Between Jian Ghomeshi and problems in the House of Commons. the taboo surrounding sexual harassment is having a moment these last few weeks, with many women in Canada and worldwide opening up about their own experiences.
So, in the spirit of considering an important issue, I’d like to try something with all of you. Do you remember reading ‘choose your own adventure’ novels as a kid? Well, this is going to be something like that.
I am going to give you three versions of a story. After reading each of them, I’d like you to tell me which one you’d choose.
Let’s say there is a girl running. Let’s say she’s around 20 years old. Let’s say I’ll stop pretending this girl isn’t me now. As I am running, I pass a house with three males sitting on the front porch. They are probably around my age. As I go by, one of them yells “Nice ass, baby! Why don’t you run back over here?” and the other two laugh. I:
Roll my eyes and keep on running, feeling a tad self-conscious. I do not look back. Despite the fact that my normal route would involve me heading home the way I’d come, I choose an alternate route home to avoid the porch.
Turn around and jog back towards the house. All three guys look uncomfortable that I actually turned around and are nervously giggling. I look at the original speaker and say: “Hmm, doesn’t look like I can say the same about you,” flip all three of them the bird and continue running. When I return back the same way, the guys are still on the porch. None of them say anything.
Turn around and jog back towards the house. I explain to the three guys that their comment, however offhand it may have been, made me feel uncomfortable. The phrasing I use is: “Do you really think saying something like that is ever going to make a girl want to date you? The answer is ‘no.’ My advice would be the next time you sit on your front porch and a girl runs by, maybe yell at her to have a great run. I guarantee she’ll appreciate that more.” They apologize and I continue my run. On my way back home, I return the way I’d come. The porch is empty.
So, what do you think is the ‘best’ version of the story? I also wonder if you can guess which one actually happened.
In my quest to search for the best response, I contacted Holly Kearl, author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women, consultant to the United Nations’ Women’s Safe Cities Global Initiative and adjunct professor at George Mason University. Despite her wealth of experience, Kearl admitted to being unable to offer a ‘correct’ way to react.
As general advice, she says: “It’s really up to the person to decide how safe they feel and what their comfort level is in responding. A lot of harassment while running is from guys in cars zooming by, so it is hard to be able to do much of anything besides perhaps glare or maybe snap a photo to include in a story on a website like Stop Street Harassment.”
Speaking from a personal perspective, Kearl says, “for me, I have found that when the harassers are on the street too, saying something quick and direct like, “Don’t harass me” or “Stop, that’s harassment” identifies what has just happened, shuts them up, makes me feel a lot better because I’ve stood up for myself, and it’s short enough that it doesn’t interrupt my stride.”
As for me? Well, at the time that I was catcalled, I made the decision to ignore and then take an alternate route home. At the time, I felt as though acknowledging the guys on the porch would encourage them, maybe even make them think that girls like to be yelled at on the street. I hope that more open discussion around this topic means that I will not find myself in this situation again, but if I do, I think I may choose another ‘ending.’