January: My friend and I are leaving a formal meeting. Our thin tights aren’t enough to keep our legs warm and we shiver inside our winter coats—only another block until the restaurant where we can shed our layers and enjoy a hot dinner. We’re talking about our plans for the upcoming week when we’re startled by the blast of a horn and a shout from the man in the passenger seat: “Hey ladies! A little cold to be wearing dresses isn’t it?!” He speeds off and we’re left in shock, recovering only to duck inside the next building on University Avenue. We step outside a couple of minutes later, eyes downcast until we finally arrive at the restaurant.
April: We’re driving back from spring break, my roommate driving and me in the passenger seat. A truck full of guys our age passes us on the freeway and we wonder if we know any of them from school. Their heads are turned in our direction and as they pull ahead of us we conclude that none of them look familiar. For the next couple of minutes our car and theirs play tag—one of us always a little ahead of the other until they finally slow down and drive right next to us. I lift a hand to wave, but quickly use that same hand to cover my mouth in disgust. My semi-wave was met with a crude gesture from the guy in the backseat: his two fingers spread into a V and his tongue resting in between. We slow down and let them pass, hoping to create as much distance as possible between our two cars.
June: I’m waiting for the bus after work. I’m alone today and passing the time by checking my emails and cleaning out my inbox. I look up when I hear a horn honk, and see a man hanging out of the passenger seat window of his car, wagging his tongue and moaning “Yeah baby!” until he’s out of earshot. I text my roommate: “NEVER let me take the bus home alone again.”
Previously, when I’d think about sexual harassment, I envisioned an uncomfortable encounter between a woman and her male co-worker in some indistinguishable office building or at the counter of an overrated bar in a big city. I never considered myself a victim to these unwanted interactions; I’m a college student still a couple of years away from starting a career and not one to frequent the bars downtown. I thought I was immune to sexual harassment because I had yet to put myself in a setting that facilitated those kinds of encounters with those kinds of men.
I was wrong. There is not a single type of place that encourages incidents of sexual harassment over others; it can happen anywhere. By making offensive comments to women from within the confines of a their car, men seem to escape all responsibility for their actions by slamming on the gas and driving away in any direction they choose before the flustered recipients of their remarks are able to lift a finger—you know the one—in response.
Maybe it’s the size of a car— the stereotypically lifted tires, the roaring engine, the flat bed big enough to hold three kegs, four pledges and a ratty sofa—or the ease of making a quick escape which that encourages these incidents. The men are protected by two tons of steel and leather seats, while the women walking by are exposed to their comments with only a handbag and an apartment key at their disposal.
This type of sexual harassment is a power game for men, and it’s cowardly. In such situations, men have the muscle power of a diesel engine and we have nothing. Even in instances where women are driving alongside their offenders, there’s a sense of vulnerability that occurs after receiving a crude gesture or a comment yelled out of a side window. If these men are bold enough to harass women on the freeway, what’s to keep them from performing something more dangerous—rear-ending or even driving women off the road?
Harassing women from the security of a car may be a competition for these men, a sick pastime aimed at boosting their egos or reinforcing their credibility among the bros, but these instances are terrifying for the women involved, as they often lead to thoughts of abduction or physical abuse. While these men are essentially removed from making any physical advances toward the women they harass, their assaults are no less offensive, alarming, or downright embarrassing.
As a woman who’s experienced sexual harassment in this form on numerous occasions, I can attest to how violating it feels, even though these assaults may last for only a few seconds. It’s alarming to know that sexual harassment can happen at any time in the blink of an eye before the perpetrator slams on the gas and flees the scene. Incidents like mine leave no room for victim blaming—I’m not asking for attention; I’m simply going about my business and who the hell cares what I was wearing? Out of every other pedestrian doing exactly what I and women like myself are doing, we are the ones to be singled out and harassed for doing nothing but existing.
What I experienced is nothing new; after talking to a couple of my friends I’ve found that they or their friends have had more than a handful of similar experiences. Even the women I know who are bold enough to shut down the creeps at the bars find themselves at a loss for words when their assaults are shouted from a moving vehicle. So come on, guys. Put it in park and say what you want to my face. I promise you the slap you’ll receive in response will be far more satisfying for me than any adrenaline rush you’d get from revving the engine of your shitty sports car.