The Politics Of Safety For Women

 By Guest Contributor Erika Nicole Kendall, cross-posted from Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

There is a trigger warning for violence and general issues of safety here. Please protect yourself.

An important part of this journey, for me, has been learning more about myself–paying more attention to the way I do things and the why behind the choices I’ve made. In the past six or seven months, I’ve learned some really nasty things about myself … not nasty because they’re so bad, but nasty because I’m pretty sure it says something about me.

Ask me if I care, though.

When I was 18, I moved out of my mother’s house. Left her house for the dorms, and left the dorms and moved into a house with a couple other people. It wasn’t in the safest environment, but it didn’t matter–I was pulling so many double shifts at work that I barely noticed. I, eventually, would go back home around age 21 to have my daughter.

At this point, it gets tricky. Once I was stable, I moved her to a gated community in Miami. Complete with security–code entrance, security patrolling the neighborhood, and even its own emergency response system, I felt safe there. I felt like it wasn’t a big deal to be out with my daughter after dark, walking around the neighborhood.

Eventually, I would move her (and our new puppy, Sushi) closer toward the beach, where it was less secluded, but because it was Miami Beach, cops patrolled the area every ten to fifteen minutes. I felt, again, safe. The island was no wider than maybe four or five street blocks, and I knew what those street blocks looked like. They were clean, loiterer free, frequent police visibility… safe. If I wanted to walk take my dog for a brief potty walk in a short dress, I could do that without being audibly harassed.

But when I moved to New York …

Let’s just put it this way. In a span of 16 minutes, I had 8 different men inappropriately speak to or compliment me on my body. I had a pair of men who followed me up a street all but outright demanding that I talk to them, and when I didn’t? They proceeded to discuss my underwear and how “scandalous” they must’ve been.

The Mister, as much as I love him and as much as he does to make me feel safe when I’m in his presence, has a full-time job. And, unfortunately, it’s not his job to be my bodyguard.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that as a survivor of sexual violence–and, let’s face it, I was kidnapped as a child (and while you probably didn’t hear about it, rest assured that I can clearly recall at least 6-8 cop cars rescuing me) and, though the ordeal didn’t last very long, it has affected me as an adult–my safety is invaluable. My mother left Cleveland for Carmel in my teens–left her family and friends behind–because she knew, but never outright said it. She never plainly expressed it to me, but she knew she needed to get me some place where it wouldn’t be a problem for me–instead of, say, a boy–to take the trash out after dark. (Never mind the fact that most of my friends were joining “gangs” at that age and my Mom wasn’t having that sh-t.) That’s why it was so easy for her to welcome the pregnant me back home. We all know what it’s like for young pregnant girls who have no support system. Being back at home, 22 and pregnant, gave me the support I needed to start the business where I could afford that community in Miami.

Street harassment promotes a paralyzing fear in me … and it originally didn’t. Not because either of my experiences with having my safety shaken actually began with street harassment, because that’s certainly not true. Honestly, had it not been for my being followed by two men who didn’t like the fact that I was actively trying to create boundaries and choosing to deny them the pleasure of my company, I might’ve been able to overlook the “Babys,” the kissing-at-me-like-I’m-a-dog – yes, like a female dog … a bitch, if you will–and-expecting-me-to-come-so-you-can-pet-me-on-the-head-and-call-me-a-good-girl, the compliments thinly veiled in sexual innuendo… and I might’ve even focused less on the van of old male pedophiles–possibly in their late 40s–trolling for young Black girls fresh out of class to try to “pick up” in their van and, ostensibly, turn them out.

