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The GW Hatchet


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Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Officials to clear homeless encampment near campus in May
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • March 4, 2024

Essay: What it means to exist as a woman in the city

During my first week of classes of my freshman year, I was heckled while talking on the phone with my mother. I had my earbuds in, recounting my first week to her as I walked to a local coffee shop. A man in a delivery truck honked at me and shouted an incoherent phrase. Naively, I reversed my steps and removed my earbuds, quirked a brow and asked him, “Are you talking to me?”

“Yeah, I was just saying your ass was out,” he said. “Pull down your shirt. It’s not safe to walk around like that.” Sure enough, my backpack was riding up my shirt and exposing me more than I intended to. I thanked him for letting me know and continued on my way. The irony of thanking a strange man on the street for honking at me and loudly scolding me for wearing revealing clothing didn’t hit me until later that evening – what happened was still harassment.

The catcalling I experienced only worsened as my time living alone in D.C. went on. Two months into school, a man followed a group of girls and me to Opera Ultra Lounge for several blocks. A few weeks later, I was catcalled walking home from Landmark’s E Street Cinema. And no more than a month after that, a man old enough to be my father asked for my number while waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green.

At school, I clutch a rape alarm when I walk alone at night, make sure to share my locations with my friends before we go out and cover my arms across my chest when I’m wearing a low-cut shirt downtown. I shrug or laugh off these past incidents of harassment – they become anecdotes for the dining hall, inside jokes with friends and a relatable story to share with a girl sitting next to me in class. Women trauma bond over our shared harassment experiences and don’t even realize we’re doing it, which is almost as devastating as the catcalling and hypersexualization on the streets of D.C. We swap stories of sexual harassment, finding a distressing comfort in the common experience.

As soon as I turned 18 last summer, I felt like my legality was broadcast on a billboard for all men to see – it suddenly becomes okay for a 40 year old to approach a girl in a backpack as long as doing so is within the law. But ironically, I feel safe in the city. I just don’t walk alone off campus at night, slow down my pace to admire the bright lights past 7 p.m. or run outside in tank tops despite the climbing D.C. temperatures. I avoid participating in these ordinary activities – male luxuries – of mere existence.

As the weather warms and the cherry blossoms bloom, I find myself excited for sundress season. I love when I can see the sun coloring my freckles darker and broader and feel the UV rays warming my back like a heat lamp. But 70-degree weather means exposed skin, and exposed skin means unwanted advances and leering gazes. Spring in D.C. is a magical thing, but for young women, it can also be nerve-wracking. It’s a reminder that men don’t change – wardrobes do.

Catcalling is an all too common experience among GW students. I’ve heard stories from friends who have been stopped at red lights as men try luring them into their cars on Constitution Avenue, harassed in broad daylight for wearing leggings near the White House and followed by older men on campus walking back from class. These instances are mentally scarring to experience first hand and hear second hand. But there is an often undiscussed shameful pride that comes with the first time women are catcalled.

If it sounds disturbing, that’s because it is. Women are taught from a young age that our worth relies on male approval, so we come to expect harassment from men. We conflate an unsolicited “compliment” with feeling valued by society, so the first time a man shouts at us from afar – “Hey, beautiful,” “How you doin’ tonight?” or “Can I get your number?” – the catcall feels like the ghost of flattery. This may be an anti-feminist and taboo sentiment, but it’s a truthful one. Men viewing me as objectively attractive is an ugly, wonderful compliment.

I’ve come to expect a catcall when I dress up and look pretty – I’m even internally disappointed when no one harasses me on the street because although I feel beautiful, I anticipate that affirmation from men. But a few months later, the initial charm wears off when a man and his friends are walking a little too quickly and a little too close to me while I’m alone on the street. And I sure don’t find it charming when a grown man traces my 17-year-old sibling’s figure with his looming stare while they’re visiting me in the city – I find it disgusting and sickening. I wrap my coat around them only to realize that, as a teenage girl who stands under 5’4,” I’m about as much of a weapon against a 6’3” man as a butter knife against a sword. Helplessness is an exhausting state of being.

I don’t have a solution to catcalling, and it’s not up to me or any other woman to find one. These instances of harassment are simply what it means for me – for us – to exist. I am continuously sexualized, persistently tired and subhuman in the minds of many men – a woman.

Paige Baratta, a freshman majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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