Last week, I was in Texas visiting a potential graduate school program. In between meetings with faculty and drinks with students, I found time for my favorite traveling hobby: walking. I walked across Texas State’s sprawling campus for half an hour before finding its borders, I walked alongside the San Marcos River until its path ran underwater, and I walked through the same town streets that LBJ once walked as a student at the same university.
This was my first time experiencing a new city from a lens of permanency. When I’ve visited places like Seoul and Washington D.C., I walked the city grids like it could be the last time I’d ever see them, but in San Marcos, I had the task of imagining a potential new life. I was immersed in the possibility of what my world might look like in the fall when a man on the street informed me he’d like to have sex with me.
Even though I was especially caught off guard to be harassed in an environment that was more like a small mountain town than an urban city, catcalling is always a jarring experience. In this example, I was stuck at the light just feet away from my harasser, and any thought about my future academic career immediately had to give way to assessing whether or not I was safe.
I’ve undergone this mental whiplash in most places I’ve travelled to and every city I’ve lived in. It doesn’t get easier to deal with. It never feels like anything less than a threat. Even “harmless” comments like being commanded to smile communicate a power imbalance—someone else feels it’s their place to disrupt my day so I can perform better for them, and that disruption is inherently embedded in aggression. It’s never a compliment. It’s meant to act as a reminder that my body, that women’s bodies in general, are more vulnerable than men’s—and that men who are willing to catcall are more than capable of exploiting that vulnerability.
It between these moments of aggression, it’s easy for me to forget the risks of navigating public spaces. Maybe I have to. I’m not willing to give up exploring the world out of fear, but I don’t owe that to any kind of optimism.