I wish I was an old woman, I thought as I ducked into a random store in the mall. A man had been filming and following me as I shopped. I wish I was an old woman, I thought when the senior wrapped himself around my waist to say “excuse me.” I wish I was an old woman, I thought when the construction workers shouted vulgar things from across the street.
“Give us a smile, baby!”
“Let us show you a good time.”
“Fine. Ignore us. Ugly b*tch.”
I distinctly remember being 13-years-old at a local Fourth of July event and being surrounded by 40-year-old men. I can still see them forcing beer cans into my hands and begging me to drink. I can still hear the creepy words flittering around my head (they called it harmless flirting). The men got so mad at me when I said I was uncomfortable with their words that they threw beer all over me. I went home and lied when my mom asked about the smell. I shouldn’t have been rude; it was my own fault. I bet if I had crow’s feet, they would have ignored me.
At 14, a 24-year-old military man slid into my dm’s. He started with a cheesy pick-up line. Initially, he told me my eyes were like the ocean and my smile sparkled. Then he mentioned how “sexy” I was and asked for dirty pictures. He made sure to remind me that age was just a number after I reminded him that I was 14. I quit answering, but he persisted. “Send the pictures, you know you want to.”
“I thought you liked me…I need you to prove it.”
Once the insults came, I knew I should just block him. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I shouldn’t have answered his message. Maybe I flirted too much. Maybe, if my hair was gray, he would have skipped over my profile.
A few months ago, at 19 years old, I went out to a local bar with some of my friends (all girls). We were sitting down on some couches when a middle-aged man approached us. He shouted at me for being on my phone while in the bar. He belittled me for not “having enough fun.” Then he asked me my name. He got mad when I told him to leave me alone. Furious, even. Then the insults began.
“All of you little college girls are the same. You don’t even deserve to have fun. Go be prudes somewhere else.”
We left the bar feeling uncomfortable. I apologized to my friends over and over for ruining the night. Maybe if I hadn’t been on my phone or looked more friendly it would not have happened. Maybe if I was an old woman, I would receive respect.
Almost every woman has experienced this same narrative. Female harassment occurs on the street, in the bar, in between grocery aisles, and at school. In fact, most have formulated escape or defense plans for when they walk through a parking lot. Walk with your keys between your fingers, always have pepper spray, don’t make eye contact, don’t put your drink down, smile when they ask, and always stay in a group. These are the preventative measures girls take to minimize catcalling and other forms of intimidation.
Ultimately, there was a moment when catcalls became normalized, and that led to more and more severe harassment to become “okay.” Society, turning its back on the female victims, told them that they were the problem. They should smile back. They should cover up. They should stop “flirting.” A harassment-sympathizing attitude was born, and it pushed girls into a powerless box of silence.
I want to be an old woman. It is not that I want gray hair or wrinkles. I want to smile without fear. I want respect from others. I want to walk without catcalls. However, in the current state of the world, young women CANNOT do any of these things. While I cannot rid myself of harassment, I can stand up to harassers. I can quit blaming myself. I can quit saying “maybe if I didn’t ______,” or “maybe if I changed ______ about myself.” I can stop longing to age and stop silencing myself. I need to speak up. I need to take back my power as a woman. We all do.