When you see all of this, experience and encounter all of this on a regular and consistent basis, it promotes fear. It compels women to react not out of their own choice, but out of fear. (I’ve long said that men policing other men’s sexuality is in direct correlation with the fact that men don’t want to be subjected to the same treatment that they bestow upon women–“What, I look like a b-tch to you? You gon’ disrespect me by kissing at me to come talk to you like a female or something’? Those bitches are the ones you kiss at! Not me, you faggot!”–and, therefore, contributes to the problem that is hypermasculinity.) Women act out of fear…not out of a desire to choose their own destiny, even when that destiny is so simplistic as “what to wear that morning.” Because, remember, if you’re wearing a short skirt and you’re raped on a street corner…it’s your fault. You shouldn’t have been wearing that. Hell, you probably shouldn’t have been out of your house. Why aren’t you barefoot and pregnant, again?

And, as a byproduct of blaming me for the bad things that happen to me, it has had a direct effect on me. I hate leaving the house and, when I do, I’m wearing the Mister’s sweat pants, his coat, and his t-shirts, with two giant dogs in tow. I’m always feeling like it’s my fault–even after I’ve written countless times about how it’s no one’s fault but the person who does the harassing–and that I shouldn’t be wearing such a form fitting pair of pants/that skirt/that jacket/that t-shirt in the first place…but I want to wear it. I’ve earned the ability to look the way I do in it, and I have the right to wear what I please!

That intersection of earning the body I have and a fear of “inviting”–whatever the hell that means – harassment has resulted in me hiding in my bedroom. Ever since I moved here. Literally. I rarely go out, and if I do, I’ve got the almost-hubby with me. I have a gym in Brooklyn Heights and Midtown to escape to…and I fear even leaving my house to get there. As a young girl growing up in a predominately Black environment, you learn early on that “outside” is no place for you to feel safe. You equate “away from outdoors” with safety pretty quickly. If being followed by two men who’s parents never taught them boundaries makes you uncomfortable, well…you don’t have to deal with that when you’re inside. If you’re horrified by the sight of old-ass pedophiles looking for young girls to snatch up, asking them if “they want a ride,” then you don’t have to deal with that when you’re inside. Bothered by the number of times strange men feel comfortable demanding your attention? Go inside. Highly unlikely to find strange men there.

And, worried about having your safe haven of “inside” invaded? Well, that’s what the two big ass dogs are for. Sala? Sala answers the door before I do, and while the UPS guy knows Sala…a strange man does not. Sushi? Well, Sushi barks softly and carries a big bite.

I’m sorry to say this, but it’s just not safe in the ‘hood for Black girls…or those of us who were, once, Black girls. Or any girls, for that matter. The politics are so far from being equally beneficial that Black girls will never see the privilege of peace from sexual violence (or the threat of such) that most men have. The police are rarely there. The men aren’t there to “police” the behavior–as I’ve said before, it’s not even a matter of “Do you not respect this beautiful Black queen, my brother?” it’s simply “Dang, dude, just chill. That’s not how you talk to women.”–and provide even a modicum of safety. The women aren’t even there–if they live in that neighborhood and know how bad it is? Chances are, they’re keeping their asses in the house, too. How many of us, as minors, weren’t allowed outside? They’re trying to keep their children in the house, too…it isn’t until we’re teenagers that we start feeling entitled to roam those great outdoors and screw it all up.

So, who’s protecting Black girls? (It could also be asked “who is protecting gay Black men and the boys who are trying to “protect” their girl friends, but I am neither of those and am not writing about those. Just know that it doesn’t escape me.) Who is making our communities safe for us to walk through? In an essay I read on Ebony, a young girl was in a house with both her brother and her friend and, as three boys demanded entry to their home…once they were granted access, chased the girl upstairs and attempted to rape her. Her brother’s friend was sitting in the same room with the attempted rape, and did nothing. The brother, who opened the door, never came upstairs to help his sister. Is this my daughter’s fate? Shit, is it mine?

