By Ellen Friedrichs
It’s a sunny Saturday in June. My daughter is 12, almost 13, and new to taking the subway alone. But today, her two siblings have prior commitments, which means that since she wants to go to a friend’s house on the other side of Brooklyn, she will be getting there on her own.
I’m in the living room, packing up one kid’s soccer gear and shoving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into another, when she comes in. Her outfit is amazing. Silver combat boots—a recent Bat Mitzvah gift from the cool aunt—fishnet tights, white denim shorts, and a green lace-trimmed crop top. I tell her she looks fantastic and that I am jealous of her footwear.
“But, honey,” I say. “I wonder if maybe you want to throw a t-shirt on for the train? I just don’t want some creep to use seeing your stomach as an excuse to say something gross.”
She waits a beat, and then, without protest or comment, goes back to her room and returns in an oversized camp shirt from the previous summer.
For a second I am glad she took my advice.
Then I am furious. I am mad at myself for falling into this trap, for opening the door to the idea that my child is in any way responsible for the actions of men, and I am equally angry that there are still those men who see a girl out in the world and view this as an invitation.
And I know that there are plenty who do. I know this because I remember what it was like to be a girl who moved through spaces where my youth and gender made me a particular target.
Some incidents almost blur together. The men who sat next to me on near-empty buses and tried to strike up conversation. Or who leered at me and stood too close. Or who muttered something indecipherable under their breath as I passed by.
And some stand alone. The pack of teen boys yelling loud comments about my body and what they wanted to do to it as they slowed their car to a crawl to keep pace with me until I saw a store I could duck into. Or the man I encountered on a quiet residential street, who opened his pants, took out his penis and asked if I liked to watch.
I also know what it is like to move through the world as a woman in my 40s where this certainly happens less, but still happens, and where I see it happen to the girls and women around me.
But I also know this is a reality because I hear about it from my students. I have been teaching health education for a decade and a half, and every year, beginning in middle school, we talk about sexual harassment. We look at the school policy, address behavior, and brainstorm solutions. Then, every year, kids share. And a lot of what they share is about what happens to them out in the world.
It is mostly girls, though the voices of queer boys and nonbinary kids are increasingly in the mix. These children—and to be sure, no matter how deep into physical puberty they are—these are children we are discussing—talk about hearing comments when they are out alone, and they talk about hearing comments when they are with their friends, their siblings, and even their moms. They mention the calls of men on the street, neighbors they avoid, and building security guards who make them feel anything but secure.
I listen and wish I had the perfect solution to make all of this stop, a formula to follow, an oversized t-shirt to throw over the whole ugly world of gender and power and menace.
But that’s the thing, there is no one size fits all trick to ensure protection in this world. So I offer messy advice that they can pick and choose from as the situation dictates. Foremost, I tell them that even if they are getting the message that they provoked harassment, or conversely, that they misunderstood an intention, they should trust their gut. If something feels wrong, it probably is.
Then I remind them that flirting makes both people feel good and harassment is one-sided. I say that dynamics matter. If someone is older, a male to your female, sober to your drunk, in a group, when you’re alone, or has more social capital, then their comments will land differently than if you are on equal footing. I point out red flags; adult men and older teens who sit next to you on public transit when there are empty seats, or who try to strike up a “friendly” chat when you are out alone, or who comment on your appearance or your body. “Don’t let them tell you it’s a compliment. Compliments don’t make you feel afraid or ashamed.” I also tell them that what you are wearing doesn’t matter and that you can be harassed in flannel PJs or a bikini.
“You can respond or not,” I say, “But if you do respond, make it quick and just keep walking. And don’t do that if saying something feels scary. You can film them if you think you can do so discreetly. You can walk into a business, or you can find someone who you think can help.” I also tell them to move or to change seats, or put in their headphones, and to try with all their might not to worry about what that other person might think if they do.
Some of my advice feels regressive and gendered and far too similar to what I heard growing up. Partly, though, that’s because we don’t live in a world that has advanced to a point where such strategies are no longer needed. And partly, that is because kids don’t always move away from jerks, or because they still answer lecherous questions politely or thank harassers for their comments. Their kid reasons for doing so are often the same as my adult ones. They don’t want to assume romantic or sexual interest. They don’t want to hurt feelings. They don’t want things to be awkward. They don’t want to provoke anger.
I try to hold space for these feelings, knowing that often they are the result of girls’ socialization to deference and empathy. I also want them to understand that they should do whatever it is in the moment that makes them feel safe, even if what that is, is not what is in their hearts. There is no right way to respond, and the notion that we should run away screaming from danger simply isn’t based in reality. In moments of stress and fear, we don’t only fight or take flight. We also freeze and appease.
Certainly, that is the part I struggle with the most—the appeasing—and it is the part that sat so uncomfortably with me when I suggested that my own child throw a t-shirt over her outfit. But in a world where the rules are always changing and where the playing field is far from level, I also need to hold space for myself when I go to such places.
Ellen Friedrichs is a contributing writer for Motherwell. She is a health educator and mom of three based in New York. Find her at sexEdvice.com.
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