The first time I got honked at was when I was fifteen. My friends and I were sophomores in high school walking to Panera on a half day around lunchtime. The road was busy, but the walk was a mile at most in a very safe part of town. We heard a long, drawn-out honk behind us, followed by a shorter one, and as the car drove by at fifty miles per hour a couple of guys shouted at us gleefully from out the window. We giggled. Turned out whenever we walked to that shopping center on a half day or after school, we would get honked at, sometimes shouted at, sometimes not.
At the time, it made me feel an odd blend of emotions, at once complimented and humiliated. I would wonder if they were honking at me or at my friends. If it was at my friends, I thought, it made sense, as they were tall, beautiful young women. If it was at me, I thought it had to be mocking. That made me uncomfortable. It brought me back to the words someone had etched in a desk in sixth grade: “Sarah V is hott,” an ironic and horrible joke, given my unfashionable khakis and long skirts, my braces and glasses.
That was the way I thought of honking for a long time: as either a compliment or a joke. As I would come to learn, it’s actually street harassment. Surprise!
All of these memories have reentered my thoughts this year due to my everyday walk to East or the Center for Documentary Studies from my off-campus house. The first time someone honked at me, I was confused. I looked around for a traffic problem. But no, it was just me, heading out for a run. It happened again and again, and eventually I stopped being surprised. (Thankfully, no one has yet shouted at me.)
At first, I had basically the same thoughts as I did when I was in high school. My self-esteem is significantly higher now, but I still wondered what men were doing honking at me when I was wearing just unattractive running shorts and t-shirt, or jeans and a tank top as I walked to class. It’s not like I was all dressed up for a night on the town.
But then I remembered feminism and I realized it doesn’t matter.
Bloggers before me have written here about street harassment, and one of the overwhelming themes in their pieces is that it doesn’t matter what you look like as long as you’re a woman. It doesn’t matter that I’m short or dressed casually or wearing a backpack. Guys honk at me anyway.
I am lucky to live in a place where the worst street harassment I regularly encounter is honking. Because it really doesn’t affect me much at all. There’s no personal connection with the man in the car, it happens quickly, and I don’t have to stop my day to deal with it. But that doesn’t make it okay. It’s a minor form of harassment, but it’s still harassment. I struggle with why men honk at me, or at other women. What do they hope to gain from it? A smile? A longer look at me? Do they want me to perceive it as a compliment and feel better about my appearance because of them?
All of these are possibilities, but I keep coming back to the idea that it is an assertion of power. Nothing else makes sense. It’s a man letting a woman know, crudely, simply, and quickly, that he has power over her body. He approves of her body, like her body is a thing that requires male approval. It is the very smallest, barest beginning of the idea that a woman’s body doesn’t belong to her. That idea spirals up and up, into catcalling, pinching and poking, significantly more intense and traumatizing street harassment, and sexual assault. This idea persists at every level, from the personal to the political and where they intersect. We’re having political debates right now about how much control a woman should legally be permitted to have over her own body.
The next time someone honks at me while I’m walking to class, it still won’t bother me much in and of itself. But it will remind me of all the more substantial street harassment that I’ve been subjected to in the past. And I’ll still wonder why. Why do you do this? Why do you feel the need to give your approval? With luck, I’ll stop wondering what precisely that man liked about my body and remember the real reason he demanded my attention from the road.