When I No Longer Feel Safe on My Street: Harassment in Chicago

When I No Longer Feel Safe on My Street: Harassment in Chicago
Photo Credit: David Sorich: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dsorich/

“Americans like to boast that we’re the freest country on Earth, yet half the population doesn’t even feel free enough to go on a walk at night.” -Jackson Katz

I came to Chicago for college four years ago from a suburb of the Twin Cities where the crime rate is essentially non-existent. Once here, even after campus safety warnings of muggings, headlines that report unprecedented shooting rates and el encounters with not-entirely-sane individuals, I generally felt that same sense of security.

I walk alone at night, take the el by myself at all hours of the day and travel to neighborhoods across the city, confident the unseen good spirit of Chicago walks with me.  There have to be more good people than bad people right? Someone would be there if anything got out of hand… right?

Thus far, things actually have worked that way: though I have been present in some unsafe situations, I have never felt personally threatened. I partly attribute that to a positive attitude, trust in humankind and some safety rules of thumb (sit in the front car, stay in well lit areas, leave a situation if feeling threatened, ignore unwanted attention). But most of all, I’ve luckily never (knock on wood) been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, in the last year that unchecked optimism has taken a hit.

Last semester, I studied abroad in Morocco. Fellow students who studied there told me harassment toward women is a part of daily life, and walking alone at night isn’t really an option. To prepare myself before I left, I tried to think about how I feel and react when men yell at me on the street in Chicago, but I realized I ignore so much of that harassment I wasn’t sure what exactly I do. So for a week or so before I left, I decided to tune into how often harassment happens and where, what they say and how it feels.

After the week, I was almost in shock. And I was certainly ready to leave for Morocco– it couldn’t be worse than what I found every day on the streets in Chicago.

It didn’t matter the time of day, neighborhood or what I was wearing. The looks, catcalls, whistles persisted. When I came out of the Chicago Red Line stop at 8:45 a.m. for work (“Damn girl, you got a nice ass”), a mid-afternoon walk down a busy Lakeview street (*whistles*, laughs), rushing to meet friends at a River North bar (“Hey, where you goin’ so fast?). It came from all types of men, all races and ethnicity, all socioeconomic status.

I realized that often I tune it out, both as a survival tactic and impatience at such sophomoric behavior. But after that week, I realized by tuning out the yells, I may be creating a false sense of security.

For the first time, I did not feel safe or confident by myself in Chicago. Every whistle and comment struck me extra hard, and for the first time felt hostile rather than immature. Who knows when words could have turned into action? One man who said I was “lookin’ gooooood” at an el station one night ended up on my same train car.  Coincidence? How can I be sure? Luckily, a male friend coincidentally got to the platform at the same time I did, and I felt quite a bit safer heading downtown.

My situation is not unique in any way. All of my friends have dealt with comments, whistles and far worse. I feel fortunate my experiences have stopped at verbal harassment: I know many female students who have been groped, witnessed masturbation and been harassed to the point of getting off a train, or calling a cab.

In all fairness, I know not all men are like this. In fact, most aren’t. But the fact that this happens still remains, and it doesn’t make what does happen any less scary.

In terms of my situation, Morocco wasn’t too bad compared to Chicago. Though there certainly were comments thrown in my direction on a daily basis, it is ultimately looked down upon by the society to harass women in the street. We were taught to say “hshouma!”, which means “shame!” if anyone got in our faces. I think I used it twice. Plus in the close-knit community of the Rabat medina, where I was living, I knew if anyone actually harassed me to the point of me feeling unsafe, they would have my Moroccan mother to answer to. Believe me, you don’t want to mess with Malika.

Returning to Chicago, I hoped the unsafe feeling would subside. But friends’ stories of harassment continued and the news stories confirmed a problem. From Steubenville to the Rogers Park rape case, it really made me re-evaluate my sense of safety, not only in Chicago, but as a woman in this world.

I still love the city of Chicago far more than I feel unsafe here. For every stupid comment, I have five positive interactions and experiences I couldn’t have anywhere else. Midwestern-nice gestures, like holding the door or saying hello to strangers on the street, are abound. I have lost my cell phone and wallet in downtown Chicago, and got them both returned safely to me.  Honestly, living in a city for formative college years has made me much less blind to bad situations, but also faith that there is a person who will return your phone for every person who pickpockets it.

But why does it seem that street harassment is the one place we can’t make progress?

I recently found out about a project called “Everyday Sexism”. Basically, it is a place where women can post stories about being harassed in public settings, or tweet it to @EverydaySexism. The founder, Laura Bates, said she was groped from behind as she was walking down the sidewalk one afternoon. “[I felt] all of the things I thought I would say in that situation fly out the window,” she said she felt after it happened. Here is a video that tells some of the stories from the website.

This project is really impressive– in a year it has grown from a thought by Bates to a community of over 50,000 Twitter followers and 30,000 posts. But aren’t those numbers also telling of the scope of the problem?

Perhaps. But perhaps having a voice is the key to starting change.

But one thing is for sure: street harassment is not a problem confined to the streets of a foreign country.

And that makes it all the more scary.

Have you experienced harassment on the street? We want to hear your story. If you’re comfortable, please share your experiences below. How do you deal with it? Let us know. Leave a comment below, or respond on Twitter to @Chicago_U or leave us a comment on Facebook at the Chi U page.



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  • Nice discussion. The fact of being female as a student has been long discussed as something that can damage one's education -- simply because of the difficulties of sexism in daily life. If, Adrienne Rich once asked, it is tougher to get to the library due to sexism and harassment, or one leaves earlier to feel safe heading home, is one truly getting an equal education. See this entry on my other (non Chicago Now) blog: http://blog.shimer.edu/provocations/2013/02/what-does-rich-mean-to-you-1.html

    BTW, I blog at Chicago is Our Campus

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