The Realities of Harassment
This summer, I am living in an apartment in Washington, D.C. as I complete an internship. Earlier this week, my mother was concerned about my getting home because I had to attend a gala for work. She even did a phone lookup because she was concerned that I did not text her when I got home. Another night, after attending a Nationals game, she wanted me to call her when I got home. To be honest, I was relatively upset. I didn’t understand why she was so concerned about my getting around Washington, D.C. I was not out much later than 10 p.m. on these particular occasions, and the Metro was relatively crowded at these times.
Last night I had to travel home from a friend’s house quite late at night. It was about 1 a.m., and we had just finished playing Dungeons and Dragons for the night. The Metro was relatively empty, and it only runs about every 20 minutes at that point. My friend lives by the Metro, and as do I, so the amount of walking alone I would have had to do was minimal. As a female living and traveling by myself, I like to keep it that way. However, the taking the Metro was necessary. I finally understand what my mother was afraid of.
As soon as I got on the Metro car to go home, an older man began to talk to me, asking me where I had come from, where I was going, what my name was. He was paying clearly unwanted and unsolicited attention to me, and I wasn’t sure how to react. The Metro was empty. What would he do? It seems strange to ask, because he was simply talking to me. But it’s a feeling, or a vibe—a discomfort. There is a power dynamic in situations like these, and in that situation there were not many witnesses. I don’t have much experience at all with harassment, either. This was all new.
I didn’t want to be rude and ignore him completely for fear that he would become aggressive if I did not respond. It is almost as if women are expected to accept unwanted attention. I didn’t want to be polite either, or respond to give him the wrong idea that this attention was OK. There is no winning in this situation. With individuals who harass others, you just never know.
I wasn’t sure what made him talk to me—my traveling alone? My being female? My age? My shorts and tank top? My makeup? The way I decided to straighten my hair that day? I shouldn’t have to worry about traveling alone at night. And my clothing certainly should be no indicator that I am asking for you to talk to me on an empty train. But unfortunately, in our society, all of that sends some sort of message to harassers.
He spoke to me as soon as I sat down. He asked me if there were any bars in the area where I hopped onto the train, because apparently wanting to dress nicely is an indicator that I was out at bars. There were not. I then responded to his question of where I was coming from quietly and detached so that he would get the message. He clearly didn’t and continued to talk to me. I stopped responding and said I could not hear him when the train finally started. I avoided eye contact and sat awkwardly.
I wanted to switch cars, but I knew there might not have been enough time at any of the stops to do so. I wanted to get off, but I would be stuck waiting 20 minutes for the next train. And there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t follow me off. It ended up being alright in the end. Other individuals hopped onto our car a few stops later, and they all got off the train at my same location.
My mom was right to be concerned. I shouldn’t have to feel like others who do not understand what is appropriate and what is not are dictating what I can and cannot do. But I have to in order to feel safe. This doesn’t just happen in D.C.–it’s a problem everywhere.
Perhaps having your daughters who live away from home text every time they go out is a bit extreme. But you have a right to be concerned as a mother. Sit down with your daughter. Have a conversation with her. Share your personal experiences. Since harassment is an issue for all women, relate to your daughter. Explain why harassment happens. Explain the realities of this world. Tell them none of this should affect where they go, or what they wear. Tell them to be careful, but to continue to enjoy life and act as they would. Tell them to travel in groups late at night, and they will be OK. Discuss a plan of how to best handle these situations, so your daughter is prepared and knows what to do when and if they do happen. And tell them that you are always available to call when they need, whether it is for emergencies or just to be on the phone to get rid of a harasser.