Despite Progress, Public Harassment Persists

Hillary Smith

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Opinion_Schuh_Womens Assualt_1

Illustration by Tyle Schuh.

This summer I stayed in a house in a city without my parents for the first time. I also learned how terrifying it can be to be female.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a great overall experience living in Seattle, and I actually became quite savvy about getting around on my own.

But on one night shortly after moving in after I attended a late-night jazz concert downtown, I took the bus to the U-District, where my house was. When I got off at my stop, I found myself on a dark, eerily quiet street. Immediately I became self-conscious about myself as a young, nicely dressed female. I crossed my arms, clutched my keys between my fingers and walked as quickly as possible. Just as I was nearing my house, two men in a yard saw me and one called out, “How you doin’?”

Now, that may seem like a harmless phrase. It’s certainly not as bad as a crude insult or sexual comment. But when you are a 19-year-old girl walking home alone at night in an unfamiliar neighborhood for the first time in your life, this terrifies you. I ended up ignoring the men and getting home safely, but I felt rattled and disturbed –– disturbed that I was so scared to walk home.

So I started searching online to see if other women had commented on this issue. To my horror, I found stories about women being attacked and harassed even during the day, some of them on sidewalks with other people. Most of all, I found women who were just as frightened as I was to walk by themselves on a dark street.

That got me thinking: This is so wrong. Women without vehicles have to get home somehow, but every time we do we must hold our pepper spray and keys like we’re going into battle. Sometimes we aren’t bothered. But other times we encounter creepy men who capitalize on the fact that our society has normalized sexually harassing women. It’s kind of just accepted as how it is: Women are at higher risk for assault, women must protect themselves. The twisted part is, most women feel safer walking home after dark with a man. This is in part because men are considered physically stronger and more able to protect, but it also stems from a lingering cultural perception of women as property: A woman with a man has already been “claimed.” The perception of women as objects for men to claim is likely part of why harassment has become the norm. It also explains why young, attractive women are the ones so often targeted: They are seen as bodies, not people. Constant appropriation of female bodies in the media contributes to the persistence of this mindset, as well as an enduring perception of women as the lesser gender. Despite how far women have come in many areas, despite an American society that advertises equal rights, this perception endures because it is not challenged often enough.

Although we women need to look out for ourselves, men and society at large must work harder to challenge these cultural perceptions. When a woman gets harassed or assaulted, they must stop blaming or doubting the victim and instead go after the attacker. They must speak out in support of women and recognize that gender inequity still exists instead of pretending that it’s no longer an issue. When both genders work together to support and publicly advocate for women, we will start to move forward in altering societal mindsets and making the streets feel a little safer.