This year I decided to start ballet again after a long hiatus. It was my second class and the teacher told me I should come along to the intermediate class as well as the beginners. I was feeling buoyant. I was so happy! I’d found myself as a dancer again, and, damn it, I was good at it. I had exercise-related endorphins cruising through my bloodstream. It was great, I felt great – I felt talented and strong and muscular.
Then I walked into Bedminster Asda and a drunk man eating chicken in the vestibule made a sexually obscene comment at me as I went by.
And, just like that, I didn’t feel great and talented and strong and muscular anymore. I felt small and angry and weak and uncomfortable.
Why this one? Why did this one bother me so much – more than the drunk guy on the street the other week shouting after me when I ignored him, or the school kids following me to the bus stop going on about my arse?
Maybe it was because the comment was particularly sexually aggressive. Maybe it was because I knew I had to walk back out the shop, past him again, and he would repeat the harassment. Which, of course, he did.
But mostly because it was that crash from feeling good, from feeling strong, from revelling in my own subjectivity, to being forced into being object again.
That’s the thing about street harassment.
Street harassment is a reminder that no matter how great we feel, no matter how strong and powerful we feel, we are still women living in a patriarchal society. It’s a reminder that no matter how successful you feel, a drunk man eating chicken in Asda can still try and reduce you. It’s a reminder not to let your guard down, not to forget to be a little bit, just a little bit, afraid.
I wasn’t feeling afraid. I was feeling happy and strong and powerful. I’d let my guard down. I’d forgotten to look out for the man on the street. And then, BAM! Just like that. I was reminded.
And that’s what hurts. That’s what drags you down. That feeling that you can’t escape being a woman in patriarchal society. The feeling that some man can always reduce you to an object. The reminder that the streets don’t belong to you in the way they belong to men. That as a woman in public, you are always somehow always on display and a man can always drag you down.
I don’t want to bring everything back to Trump, although that seems to be where my mind frequently goes at the moment. But it’s awful enough to know that as a woman in public you are a target for harassment without being forced to remember that the most powerful man in the world legitimises this kind of violent, degrading misogyny.
Sometimes you can laugh it off. Sometimes you can send a witty tweet, a shrug and a smile and turn it into a joke.
And sometimes you can’t.
Sometimes it’s just too exhausting. To remember, week in, week out, what your status is in this society. Sometimes it’s just too exhausting to pull yourself up, to fight back, to claim your space back as your own space.
And that’s how street harassment works. That’s why it still works.
Because no matter how strong and successful you feel, a drunk man eating chicken in a supermarket can still reduce you to feeling like shit. He can still remind you that you are a woman living in patriarchal society, and the streets don’t belong to you in the way they belong to him.