sexual harassment has gotten so normalized that at eight-years-old, I was told to ‘cover-up’ so men wouldn’t sexualize me.” – Madison 

“In my sophomore year of high school, I was walking home alone and a group of 4 guys started talking to me. I ignored them and started walking faster. They started to pick up their pace while commenting on my body and what I was wearing. I ended up ducking into a Gristedes down the next block. 30 seconds later, they waltz in talking about looking for me. I’m on my phone trying to ignore them, praying they won’t on chance fall upon this small room I’m sheltered in. I stand there leaned up against a shelf of beers thinking to myself. Why me? Is it because I wore a dress today? Every time I’m catcalled, I feel disgusting. I feel like my body isn’t mine. I feel objectified and I don’t, shouldn’t, and will never have control over how people see me or what people call me. Looking back at my thoughts and feelings anytime I’ve been catcalled: I always feel insecure and ask What have I done WRONG? Why? Why me? – Katie

“I’ve probably been catcalled more times than I know. At this point, I just walk with headphones in and learn to phase out my surroundings.  The most memorable experience occurred on my way home from volleyball practice. It was late and dark and I was walking fast on Wall Street at 7 pm. As I’m walking, a chubby elderly white man in a grumbly raspy voice says “nice legs”. I was 15 years old. It made me feel so uncomfortable, suffice it to say I always wore sweats after practice. It confuses me to this day how I was supposed to feel about his comment, like thanks I guess? Now please move out of my way so I can get to where I need to go. These comments don’t make me feel pretty, they don’t make me want to engage in conversation. They make me scared, they make me uncomfortable, and frankly pissed off. – Nia

“You could be minding your own business sitting on the train or walking down the street when out of nowhere someone catcalls you. It’s disorienting. I’ve known some people to say that catcalling is harmless or just simple flattery—but it’s all in how the person approaches it, and that could be the difference between a simple comment and straight-up harassment. Too often I’ve found myself simply being stared at by a much older man while riding the train. Too often I’ve had to get up and walk to another area because it made my skin crawl when I noticed a man watching me as I sat on a bench in a park. And too often I’ve caught these grown men taking pictures of me for who knows how long before I noticed them. Experiences like these can certainly ruin anyone’s day. I would like to put it out there that this doesn’t only apply to women. Men have definitely been harassed or made uncomfortable before and I believe this needs to be taken more seriously.” – Janice

“I remember crossing Second Ave and a man whistling at me. I remember men asking me to ‘smile for them’. They ask me for a name, I say “Julia”, or “Julie”, my name is Juliette. They ask me for my number, I say no, but they insist and get angry. I hate that society has made me feel responsible. I hate that my clothes are an excuse, or that my expressions are misinterpreted and someone feels that they should comment on it. I wish I didn’t experience all of this before turning 18, because how I see myself would be so much more different. Maybe I’d be more confident in my body, maybe I wouldn’t actively try to show less skin, maybe I would wear what I want without worrying what everyone else has to say, and maybe I would stop blaming myself.” – Juliette

“I think street harassment forces girls to grow up earlier than they should. We become more self-aware of our bodies during a time where we still don’t fully understand ourselves and that’s detrimental in so many ways. To be called out by complete strangers based solely on your looks is extremely uncomfortable, and no one should have to feel that way.” – Joni

“I remember wearing my sweats and t-shirt with no makeup…just going out to the laundromat to do my laundry. This guy comes up to me and says he knows me and we’ve met before. I said I don’t know who you are. He followed me and grabbed my arm trying to convince me of our familiarity. I have never seen this guy before in my life. It was broad daylight. I was still scared for my life. So next time, someone tries to victim blame saying ‘it’s late’, ‘the girl is drunk’, ‘they’re asking for it with what they’re wearing’, they should check themselves.– Annie

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