I won’t lie–this conversation is often debate fodder for the almost-hubby and me. As a man, his idea of safety isn’t “Will you be raped? Kidnapped?”–it’s “will you be robbed?” Ask any woman–we might still be shaken by it, but any number of us would’ve preferred to be robbed. All he could really “get” was that this was no longer Biggie and Jigga’s Brooklyn, and it took a lot of tears and a lot of long talks to get him to understand why that’s not everyone’s experience. (Again, for “women,” the default feels “white;” for “Black,” the default is suspiciously “male.” Hmm.) Buying a house for “the value” isn’t, actually, valuable to someone like me. We reflected on the number of times he was asked, as a minor, to accompany one of his friend’s sister to the store, to school, back home, and so on. I told him that, while it was nice to have him around after work and that sleeping next to him is the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life, who is going to protect our children and me when we’re out? Would I fear buying nice things and keeping them in our house because I wouldn’t want to lose it in a robbery, the one “safety” issue he understood?

I can’t live in a space where I’m not comfortable with walking freely at any hour of the day or evening. I know that privilege…that pleasure, and I won’t give it up for anything. My heart is fighting against it. I can’t live in a space where literally no one feels inclined to ensure safety…and, to the detriment of the Black community, that is places where Blacks tend to live the most. It has also made me understand New York real estate that much more–the cheapest places to live are “the least safe,” and are also places where this harassment runs rampant. For many reasons, these places are also predominately Black. The perpetual fear that Blacks are scary and bad and dangerous–ahem–also plays into the reality that becomes the “white flight” and the prices people will pay to avoid “the scary Blacks.” It’s obviously not because something is inherently wrong with my people, it’s because–much like a frat house where it becomes policy to give girls roofies so that you can “score” with (read: rape) them–the behavior goes unchecked. It’s because there are no consequences. The main inhabitants are the ones who benefit from the policy (of compromising the safety of women), therefore no one is inclined to actually report it. There’s no one reminding anyone how wrong it is to challenge a person’s safety, especially women…not because “they are women,” but because they are consistently seen as “weak” and “helpless,” two qualities often targeted to be taken advantage of.

Couple all of this with the way Black women are encouraged to fear police, as if police are any more dangerous than many of “our” neighborhoods…and it feels like we’re intentionally engineered to have no advocates in our corner, and very few people will understand that. Not advocate as in “bodyguard,” but advocate as in “willfully and thoughtfully considering women and their experiences.” Add to that how many of us are shunned for not wanting to live in the thick of all of this foolishness? We’re selling out, we’re assimilating…and many of us might be, but is that always the dominating concern, here? Absolutely not.

Even after having learned and realized all of this about myself, the fact remains that I still have to be here. I still have to be around people I don’t want to be around. I still have to worry about whether or not the next pair of men who follow me up a street demanding my attention will decide to take it by force. I still have to worry about being deemed a piece of walking property, considered owned-and-occupied when walking with my fiancé, considered “vacant, ready and waiting for occupation” (much like a hotel) when I’m alone. I’m still parsing out what this means for me when I leave my house and walk/bike through Brooklyn, because I’ve been so uncomfortable with the places I have gone, that I’m woefully unable and lacking in the desire to find spaces and places that are for me. If I don’t even want to leave my bedroom, how or what is my first step?

For starters, therapy. It’s absolutely not sensible to fear leaving your own house…but, I do. I’ve fantasized about packing up my raggedy duffle bag and leaving, running back to Miami or Indiana with my mother, but I can’t let this defeat me. I’m better than this. It’s irrational to think I shouldn’t be more aware of my surroundings and environment, but it’s equally irrational for me to think that the only way to be safe is to hyper-control my surroundings by never leaving the house. I’m proud of myself in that, with all this stress, I have yet to eat my emotions or even consider risking my progress, but the goal is to replace emotional eating with mentally and physically healthy ways to cope. This isn’t it.

The second is giving myself something to do to keep me out of my own head. The purpose of my studying to become a certified personal trainer was so that I would have reasons beyond myself to get out of the house and put in some work. Training for a race–just have to pick the right one–should also do the trick. Reading books, playing games…anything to keep me out of my own head. Occupying my damn time.

The third thing I’m doing, quite frankly, is for my own sanity. I’m taking a kickboxing class. Something to make me quicker, faster, stronger, better. A class that could make me feel more capable of protecting myself if and when something happens will help me fight the “helpless” and/or “she can take it” stigma society puts on me.

