On my way to work this morning, a man told me my hips would bear him “some strong, perfect children.”
“Maybe even athletes!” he added as I rounded the corner. The comment, lobbed at me before I had so much as picked up a cup of coffee, came paired with a leering grin and exaggerated wink. I could muster the energy only to put my head down and kept walking.
After another summer spent shrugging off men’s loud assessments of my body any time I left my apartment, I am exhausted. And as the streets thin out and the weather cools to a temperature less accommodating of men who consider catcalling a leisure sport, I am increasingly able to pause and feel the depth of my own fatigue.
Blame it on seasonal thirst, global warming, or some astrological event, this summer I experienced unparalleled levels of street harassment — even as I watched awareness of the issue increase in online conversations. Thanks in no small part to the protests of people who experience them, the unsolicited remarks and associated violence that women and gender-nonconforming people endure in public are becoming issues of national concern. Still invisible, however, are the draining mental calculations people like me do every day to avoid, or simply survive, street harassment.
There is no foolproof calculus for staying safe from verbal or physical harassment in a world where your body is a spectacle. A person’s vulnerability is proportional with distance from white masculinity, this we know. Black plus woman equals target. Still, I exhaust myself with shaky equations that might render me invisible and thereby minimize the danger of simply existing in public.
Ten inches of upper knee visible plus two inches of cleavage might not equal street harassment at 2 p.m., but if I subtract four hours of daylight, that equation changes. Going out tonight without enough money for cab fare? Maybe I need to add a pair of jeans. See a stranger walking toward you, looking to start conversation? Smile long enough to be pleasant but not solicitous, walk fast but not so fast it seems like I’m running away.
Every outing involves dozens of split-second decisions. The short, loose dress or the long, form-fitting one? The almost-empty subway car or the crowded one? The shorter route or the more well-lit one?
These are subconscious calculations, a survival instinct ingrained in me by a world that blames women for our own mistreatment. We are expected to sacrifice expression (in my case, a gorgeous strappy dress that makes me feel like Taraji P. Henson) in favor of modesty. There is no sheath dress that functions as a perfect shield, no shoe that can make me a gladiator. As any woman who wears a hijab can tell you, women are harassed regardless of what we wear. But at least if we cover up in the “acceptable” ways, the theorem goes, then nobody can say we were asking for it.
I know better than to take comfort in that. Whether or not I meet the standards of some imagined modesty police, the mere act of choosing how to comply wears on me. My mind can only make so many daily calculations before it slips into what social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister calls “decision fatigue.” Processing each of these useless equations takes a biological toll on my brain, leaving it more inclined, as the day wears on, to look for shortcuts.
The most obvious shortcut is to say, "Fuck it, I’m not going outside at all." That’s rarely an option. The second most obvious is to say, "Fuck it, I’m going to go wherever, wear whatever, and say whatever I want." It sounds liberating but, when I read the news, it feels downright reckless.
It’s not just the humiliation of verbal harassment women strategize to avoid. Men have killed women for not giving them their numbers, for not saying yes to a prom invitation, for not having sex with them, and for so much less. I know not every man I pass is deadly, and not every catcall will escalate to violence. But, by the end of a long walk home, I’ve got little mental energy left for guessing what his intentions are.
Once, I explained to a man that I was tired and not entirely interested in having a conversation with him during my 95-degree commute. (Apparently, the headphones weren’t enough.) His anger bubbled up quicker than my body could brace for impact.
“Nobody wanted you anyway, you busted bitch,” he said. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard those words thrown at me in response to a (gentle) rejection, but every instance stings.
Decision fatigue is discussed mostly as an obstacle on a TED Talker’s path to complete, Soylent-fueled productivity. For women like me, it’s part of my everyday attempt to stay alive. And, no matter how much attention the issue of street harassment gets, men seem to have a hard time believing this.
When I tell my male friends about the jagged edges of my otherwise smooth commute to work and the sharp spikes in my blood pressure during an otherwise leisurely stroll through the park, many are shocked. They are unable to fathom that anyone would speak to a stranger with such entitlement. (And, apparently, unable to observe it going on around them on the sidewalk.) Others, thinking themselves pragmatic, suggest I “not let it get to" me. As though I could will a personal force field into existence.
But the coup de grâce of dismissals is “I would never do that.” Certainly no one reminds a burglary victim that he would never steal her television. What these men are really saying is, "I know you may be hurt right now and you might like to be comforted, but what’s really important here is that we all establish I’m not like those men."
Making decisions for my safety all day is exhausting; not being believed when I say I have to make those decisions is demoralizing. The defensive disbelief of self-described good guys invalidates everything I’ve said. Does he not believe another man would harass me? Why does he feel implicated if he doesn’t harass women? Is he calling me a liar or questioning the authenticity of my account? Second-guessing myself so many times is maddening.
I understand why it might be hard for some of my friends to wrap their brains around the mechanisms of street harassment; it confounds me too: Why wouldn’t people just respect strangers’ wishes? What street harassment suggests about gender roles and hierarchies feels so deeply entrenched in our culture that I don’t really expect to walk catcall-free until tampons are government-subsidized or I just get old, whichever comes first. But until then, being a good guy — or, you know, a genuinely compassionate human being — requires more than not harassing women. It requires listening to us, and believing us — electing not to heap your own ignorance and incredulity onto our already-lopsided mental workload.
Who knows what our brains will do with all that extra processing power?