“Hey, pretty girl. How you doin’?”
The day last fall when an unfamiliar man said those words to me was one of the last times I went for a walk alone for exercise in my neighborhood.
The Back Story:
I wrote here a few months ago about how I walked for exercise almost daily for a year in my low-crime, middle-class neighborhood, and I talked about how a recent spate of catcalls and street harassment, all from different men at different addresses, left me feeling demoralized. After that round of harassment, I spoke to a local police officer — I regularly interact with his family through various outlets in our community — and he gave me his cell number and told me to let him know specific addresses if I experienced harassment in the future. Another police officer I talked with at our neighborhood block party last fall also encouraged me to let him know if anyone bothered me.
About a month after those conversations with the police officers, I got the unsolicited “pretty girl” comment from a man who walked down his driveway to approach me as I passed by on the sidewalk.
I texted one of the police officers, told him what happened, and gave him the house number. The officer responded not long after that with: “I’ll pay him a visit.”
I felt a sense of vindication knowing that a police officer had promised to stick up for me. Yet I still felt shaken and demoralized like I usually do when I’m harassed, and it cast a shadow over the rest of my day. I have never really felt truly afraid for my physical safety when these things happened, but to say that it’s not so bad because none of these men threatened physical assault downplays how deeply verbal harassment affects women. Words have great potential to cause hurt.
Even with local police willing to advocate for me, I still felt upset enough that soon after that I stopped walking alone outside. I deemed that the potential troubles and resulting mental stress are not worth it to me right now.
Why I Stopped Walking Alone:
My thoughts and reasons for stopping revolved around a few things.
- It is hard for me to get out of my own head after a negative interaction alone with a male on the street. I work from home, which I love doing, but an incident of street harassment during my morning walk is often my last face-to-face interaction with a human until late afternoon when my family arrives home from school and work. It’s hard to stop thinking about it and reliving it, or questioning if I could have responded in a better or more effective way, and it makes my entire day less productive.
- It feels degrading to recount to male police officers every lewd thing that strange men on the street say to me. While I am grateful for the police officers who have made it clear that they want to help and that they want me to tell them when things happen, I still feel awkward and vulnerable sharing these things.
- If I report the addresses where men say inappropriate things to me, and if the police visit them, I could potentially receive blowback. Before I decided to quit walking alone outside, I strategically avoided passing the house I reported to the police officer. I wanted no possible contact — whether verbal or even just being on the receiving end of the stink eye — with a man I probably angered or caused to feel threatened because I brought the police to his doorstep.
- The cumulative effects of harassment make me irrationally anxious about encountering any unfamiliar men alone on the street, even if they turn out to be harmless. I began struggling to walk alone past a man watering his lawn or a group of contractors repairing a roof without my pulse speeding up with apprehension, or without feeling the urge to immediately change my direction or cross the street. I reached a point where harassment was on my mind even when I wasn’t being harassed, where I was coming to expect it and to dread it.
I wasn’t willing to give up exercise, though. I now exercise at home. We recently purchased a budget model exercise bike for our basement family room. I also use my family’s Wii Fit game system, walk laps through my house and up and down the basement steps, or walk and jog in place.
I’ve discovered an additional advantage to exercising at home — besides being free of unwanted attention from strange men. I can listen to the radio, or I can watch movies or television. When I walked outside, I never used earbuds or headphones because I wanted to be fully alert to my surroundings. It was a safety issue. At home, I can listen to my favorite music and radio shows or watch movies worry free. Also, during Midwest winters, I no longer have to warm up after exercising outdoors in below-freezing temperatures.
How Harassment Affects Women:
I have gotten different responses from other women when they learn I no longer go for my daily outdoor walks alone.
My mother-in law admitted she rarely walks outside for half the year because it’s too cold. She gets her recommended daily 10,000 steps in by walking laps through her house or doing other exercises at home. She has stated that she does not believe it’s good for women to walk alone anyway. “It should not be that way,” I tell her, frustration rising in my voice. “Women should be able to walk in their own neighborhoods without being bothered.”
A friend near my age who lives at the other end of my subdivision and who walks our neighborhood regularly tells me she had problems with the same man who called me a “pretty girl.” She has avoided that particular street because of him, but she says usually no one else bothers her during her walks. About 99% of the time, my walks also have been uneventful, but that 1% weighs on me, and during my last month or two of outdoor walking I experienced trouble more often than 1% of the time.
One of my neighbors — a woman in her 60s — cautions me not to let these things make me afraid to leave my house, and she said she deals with harassment less at her age. Her first remark, though, when I told her about my most recent incident of harassment, was, “Tell me which house it happened at so I can be careful when I go walking myself.”
When Streets are Not Harassment-Free Places:
I’ve thought about my neighbor’s entreaty to not let a few bad experiences keep me hiding in my house. I still go out for plenty of other reasons, including walking my kids to and from school, and running errands. I also sit on my front porch with my family, go outside to do yard work and gardening, and walk down the street to drop things in the mail box around the corner. I am not a hermit.
But I also am not a glutton for punishment and should not feel ashamed or guilty for that. I would like to be the tough woman who lets harassment roll off her back, who hears offensive or objectifying words slung her way and promptly moves on and forgets them. I tried to be that woman this past fall. But it is harder than it sounds, and it wasn’t working for me. I would rather channel my emotional energies into more productive and enjoyable things that don’t involve trying to forget leering faces and words like, “hey, sexy,” or “hey, babe,” or “Woman, what’s wrong with you? Why won’t you talk to me?” I’ve had to go easy on myself and accept that it is not a sign of weakness to retreat to the peace of my house. Rather, it is a sign that too many men out in the world treat women poorly.
I am not alone in giving up solo walking outdoors. Compared to men, women around the world apparently get fewer steps in each day, and much of it has to do with harassment and the risk of assault. At some point, women grow weary of putting up with crap.
Maybe I’ll start walking outside alone again at some point in the future. Or maybe I’ll find someone else to walk with, because harassment, catcalls, and verbal battery can be shaken off more easily if I’m not alone. But for now, I need a physically, mentally, and emotionally safe space, and for most women — no matter what kinds of neighborhoods we live in, whether they are affluent or middle class or lower income — those safe spaces are not found on our local streets.