I can only do so much…it just happens that I can, at a bare minimum, do what I can to help myself.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. I really, really hope you never, ever get a gun. Practice, she says. Again, have you been to firearms training or are you just armchair quarterbacking? Shooting well in a gun range (which most civilians have access to) is not the same as shooting in the world. We will not get the simulations police officers do. And we tend to make many more mistakes – look at the Stand Your Ground states and the fatalities rates.

    There are a lot of other ways you can deal with this situation without “giving power to an attacker” and without contributing to gun violence. And there are other weapons that are not lethal projectiles, even though they all come with their own pros and cons. But that “I’m out for me, fuck everyone else” mindset is why street harassment escalates to these levels in the first place.

    • au napptural

       So because the gun has cons (which everything does) I shouldn’t even have the option? You didn’t even answer my original question- why should someone be able to attack me in public without anyone lifting a finger? Why should I even need a gun in broad daylight? You know as well as I do that the people of this world are out for themselves. Excepting a lone hero or two, most people will walk on by or even stand and watch. I have to watch my back. I can’t carry the burden of every possible scenario. I have to remember- I didn’t start this, the rapist or attacker did. I cannot and will not compromise my safety worrying about things that person isn’t considering.

      Every “other” weapon can be lethal, tasers and even pepper spray have the ability to kill. Further there is a much higher chance of them accidentally hurting their user or being ineffective. It is my job, as defender of me, to choose the most effective and handy weapon, which in this case would be a gun. It would be idiotic of me to bring pepper spray (or god forbid a whistle) to a knife or gun fight. When someone attacks me they have given up all rights to consideration. As for bystanders-I didn’t choose this fight. But I can’t lay down and die b/c someone might get hurt.

  • Jessica

    I didn’t understand the article to be generalized or feeding into stereotypes, but I understand your comment (“finding the charm” and “NYC is not the right place for the author”) to minimize the theme: intra-racial violence (sexualized, gendered, and otherwise) is potent and convoluted and needs to be addressed from the inside-out. To suggest that the author needs to move or find the charm, in my opinion, denies her the right to her experiences as a woman of color that have caused her to feel unsafe outside her home. 

  • Anonymous

    Why should many women suffer being confined to their homes because some men refuse to respect personal space and boundaries? That’s letting the terrorists win.

  • Anonymous

     That’s a good question; I’d love to know as well. It seems that for any campaign to really work it would have to be incredibly far-reaching, at least in the big-city environment I lived in: preventing the structural inequalities that humiliate and degrade homeless men, encouraging them to take it out on whomever they can–women– and forcing them below the reach of consequences; educating men to whom street harassment is either invisible or traditional; encouraging women and others who are harassed to speak up AND listen to each other; educating, equipping and financing a police response to harassment; consequences for harassment; and a mega media campaign to tie it all together. But then again I’ve never witnessed anyone really try to combat street harassment (outside of online groups) so I wouldn’t know what actually works; maybe the answer is pretty simple.

  • Anonymous

    That’s not a cure-all.

    Are you ready to kill someone? Because that’s what a gun is for. For some reason, a lot of people think they will be able just to scare someone off with a gun by waving it around, or just do injury shots, and all that crap is a lie. When you shoot, you shoot for critical mass, which means upper chest and head. So you have to be sure that you are willing to kill someone for harassing you.

    If you’re fine with that, go for the gun.

    A few years after my own sexual assault, and at the height of the worst sexual harassment, I started firearms training, with the intent to purchase. There are a lot of things to get used to in terms of picking a weapon and training yourself. It’s not just about owning the gun. Where will you put it? How fast can you pull?

    But I don’t currently own a gun because I am not sure how I would feel if I killed someone, even if I felt my safety was threatened. Would a gun have changed the scenario in the situations I remember as the worst? In one case no; in one case maybe, but you never know how the other person will react. Maybe the guy would have backed off. Maybe the guy would have rushed me, and I would have been put in the position to fire a gun on a crowded bus.

