This summer, I spent three months travelling in the US and Canada. Although it was not my first time in the United States, having visited family and an American ex-boyfriend there several times throughout my life, it was my first time travelling extensively in the country, and my first time navigating America’s huge cities by myself. I had a marvellous time; I met amazing people whom I hope to see again in my life, and experienced so much kindness and generosity from strangers, both through using Couchsurfing, and through the people I met randomly.
One thing stood out as a major cultural difference between the US and my home town of Edinburgh in Scotland, above the differences in language and snack foods: I consistently experienced a level of street harassment I had never faced in my life before. Of course, like most women, I have experienced whistles from building sites, shouts from the windows of vans, and drunk arseholes passing comment on my appearance as I walk home from work. I’ve been chatted up inappropriately by men while I was working in pubs and clubs. I’ve been groped while collecting glasses on the club floor. But never in my twenty-six years have I felt so self-conscious as a woman in public spaces as I did in almost every city I visited in the US.
Some days I was catcalled by so many different men that I wished I didn’t have to walk down the streets. It would happen if I was in a jumper and trousers; it would happen if I was in a crop top and little shorts. I experienced more – far more – unsolicited comments on my appearance from strange men on the street in those three months than I had in my entire life. I couldn’t sit and have a cigarette on a public bench in the city centre without a man I didn’t know attempting to engage me in conversation. It was wearing and unpleasant, and I have the greatest admiration and respect for American women who deal with this all the time. I never truly felt unsafe, and thankfully I was never assaulted, but I felt uncomfortable and unable to just sit in happy solitude in public spaces populated by men. I would be aware when I sat down somewhere that a man would probably try and talk to me. I would start to feel wary every time a man was walking toward me on the pavement, bracing myself for a comment.
I don’t know what it is about American culture that makes it this way for women. For what it’s worth, I did not experience anything like this level of harassment in the similarly large cities I visited in Canada. I didn’t know how to respond. For all the cultural similarities we share with the US, it is still a different country, thousands of miles from home, and it is not my culture. I was far from my family and friends. I didn’t know which men might be truly dangerous, which men might have knives or guns, which men might seriously wish me harm. And so, most of the time, I ignored the catcalls and walked on, feeling ashamed of my female body and my inaction. I made conversation with the men who approached me when I was sitting, and made excuses to leave once I felt it wouldn’t seem rude. I accommodated their harassment into my daily life, because I didn’t know what else to do.
It was a revelation to me, even as a feminist woman, to really experience first-hand this kind of harassment. Obviously this is a problem for women everywhere, and it is far from absent in the UK. But I had never experienced it so relentlessly. Never. And I am speaking from the relatively privileged position of a straight, white, cisgender woman. It made me all the more aware of how important it is for us to fight to be allowed to walk through public spaces as women. My body is not yours to comment on, whether I’m in a bikini or a winter coat. My time is not yours to take just because you see I am an unaccompanied woman. I don’t care if you like my arse, or my tits. I don’t want to go for a drink with any man who would impose himself on me when I’m clearly uncomfortable with the interaction. I want to feel safe and comfortable walking down the street. I want to feel able to sit alone in public without being hassled.