In college, I ran cross country. It was late in the season and the team was out for a run together. We left as a group but by the time we got to one of our favorite spots-the reservoir-the pack began to divide. It was a beautiful run through the woods, along the water. In the fall, the leaves were positively lovely. We all had run the route dozens of times.
About 3 miles into the run, I was alone. I was running the path through the woods, enjoying the crisp air. Then I heard a motor. I saw four teenage boys on an ATV, coming toward me. I stared straight ahead and kept running. For a reason I couldn’t quite define, I felt afraid. My fear turned to terror when they stopped beside me. I picked up the pace. They started yelling at me to stop. Telling me to come back. “My bedroom isn’t far!” “Where are you going? My house is just up the road!” I ran as fast as I could, praying they wouldn’t turn around. I certainly couldn’t fight off four boys, or outrun an ATV, and I had no idea if my teammates would hear me scream.
They continued yelling at me, making less-than-veiled references to having sex with me, laughing at their obvious cleverness. When I was several yards away, the motor started. Thankfully, they did not drive back to find me and make good on their invitations.
I shook the terror off by the end of the run. I suppose I just hadn’t allowed myself to think about what could have happened.
My dad, our coach, found out. I can’t remember if I told him or if word just passed through the team after I shared the experience with the girls. Either way, I knew he was mad. Not at me but at the idea of anyone hurting me. I remember waving it off, saying, “It’s ok! Nothing happened.”
That was over five years ago and the thought of those boys on that ATV still makes me feel a little sick. Something did happen. It wasn’t something that affected my body in anyway but it influenced my way of thinking. It was the first time I remember being truly afraid of boys my age whom I did not know. People had made me uncomfortable before that, but not in a dangerous way. To this day, I still revisit that fear when I’m out and alone.
Some might say I could take what happened as a compliment. Or that I don’t have any reason to still think about it: it was just a joke.
Or you’ve experienced the same type of harassment, or worse, and you know how it makes you feel. Objectified. Unsafe. Dirty. Those boys probably don’t remember that day at all. They have no reason to remember what happened. It was just a joke to them. It was a chance to show off and feel cool. It was just a little added excitement in their ATV ride.
Sexual gestures and lewd comments are not compliments. They make women feel unsafe. They give strength to the misconception in rape culture that girls want to be treated that way. That we want you to talk about our body as we walk by. That we want to have that sinking feeling in our stomach as you approach and we think, “Will he hurt me?” It’s not thrilling or exciting: it frightening. It’s harassment. It’s verbal and psychological abuse.