    And even if you are ok with killing your harasser, could you be ok with collateral damage. If you shoot and miss and hit someone else? If you shoot and miss and kill someone else?

    Think about this hard. People are real flip about guns being the solution to sexual harassment but there is no good one. The last time we posted about this, some dude was like “All women should just become experts in martial arts, which will remove the threat of rape.” But there is no way to fully prevent each scenario. And for a gun, in particular, there are a lot of other considerations.

    I am confident in my ability to use a Sig Sauer. But I don’t own a gun because I am not sure I’d be fine with killing someone else. If that changes, I’ll buy one.

    • Larick

      An additional considering when defending oneself is the justice system. We have this idea that in America it is legal to hurt or even kill someone is self-defense. The law values human life over property, which is why a couple who booby rigged their house with a shotgum were in trouble when that shotgum shot a burglar. So you really have to convince the judge the man had intent to kill you.

       I myself at 17 (I was a white girl) was beat up on a schoolbus by a very large white boy, skull fractures, broken nose & strangled, I used a tool from my cosmetology class to cut him & was found guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, because I used “excessive force” (I just cut him once, but the cut was deep and like 10 inches across, he got 200 stitches..I had no idea what i was doing, I was just scared). He had been strangling me and screaming “Im gonna fuckin kill you bitch” while eveyrthing started turning red and then black. I happened to have cosmetology thinning shears in my pocket and one hand free. He went to the hospital, and they almost took me directly  to jail except in the cop car door open i flagged an EMT and he insisted the cops release me to an ambulance as I had  broken nose, head fractures, and had accidentally cut open my hands. Being a white girl, even a poor one, in a small town/suburbs, they convicted me as a juvenile, so I am not a felon for protecting myself. And I did not get time in detention, just probation and community service. But it was close. And I believe if I had been Latina or Black they would have.
            Also, you better hope you take both knees OUT, cus after i cut this muthafuckr -cut open his back- he put my head through a window, threw me on the ground and stomped on my face. The kind of men who are really intent on hurting you will not be scared by a grazing shot. The only reason he even stopped was because at that point another guy jumped in-who he threw off, despite his gaping wound & visible spinal cord-and it took several guys to break it up. Guys who didn’t jump in when I talked back to him and he started beating me.     I know several trans women of color who are serving time for defending themselves against men who were trying to kill them. One of these women managed to get the mans knife away & stab him, he later wound up in a hospital and died from an infection. She served at least 5 years for this. even if you’re not trans, though a women’s prison may not have men to worry about ( besides the guards, oh yea), it’s hardly where you’d rather be.
          I am just putting this out there so other women and trans people can make informed choices about defending themselves with weapons against men who aren’t carrying any. It is a crime. It will involve police. You might have to serve time for it.
          In my case, I was prepared to serve a yr or 2, lost all my friends (apparently you’re not supposed to fight back), received death threats daily, couldn’t leave my house, the school put a restraining order on me (but not on him).  Luckily my mother is very tough and raised me that way, so we only went out together, as we had to cus we didn’t have a car.

  • http://profiles.google.com/kaila.heard Kaila Heard

    I recently started a fitness routine that involves walking/jogging as my main form of cardio activity at a local park. I didn’t feel comfortable starting my program until my dad and I got to ‘scout’ out different locations to find out what places were populated, well – lit – safe.  When I think about how much money I’d like to make in the future, my dreams were heavily influenced by the desire to afford to live in a better neighborhood where I feel safe walking around by myself. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/kaila.heard Kaila Heard

    I recently started a fitness routine that involves walking/jogging as my main form of cardio activity at a local park. I didn’t feel comfortable starting my program until my dad and I got to ‘scout’ out different locations to find out what places were populated, well – lit – safe.  When I think about how much money I’d like to make in the future, my dreams were heavily influenced by the desire to afford to live in a better neighborhood where I feel safe walking around by myself. 

