Originally published on Stop Street Harassment and cross-posted here with permission.
It was almost funny, given the timing, except that it was actually terrifying.
I was lying in bed, scrolling through my Twitter timeline on my phone, checking to see if there was anything interesting to read or ponder before falling asleep.
It seemed that Holly was at it again, retweeting any and everything that was being said on the Internet about street harassment. It’s a good strategy, I thought. It raises awareness about her organization and raises public awareness about how prevalent street harassment is.
The last tweet that I read was from a fellow who claimed that street harassment is a good thing: it makes women feel better about themselves. I rolled my eyes and locked my phone, ready to sleep.
But suddenly, I heard a blood-curdling scream. “STOP IT!” the voice said. “PLEASE, STOP IT.” I sat up in bed, craning my neck closer to my window so that I could hear what happened next. “NO!” she shrieked, her voice shrill. “STOP IT! NO! HELP! HELP ME!”
I ran to my window. It was eleven o’clock, far past the time that the sun goes down, so it was dark. However, my street in South Philadelphia is one with many bars and restaurants, and various other nightlife, so the street lights were on, illuminating the sidewalk.
Frantically, I looked back and forth, up and down the street, looking for what was happening. And then, directly across the street from my apartment, I saw it: a man with his arms around a woman’s neck from behind, the woman crying and screaming.
Impulsively, I knew that I had to do something. I didn’t even stop to ponder what I – in my five-foot-four, 125-pound frame – could do to help this woman, but I felt the distinct instinct to move.
Before I could lift my feet, I saw a passerby break away from his gaggle of friends, dive in, and punch the assailant in the face, bringing him down to the ground. A curious, concerned crowd gathered.
I lifted my phone and dialed 9-1-1.
“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”
“Yeah—hi,” I stammered. “I—um—I don’t know what—there’s an altercation happening outside of my house right now. Um, it looks like it might be a domestic violence situation. I think this guy is trying to hurt his girlfriend. Someone jumped in and—”
“Is this the same situation that’s happening at [street] and [cross street], ma’am?”
“The police are already on their way.”
I stood at my window, watching the rest of the event unfold. I wanted to run downstairs and across the street and console her, to do something, but I could tell that the situation was under control.
The crowd, mostly men, intimidated the attacker by yelling at him so that he wouldn’t escape. The few women who were there ran to the side of the victim, soothing her and listening to her sob.
The attacker started yelling – not at the woman, but at the crowd – that he was sorry. He didn’t seem to understand what he had done wrong, and he repeatedly explained that he had never touched a woman a day in his life, that he wasn’t sure what the big deal was.
“I don’t even know him!” the victim cried. I was alert then, my eyes squinted in thought.
If it wasn’t a domestic violence situation, as I had originally thought, then what had happened? After all, I had hear the attacker shouting at the woman, calling her a bitch and telling her to listen to him, telling her to come back and pay attention to him.
This had given me the impression that they knew one another, rather than that it was a random attack. I wondered what could provoke a person to attack a stranger so viciously and personally.
The police, to their credit, came incredibly fast. Two cars pulled up, and four officers stepped out to get the situation under control. As an officer pulled the attacker to the side, men from the crowd, who had listened to the victim’s story (to which I was not privy, since I do not have super-sonic hearing), started telling the police, “He tried to rape her! He tried to rape her!”
This infuriated the attacker, who, shouting, ran away from the police, telling them that he wasn’t scared of them. After wrestling him to the ground and, I assume, putting handcuffs on him, the police escorted the attacker into the cop car, and then they asked the crowd to please step back, so that they could address the situation. Everyone moved immediately, waiting on the outskirts to see what would happen next.
Sobbing loudly, the woman explained, from what I could understand, that she had been walking down the street when the man, who she had never seen before, had approached her.
Annoyed with his harassment, she promptly told him to fuck off. At which point, he jumped on her back and started pulling her hair, demanding that she pay attention to him.
Oh my God, I thought as I pieced this together. It was street harassment! My lower jaw dropped slightly, and my arm drooped down to my side.
This woman was brutally attacked because she didn’t respond favorably to street harassment. And some people don’t think that it’s a legitimate issue?
People ask me – often, in fact – why I feel so strongly about street harassment. They – mostly men (who, it’s understood, are not very often victims of this offense) – tell me that I’m overreacting, that I’m making a big deal out of nothing. They ask me why I don’t focus my energy on more important issues plaguing women worldwide.
But this is why. This is why street harassment is a problem. This is why we fight so hard to stop it. Because no, it’s not a compliment. It doesn’t make women feel better about themselves. It’s horrifying and anxiety-inducing because this could happen.
Street harassment isn’t about men letting women know that they’re sexually desirable. Street harassment is about dominating women. It’s about purposely making them feel unsafe to the point that they question themselves and their right to, not only their own bodies, but to walk freely at night.
Street harassment is about an embedded sense of entitlement that men feel toward women’s bodies and attention. It’s about thinking that women in a public space are there for their entertainment and enjoyment. Street harassment is more than a throw-away comment.
Street harassment is a form of violence against women that can turn into physical and sexual assault. Because if someone feels entitled to your body and your time insofar as to comment on it as you’re walking by, then who’s to say that whether or not that same person will go so far as to take what they were not willingly given or otherwise physically harm someone who exercised their right to exist freely in the world?
This – this one woman’s story – is why we do what we do.
Melissa A. Fabello is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism, a feminist blogger and vlogger, and an online peer sex educator, based out of Philadelphia. She is a second-year graduate student, working on an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello.