When I got harassed on the street for the first time, one of my first thoughts was, “Finally.” I breathed a sigh of relief. At long last, I was considered attractive enough for men on the street to give me the time of day. Pretty big day in a 12-year-old’s life.
Almost eight years later, my mindset has drastically changed. Sexual harassment has had an unfortunately large effect on my formative teenage years. It has felt less like a mere annoyance and instead like a constantly looming menace. I know for a fact that I am not the only one who has had this experience. I would be hard-pressed to find anyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances who has not been harassed at least once while growing up.
My relationship with my body and overall outward appearance has always been complicated. I have always felt much more connected to my brain than my body and consequently dealt with feelings of clumsiness, discomfort and overall physical awkwardness. Men twice my age telling me they thought I was sexy simultaneously made me feel disgusting and attractive, and therefore, worth something.
In a twisted sort of way, there is a small part of my brain that has not evolved from the 12-year-old who thought that superficial compliments from strange men were the highest form of praise. While I despise being catcalled, I know that deep down I would miss it if it stopped. “The thing about being regarded as a sexual object before you’re of consensual age … is that you don’t quite have a grasp on what advances mean,” Samantha Shokin wrote in an essay for The Huffington Post. “They are affirmations of attractiveness, seemingly detached from salacious intent because they don’t appear to escalate (until eventually, they do).”
A couple of nights ago, a friend and I went to a club in Berlin that was pretty far from our apartment building. I felt like a deer on the first day of hunting season. At least four different men forcibly tried to get me to dance with them multiple times, even after I made it clear that I was uninterested in them. One specific man, who had shown interest in both of us, followed us out of the club when we left and rode the same train as us. We had to lie about our names and where we were going and wait him out in a train station until he eventually got on a train, finally leaving us alone. While nothing actually violent happened, I was left rattled and even more anxious about riding the train than I was before.
It is here that I want to acknowledge my privilege as a cisgender woman. While cisgender women are still often not given appropriate space to talk about and digest harassment, most discussions about sexual harassment are about cisgender women being harassed by cisgender men. It is important to acknowledge that transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people, especially those who are not white, are more likely to be harassed and assaulted. This harassment may include misgendering and intrusive questions and remarks. Jamal Lewis wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, “Many women worry about being sexually harassed or assaulted by men. I also have to worry about what will happen when men find out I’m trans … trans women and gender-nonconforming people of color are dying because people, especially cisgender men and women, cannot police their imaginations.”
I do not have a happy ending planned for this column. I am thoroughly exhausted after having to constantly rethink my actions so I don’t attract unwanted attention for close to a decade. It is important for us to take care of each other and make sure everyone around us is safe from harm. However, in the words of Alok Vaid-Menon, “A lot of strategies when it comes to ending harassment are oriented around making women and trans people modify our behavior and appearances, and never around actually challenging societies which enable and encourage harassment against us … The solution is ending patriarchy and the gender binary that upholds it.”
Annick Tabb is a junior double-majoring in political science and English.