Things I heard on my bike ride the other day:
“Hey Baby- come over here,”
“Damn I wish I was that bicycle,”
“Get out of the road you stupid [gender expletive],”
“HONK HONK, HONK HONK HONK, HONK HONK HONK HONK.”
Most bicyclists get yelled at, honked at, threatened, and experience near-misses or direct harm. We all have bike horror stories. Everyday roadway interactions take on different forms for Women, Women of Color, queer and trans women. Being on a bike invites nuance in gender-based street harassment and the aftermath.
Sure, I feel much more safe on a bike than I do walking, especially at night, because I have the power to escape and often I can avoid the interaction in the first place. But when I’m on my bike I’m more visible, more physical, more assertive, and strong. I take the lane and wait beside lines of cars and packs of peoples at stop lights. I’ve re-wired my brain take up public space and wield my physical power. I stand out.
Ask a room full of women who bike about street harassment and you’ll hear a complete range and repetition of experiences: catcalls, whistles, kissy noises, offensive pick-up lines, offensive comments on our body or gender expression or race or sexual identity, belittling comments, attempts to look up skirts, attempts to grab your butt, actually being grabbed in the butt, being followed, the threat of physical harm, being chased off the road, and in the rare but very real case – physical harm.
Not only does harassment change when I’m on a bike, so do outcomes. Likely the person is in a car, likely I’m on a road that was designed for cars, likely they outweigh me by a few tons, and if they threaten my life with their car likely I’m in a jurisdiction with arcane and outdated legal structures designed for people in cars. If I get hit, hurts or emotionally scarred, likely society and society’s legal structure will tell me it was my fault. I invited it. I misinterpreted. I shouldn’t be biking at night. I should’ve taken a defense class. Why didn’t I have pepper spray. I should’ve been out with a group of friends. My clothing was inappropriate. Oh – come on, boys will be boys.
Physical harm is an extreme example, though a very real example. What’s more likely to happen is that over time the people who experience harassment regularly start to subconsciously and consciously change their own behaviors. Likely we smile and interact in public less. We change our route, change our routine, change our wardrobe, turn hurt, angry, bitter, and resentful. I know I have.
Women & Bicycles is holding our FREE 3rd-annual Biking and Street Harassment Workshop with the Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) open to all women, trans women, and gender non-conforming folks. We hope you can join us. Mark your calendars.