Why I Talked To My 13-Year-Old Daughter About Street Harassment

I want her to continue to embody the bravery that seems as natural to her as breathing, but I’m not about to let her tackle the world without being prepared.

My daughter, A, just turned 13. Even as a newborn, she embodied a quiet strength that seemed to float in her hazel eyes as she watched the world around her. It’s a strength that, over the years, has been tested often and morphed into a stunning sense of courage and capability.

She announced recently, as a newly arrived teenager, that she’s ready to venture out on her own and explore her city by metro bus and train (light rail, here in Seattle), hang out at a café and do homework or just read. She wants the independence. Her 16-year-old brother has been riding public transportation, going to cafes, concerts, bookstores, and clothing stores on his own since he was 12 and clearly his comfort (not to mention the distance he gets to travel, by himself!) has rubbed off on her.

I’m ready for this urban teenage milestone. But the truth is that this city-kid stage smacks up against the introduction of another common experience for girls her age: street harassment. I want her to continue to embody the bravery that seems as natural to her as breathing, but I’m not about to let her tackle that world without being prepared.

I remember back to when A was a fat, squishy baby, clear-eyed and smiley. My mother announced, “The world is a dangerous place, especially for girls.” It frustrated me. I know my mother meant well and she’s right. The world can be dangerous for girls. I don’t want my daughter to feel like she’s a victim, though. I don’t want her to experience the world afraid. Still, I can’t ignore all-too-common experiences for women and girls as I consider what it means for A to grow more independent and face the world on her own.

The majority of young women experience their first street harassment when they hit puberty; in fact, most girls are fourteen years old and younger. Street harassment, sadly, is an experience shared by many marginalized groups of people. According to a recent study on sexual harassment, a full two-thirds of females in the United States have been street harassed—this includes being followed, “sexually touched or grabbed in a sexual way” by an unknown stranger, and being assaulted.

That makes me angry as hell but knowing this is helpful as I think about A and her newfound independence. I want to feel comfortable with my daughter’s leap into this new phase. She’s 13 years old and why shouldn’t she claim these public spaces, without fear? This is her city. These are her streets as much as anyone’s: The bus stop she and her dad waited at every morning under sun and rain, his big hands gripping her chubby little ones, to hop the crowded bus to preschool. The path we’d walk when she was a little older, on our way to the playground, past the public golf course, she and my son racing to collect little white balls that made it over the sky-high nets around the driving range. The street that houses the hipster café next to our family’s favorite Mexican restaurant.  Why should she need to consider the possibility of being harassed by strangers as she walks these same streets and rides these same buses, as a teenager?

When my children were old enough, my husband and I shared age-appropriate information about self-defense. Of the two of them, it was my daughter who took to the physicality of the lessons. She loved it. “Kick them in the shins. Scream as loud as you can.” My husband stood in front of her, when she was 7 years old, reaching no higher than his waist, with his palms facing forward up by his abdomen. He’d say to her, “Hit my hands as hard as you can.” She’d shape her hands into strong fists and punch, her curly-hair bouncing with each blow.

I’m thinking of those days when I knock on A’s bedroom door one evening, just days after she turns 13 years old. She tells me to come in. She’s in her bed reading. She tells me to hop into “the cloud” with her. We call her bed “the cloud” because it’s all white: sheets, puffy comforter, pillows, nestled into the corner of her room where the windows meet and the sky frames it all. The only thing that isn’t white is the caramel colored teddy bear that looks tossed at the foot of the bed. She tells me she wants to ride the city bus by herself after school tomorrow so that she can do homework at the café. I am immensely proud that she feels comfortable on her own, ready to rely on herself. But my chest tightens. I say, “OK. These are your streets.”

But I also tell her, “I hate that I have to talk to you about this, but I do. You may get harassed on the street, on the bus or train. You may have males of different ages telling you to smile. Or commenting on your body. Teenage boys or men may yell things at you that you do not want to hear—from anyone, let alone a stranger on the street. You don’t have to respond. Even if they ask you why you’re not responding or why you’re not engaging. You can ignore them. You can cross the street or go into a store. Or you can respond. You can tell them to stop. You can loudly let them know they need to leave you alone. It’s up to you.”

But then I get nervous. I remember recent stories in the news. A young woman in New York City had her throat slashed after she turned down a man who was “pestering her” to go on a date with him. Another woman in Detroit was shot to death after refusing to give a man her phone number, on the street. I don’t tell my daughter about these stories but they weigh on my heart as we speak; as I consider how to counsel her.

On the other hand, and to my relief, A brings up a scene from one of our favorite TV shows, “Broad City.” It’s the episode where Abbi and Ilana respond with middle fingers positioning their “smiles” when a man they pass on the streets of New York City tells them how pretty they are so they “should smile.” It’s funny, badass, and maybe perfectly illustrates where A is at with this whole street harassment thing, compared to how it was for me, as a teenager and beyond. I, like most young women, was taught from a young age, to be seen above all else. I remember thinking as I walked down the city streets: I want to be invisible yet you’re supposed to notice me and think I’m beautiful. I was taught it’s a “compliment” to be told I’m gorgeous by random men and boys on the street. And if I say anything it should be, “Thank you” with a smile. But my daughter has been gifted by the voices, art, and activism of a host of women who speak out against street harassment: from those behind the magazine Rookie to the organization Hollaback.

I introduce her to the work of artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh whose art addresses street harassment through posters she creates using the words and images of the many women she interviews about their own experience with street harassment. The posters are then plastered along the streets where these women live and work and offer a real-time mirror of how harassment looks and feels to girls and women of color, everyday.

We talk about how men and boys who engage in harassment do not own these streets. They do not own her body or smile or eyes. I say, your shorts (or jeans or dress or skirt) are on your body because you want them there. If you want to bare your midriff, it does not mean you expect to be harassed by strangers on the street. You do not owe prettiness to anyone, as blogger Erin McKean declares. If you want to cover your body in baggy pants and a T-shirt, or wear a tight-fitting or low-cut shirt, that’s your choice and not an invitation to be catcalled, cursed, and yelled at.

I remind her: If someone harasses you, fight back however you feel most comfortable and most safe—in the moment with your words, or by crossing the street. Make art that expresses your thoughts and feelings. Write it down. Educate people. Talk to your friends. Talk to me.

When I sense she’s done, I tell her I love her and that I am excited for her next day’s adventure on the city bus, on her own. I’m worried she feels like I’m sending her out into a war zone, but if she’s worried she doesn’t show it. I kiss her on the forehead and say goodnight.

I want her—and all teenage girls—to know that street harassment is not about them: It’s about the boys and men who have been taught by society that the bodies of girls and women are for public display and public consumption.

And to my daughter: If someone tells you to smile because “you’re so pretty,” you have my permission to respond “Broad City” style. 

Amie Newman is a global women’s health communicator, a procrastinating writer, and a recovering good, white person who lives in Seattle with her partner and their two beautiful teen-humans. 

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