Girl with headphones (and anxiety) speaks up
Aside from race, sexuality and gender, street harassment is invasive and harmful at the intersection of disability and mental health as well.
I’m sick of being accused of ruining the world for refusing to engage dudes’ piss poor sexual harassment in public. I’m not receptive to them, for a reason beyond the obvious “Because fuck you, that’s why” that often doesn’t get recognized in these conversations.
As stated in my headline, I have anxiety. So, I can be pretty bad at social interactions with people even when I really want to have good interactions with them. I dislike small talk, as I feel it’s pretty fake and boring. I’ve got a bleak, biting and sarcastic sense of humor that isn’t really appropriate for light conversation and can even come off as intentionally attempting to sabotage the interaction (which to be fair, a lot of times I am) but that I often default to when I’m nervous and unfortunately, depending on the crowd, the sarcasm can make the awkwardness (and thus, anxiety) even worse. I will avoid eye contact, say half-assed weird things, then quiet down and jitter, fidget, and play on my phone.
To clarify, I don’t merely “dislike” these situations, they make me panic. It causes me distress on a physical and emotional level. I get ill in the stomach-churning, eczema-flaring kind of way. I become easily overstimulated and overwhelmed, my mind in a fog, my words becoming increasingly incoherent.
I wear headphones and blast music as I walk or if I’m alone in a public space to keep myself calm and to stop the racing thoughts that go “Everyone’s looking at me, everyone’s looking at me, I look silly, oh god is this outfit too much, that guy’s looking at me, is he saying something, is he harassing me, what if he grabs for me, oh my god I’m going to fucking punch someone-”. It’s a furious internal dialogue that over the years I’ve learned to navigate (no one is looking at you, your outfit is perfect, and that motherfucker BETTER not look at you, shit!) but is yet there, even if quietly. Music distracts from that. A smart phone, journal or book distracts from that. Having something I can give attention to to avoid being overwhelmed from everything happening outside is necessarily for me to be outside.
The fact that, in part due to my anxiety, I am unapproachable in public shouldn’t be used against me, or weaponized as the reason to why SOCIETY IS FALLING APART (honestly, people accuse young girls and women of doing things that Are Ruining Society so often that I just ignore it at this point). Even if we lived in this ideal perfect world where everyone was friends and neighbors and waved and kissed in the streets, I’d probably would still be very squirrelly in public.
Regardless, we are living here in this flawed world now. And in this world, in no small part due to the harassment I have faced as a woman, I had to become confrontational while out because of how invasive and forceful men can be towards me and disrespectful of my personal space.
Before, my withdrawn nature and confidence issues due to really severe anxiety was seen as subservience. Men would approach me and see a young girl and all the little anxiety things I did and pick them apart. They’d ask me extremely forward questions that would befuddle me, pick on me for not wanting to look up for my book or for playing my music so loudly that, gasp, I couldn’t even hear them (WHAT a tremendous loss that would have been!) and even follow me, and it would trigger my anxiety even more. I wouldn’t know when to cut the conversation short, or to express that I felt their behavior was inappropriate, or that I was afraid, or that I just didn’t want to fucking talk to them and didn’t, shouldn’t have to qualify why that is. I would always be afraid to leave my house and ride the bus or walk without headphones blaring thus drowning out the catcalls and stares and jeers from people.
After a while I got sick of that. Even when my anxiety was at its least managed, I was never timid and always had a quick wit, and at 26 years old with way more tools to navigate my mental and emotional state and the chutzpah to call fuckers out, I make full eye contact when I tell my harassers off, even if my heart is thundering while I do it. Nowadays, my reactions are equal parts anxiety and “You are not fucking entitled to my body, life, or time, motherfucker”. I hated that men thought the only barrier between them and me was my shyness when really, the thing enabling even that small amount of access was my anxiety. When I got more of a handle of it, I was able to voice the inner dialogue that always wanted to make its way out, that of a pretty ballsy woman that believes strongly I don’t owe shit to any man.
Now, I consider myself a pretty confident person. As a community organizer, I’ve passionately protested, presented and talked to crowds of dozens to hundreds countless times in my life. However, I’m only able to do that because I know myself in all my jittery nerve-wracked glory. I know my limits and boundaries and what I have to do to prepare ahead of time for those interactions. But I still struggle with anxiety, especially while walking out in public or in social situations. And you know what? That’s life. Nothing about my experiences and how I navigate this world as someone with anxiety is unnatural or indicative of a crumbling society or whatever else the misogynists excusing that horrible Harassment Enabling 101 piece are saying it is.
And hell, you know what? I can name the countless times I’ve gone against my judgement, talked myself through my proud defiance and mounting anxiety and toned down my cold front with men to only have it thrown in my face. There’s the time I broke protocol and politely engaged a “Hey, nice piercings!” to only have it followed up by a suggestive “Do you have your tits pierced? ; )”. Or the innumerable times I have taken an ear bud out and genuinely responded to a need for directions or change or a simple “Hello!” to have it turn out to only be a front to press further or make inappropriate, homophobic to downright sexually objectifying statements about my body or sex life.
It has long been clear to me that it doesn’t matter how men approach an unwilling person and try to code it as being neighborly or human behavior, no matter how a woman or nonbinary person behaves or engages in public, whether they’re receptive or not, whether they scream a no or calmly, sweetly, politely grin and bear it because that is how they are or out of fear of angering their harasser, harassment is harassment. There’s nothing that makes it OK, nothing we do to ask for it and there’s often little we can do to stop a man bent on objectifying us from doing so. We should not be expected to make ourselves more available by mitigating our disabilities or boundaries for him. If men constantly behave disingenuously even at this ridiculously superficial level, manipulating and twisting every social interaction and clear cue to center getting themselves off and entitling themselves to us, at the cost of my personal safety and mental health, why am I supposed to put my guard down and trust them?
This behavior is already sexist, intimidating, disrespectful and even traumatizing on its own. If you factor in mental illess and other non-neurotypical people like autistic folks, other disabilities, experiences with trauma and personal boundaries, men doing things like physically approaching, yelling, touching, grabbing and forcing direct eye-contact is extra heinous. Being forceful and dismissive of anxiety is not the way to approach me regardless who you are, and it’s never going to get you anywhere as a random stranger ever.
I can only speak for myself and my experiences (which are also very racialized in many nefarious ways) but I’m sure many other women and nonbinary folks can tell you about their own navigating gender and disability and street harassment in a world that struggles even just acknowledging that street harassment is sexist, let alone ableist. What of those who cannot, because of the compact nature of existing in a patriarchal sexist world and their disabilities, speak out, defend themselves or “make eye contact” with their harassers? Why do we narrowly define disinterest as being not TOO assertive, like a nice receptive-assertive-make-eye-contact-and-don’t-be-nervous-baby-just-talk-to-me-for-at-least-10-minutes-and-give-me-your-number-before-letting-me-down kind of a thing, if at all? Why are women even expected to have to beat away or defend themselves against their aggressors?
Paintings courtesy Wiki Commons by way of this hilarious piece from The Toast (RIP)