When the seasons started to change, I thought I’d finally get a break from the all-too-frequent street harassment I experience living in Washington, D.C. Of course, I realize that it is possible to get harassed 24/7, 365 days a year, regardless of what you’re wearing, how you “carry yourself” or how you look, but prime street harassment season was nearly over because colder weather equals less time that most people want to spend outside.

And then, last week, I had one of the most terrifying street harassment experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Which is saying something for me.

I have to preface this all by saying that I can be a bit reckless when it comes to my own personal safety. A long time ago, when I was about 16, I decided I wasn’t going to let the men who tried to make me feel small through dirty words and objectification win by making me live in a permanent state of fear. My way of doing that involves cursing out rude harassers, screaming and if it suits me, choosing to walk home alone even if it’s dark out. I don’t always make the safest decisions, but those decisions do help me to feel more powerful.

And so, when I got off the train around 6 p.m. a few weeks ago, I thought, “Yes, it’s dark outside…but it’s also 6 p.m. I’ll be damned if I’m afraid to walk in my own neighborhood around rush hour.” I decided to make the 15-minute walk from the station to my basement apartment.

Unfortunately, due to climate change, we were experiencing a kind of balmy, extended autumn. As I walked down the street, several men who were hanging around on the sidewalks called out to me. I ignored them. It had been a long day at work, and I didn’t want to engage, not even to use my firm and dry go-to for mild harassment: “No, thank you. Have a good evening.” (Even that response has been met with violent anger before. You just cannot win.)

I was nearing a group of apartment buildings closest to my place when I saw a couple of guys watching me intensely. It was one of those moments when I want to stop and ask the person leering at me if they understand how creepy and threatening they’re being. You’re looking at me like I’m an actual piece of meat. Do you realize that I legit fear for my life right now?

I knew that I didn’t have a choice but to greet them, which always infuriates me. It feels like I’m being robbed of my free will – that moment where I know I can’t ignore him or say the wrong thing, because I might make him mad or ‘lead him on.’ They didn’t move for me to pass by, so I had to move to the edge of the sidewalk. “Good evening,” one of the leering men said in a tone that made my skin crawl. I barely looked at him, nodded, gave a curt “Hello,” and continued on my way.

I’d only walked a few feet and I heard someone walking quickly behind me. I turned to check and it was him. Of course. I wasn’t 100 percent sure if he was following me, but it wasn’t a risk that I could take. I quickly darted through one row of the apartment complex’s buildings, shooting for the well-lit and usually populated parking lot. I looked back, saw him walking straight ahead and breathed a sigh of relief.

But then, I passed the second row of apartments and saw him coming down the path toward me. Fast. There is every chance that he wasn’t following me, and that me practically running so that he wouldn’t see where I lived insulted him. He could have been headed home. But here is the thing: when it comes between protecting my safety and avoiding hurting your feelings…I’m going to pick my safety every time.

Behind me, I could have sworn that I heard him say, “Stop running.” But I cannot be sure. I was moving too fast and I wasn’t going to stick around to confirm it. And I hate this, but in that moment, I began to blame myself for having chosen to walk home. I should have waited 20 minutes for the next bus. I should have requested an Uber. I should have taken another route home. I should have. I should have.

Later, when I recounted the story to my boyfriend and best friend, they both were just relieved that I was OK. They also both told me to make sure to let them know if I ever need a ride. These are two men who have heard me rant about street harassment for years. They take me seriously and they want to keep me safe, but they can’t imagine how furious it makes me every time I’ve had to change the way I live my life in order to avoid the possibility of being harassed.

I’ve taken new routes to work. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on cab rides. I’ve changed outfits multiple times before leaving the house. I’ve invested in spare headphones so that I never have to walk down the street without them. I’ve learned how to defuse tense situations, gingerly handling harassers’ feelings, despite the fact that they don’t respect me as a human. I’ve had to stick up for myself when groped on the street and try not to cry when they laughed in my face.

I am tired.

In the past, explaining to a harasser that he’s making me afraid has seemed to hit home. I’ve told men on that very block that “it’s late and I don’t know you, so I’m going to have to say ‘Goodnight.’” I’ve told persistent men who have followed me down empty streets that no matter your intentions, the fact that you’re continuing to pursue me in this isolated area is scary.

I like to think that I’ve helped someone to see my point of view, instead of ignoring them – which usually just serves to make them angrier or make them feel vindicated because I’m “stuck up” and therefore deserve to be mistreated – or carrying around the anger of having been harassed for hours after the interaction.

I’m working to find a balance between speaking up for myself and potentially putting myself in danger. While I know that it’s necessary, I hate it. Frankly, I feel I’m entitled to give as good as I get. If strangers feel comfortable “talking up under my clothes,” as the old folks say, then I should be able to tell them to go straight to hell. It’s only fair.

But there is fair and there is reality.

In a perfect world, we would all be able to get from Point A to Point B without being harassed, leered at or made to fear for our personal safety. And while I do think that international anti-street harassment work has made amazing progress in the past few years, and that some of the sidewalk lectures that I’ve given to the harassers I encounter may actually help to make some of them realize that their actions have real consequences, this last incident was a stark, personal reminder of what we’re up against and how high the stakes really are.

  • Lauren McEwen

    Lauren McEwen is the Lead Partnerships Strategist for The Tempest, based in the Atlanta area. She has written about everything from pop culture to gender to business. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Madame Noire, The Baltimore Sun, Bitch Magazine, Ebony.com, and Comic Book Resources. Although she likes a ton of things, her three true loves are cheese, Harry Potter, and Beyonce.