Today, I did a mental calculation.
Right now, I live next to Lake Merritt, in Oakland. There’s this glorious 5K trail around the lake, that’s often filled with people jogging and children frolicking and tiny puppies being floofy and sweet. As someone who recently lived next to a lake that did not encourage activities other than daring one another to take the polar plunge (skinny dipping around the ice floes), I love it. I’ve long felt more focused after a good walk, and I started tracing the path each day.
However, there’s a problem.
I never really understood people who said they felt unsafe when they got catcalled/street harassment. I mean, I believed that they did, but I couldn’t imagine myself into that reaction mindset. I just filed it as a thing to remember about people’s experiences. And Oakland doesn’t have the worst street harassment I’ve experienced–not even a bit.
But since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been far more conscious about how catcalling/street harassment can feel unsafe. In the few weeks since moving, two different men have walked up behind me on one of my daily walks and let me know their graphic sexual fantasies. The sidewalks are busy, and I’m often listening to music of some kind, so this might explain how someone can get all the way to standing next to my shoulder before letting me know exactly what he’d like to do to me. In fact, the first time I was so confused/shaken/scared, that I wasn’t sure I knew what had happened until I saw him laughing and heard the same voice claim he’d ‘gotten me’.
And it’s true, I wasn’t hurt, and my System 2/deliberate-thinking brain knows it’s pretty unlikely that I would be. But just like the ghosts and goblins in a haunted house will not actually hurt you, or even touch you, they are meant to raise your blood pressure, to scare you. Except that I wasn’t paying admission to a Halloween ride, and I wasn’t trying to take my autonomic nervous system out for a test drive.
Conditioning happens even if you don’t consent to it. Pavlov’s dogs, after all, weren’t eagerly awaiting the day when the bell would make them salivate. And as I notice myself flinch a little bit at eye contact, get slightly more tense when any approaches, I am annoyed. I am annoyed every time I wonder if what just happened was so obviously bad enough that I can share the story without feeling like I should expect to be on the defensive. Was it just something about the tone? Or the way they looked me up and down and seemed to be leering?
I would say it’s always complicated by explaining the subtext, but yesterday two men had this conversation in front of me.
Man: Fuckable? [points at me, grins, nods]
Other Man: Eh, maybe.
so. that would be text.
There’s a solution to this. Well, a Thing That Sort of Solves The Specific Problem I Have in A Way I Have Control Over. The solution is that I decided to only take walks in the very early morning, when almost everyone else out is sweaty and running and unconcerned by my existence. Except that it’s now late afternoon, and I spent five minutes attempting to sort out whether the mood boost of a long walk would be outweighed by the mood drop if I had the same experience, while factoring in the baseline anxious/on-edgeness of having had several days with bad experiences in a row.
And I am annoyed by that math.
Note: My experience is particularly lucky in that the result of these experiences is merely some fear and adrenaline. Please don’t take this post to mean “the real reason girls object to street harassment is merely that it’s the mild fear similar to a haunted house, all the other ones are making mountains of molehills”. Things would still be unpleasant if that was the version of the world we lived in. Unfortunately, it’s not.