  • Whitney

    This is such an incredible article.  The fear for self and the anger at that fear was so well expressed.  I am going to send this article to my husband because, much as your Mister, he does not really get it.  I have taken self defense classes, keep  physically fit, and speak with my little girl everyday about safety, boundaries, and respect.  I am printing out this article and saving it for her when she is a bit older.  Thank you for this discussion.

  • Guest

    Very powerful article; thank you! I have experienced my own version of what you describe. The mental stress is not something we deserve, not something we should have to adapt to. Stay strong and keep fighting! We need to talk more as a society about street harassment — what it is, why it happens, who experiences it. Male allies, too, we need you! I wonder if you know about ihollaback.org; empowering website that defines the issue and reports on the anti-street harassment movement. There are dozens of city-specific sites where you can find out what’s going on locally.

  • Pingback: Politics of safety | Berkeley Hollaback!

  • MW

    This article really hit home for me… our generation of women was raised up to believe that we can do anything we want and that we’re so “liberated,” but even that supposed confidence is totally shattered by the reality of street harassment. Doesn’t matter how tough you are inside or even how  you look on the outside, on the street you get no respect. And I even dress pretty masculine, which I realised recently is because I don’t want to be treated like ” a female dog” as you put it, but of course that doesn’t change anything! And to add insult, my cis male friends scoff at my caution, as a sign of weakness, because they don’t get it. (despite how many times I’ve tried to explain it.) Maybe I’ll have them read this article. :)
    And being a womyn of colour totally adds to the problems. Specifically for me as an Asian american, i am often assumed to be too passive to stick up for myself (and therefore a target for harassment), too weak to fight them off, or alternately a naive “schoolgirl” to pedophiles with an Asian girl fetish (particularly older, patronising men).

    anyway, thank you for this article!

  • Eva

    I think that you mentioned something very important, boundaries.  You would be surprised how many people don’t have them.  These are the people who have them SO high that they won’t even say hello to you, even though they’ve seen you for years, or will want to be your best friend/lover/husband/wife after knowing you for a total of five seconds.   People are taught boundaries by what they see in front of them.  If you don’t see healthy boundaries modeled,  it’s hard to figure out what they are.  You might see people with healthy boundaries, that is people who don’t want to be your BFF after knowing you for five seconds, as being cold, nasty, evil; because you’ve been taught that people just click LIKE THAT.  It doesn’t help that movies and TV show this behavior as well. 

  • Eva

    This is a VERY good piece.  What is sad is that it’s gotten worse than it was when I was in my twenties and teens.  But I will say this, I have lived in NYC for most of my life and I’ve been harassed here,  in St. Louis, West Point, Chicago, Miami, Hampton Virginia, Hawaii, Sengal, West Africa.  It happens everywhere and it can happen to everyone and that’s why it’s important to talk about it, don’t sweep it under the rug. 

  • Charlotte

    Thank you for posting this. While reading I reflected upon the various strategies that I have used to combat street harassment for the last ….23 years. 

    At 11 years old – keep my head down to not attract attention – didn’t work. 
    At 16 years started wearing masculine clothes to not attract attention – didn’t work. 

    Perhaps out of habit,  I still don’t leave the house much, but now, I clearly stare every man in the eye who is leering – that usually works. Or verbally challenging them when an inappropriate comment is flung my way – it throws them off. Yet, I wish that I didn’t have to because the fear still remains. 

    If I’m truly honest, I hope that my unborn child is not a girl because of my fears for her.

  • Gia

    Powerful article. I’m wishing the best for you and everyone in a situation like you, including myself.

  • 3xAmazing

    Excellent article!  A few years ago a Racialicious article on street harassment drove home my privilege as a man.  These and other articles are a good reminder of the struggles women experience and how I need to have the courage to step up as an ally and advocate.  Thanks you for sharing.

    • Chris

      Agreed.  As a man, I can’t know precisely how the author feels, but I think Ms. Kendall’s piece is the best explanation that I’ve heard.