Photos by Caitlin Abrams
I remember the first time I was sexually assaulted by a stranger on the streets. It was in New York City, on a train platform, during late afternoon. I was 14 and on my way home from high school. As I stood, tired, staring into the vacant place where I wished a train would appear, a man swooped in behind me, reached his hand under my skirt, and squeezed. I whirled around to—to—to do something. To scream, to punch, to reply. But when I did, I saw him push through the surrounding crowds, and vanish. I was speechless. The train came. I got on it. When I told my mother what had happened, she didn’t even look up from her cooking. “That’s called being goosed,” she explained, with the same matter of factness you might describe which clouds in the sky are called cumulus and which ones are cirrus. I learned that day that the sexual predation of girls and women by strange men was unremarkable, and over the next few years I’d learn to place that particular bad day on a continuum with other bad days, which included being rubbed against in a tight subway car, being followed through the streets by a man masturbating as he drove, exposure, hissing, catcalls, and the ceaseless advice that I’d look prettier if I smiled.
It’s this way for many women, according to research conducted on street harassment. Last year, Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit working to end harassment in public spaces, commissioned market research company Gfk to ask women about their experiences out of doors. The research found that 65 percent of 2,000 American women surveyed had experienced verbal street harassment, 23 percent had been touched, and 20 percent had been followed by individual men or groups of men. Another group advocating against street harassment, Hollaback!, recently conducted a survey with Cornell University that found 85 percent of American women experienced street harassment before the age of 17.
Most women know street harassment for what it is, it’s like showing a gun tucked into a waistband, a promise that worse can come. Last year in Detroit, Mary Spears, a mother of three, was shot dead on the street for refusing to give a man in a bar her phone number. The year before, a 14-year-old girl in Florida refused to get in the car of a man asking her to, so he reached out, grabbed her by her hair, choked her unconscious, and then ran over her. In San Francisco in 2013, a man slashed the throat of a woman who repelled his advances on the street. A 29-year-old in New York City in 2009 was killed when the driver of a van, catcalling her, lost control of his vehicle and hit her. In 2010, a 15-year-old girl named Shayla Raymond attempted to flee street harassers at a bus stop in Chicago when she was hit and killed by a car. Last fall in San Francisco, Ben Schwartz asked a catcaller to stop and was stabbed nine times. In February in Ames, Iowa, 20-year-old Cale Truhlsen attempted to intervene when a friend was being harassed on the street, and was beat into a coma.
Is street harassment just a part of life we have to accept?
Lindsey M. says no. She started saying no two years ago, when, heading home from a long day as a commercial litigator at Lindquist + Vennum, she heard catcalls at a light rail stop from a man in a pickup truck. The man called out a number of speculations into the crowd about her and her undergarments. Rattled and full of adrenaline, she later retaliated in the only way she could, with a missed connections post on Craigslist:
“Let me make this abundantly clear, to you and to the other men reading this: when you comment on a woman’s appearance, you are not doing it for her. You are doing it for you. It’s not some great way to make a woman feel sexy and appreciated. It’s not flattery, even if you mean for it to be. The only thing it is is a great way for you to create a shitty power dynamic, by which you have announced yourself as the arbiter of her value.”
Several websites, including Jezebel, picked it up, and Lindsey’s post went viral.
In talking about the experience with her friends and husband (a fellow St. Olaf grad), Lindsey realized that her male peers had no real understanding of the parallel, threatening, and largely invisible world that women live in. “In my circles there was skepticism,” she explained, when I met her for bloody marys and brunch at Muddy Waters in LynLake. “Surely nice Midwesterners are not doing that.”
She decided to start taping her life, just letting her iPhone record videos while she ran to lunch or to the drugstore or waited for the bus. Her friends were amazed.
Lindsey decided to take some action. Justice ran in her blood. Her father, Richard Myers, was the police chief of Appleton, Wisconsin, where she grew up, and has always been interested in justice in the largest sense, discussing issues of racial and economic equality at the dinner table, and taking her to lectures on topics he was interested in. He became such a national figure in thoughtful policing that he was appointed the interim police chief in Sanford, Florida, as that city attempted to recover from the disaster of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Her mother’s influence as a teacher led Lindsey to couple the justice she wanted with education.
She decided to create cards to hand out to her harassers that explained the repercussions to their victims. One reads, “Ahh, Summer: the perfect time to get outside and get active. Too bad you had to go and ruin it. Someone simply walking/jogging/biking in your line of sight isn’t an invitation for you to comment on how they look. It’s not a compliment. It’s harassment.” Another advised, “The reputation is ‘Minnesota Nice,’ not ‘Minnesota Random Men Commenting on How I Look and Making Me Feel Weird.’ Don’t be that guy. It’s not a compliment. It’s harassment.” When men harassed her on Nicollet Mall, on Hennepin, on Lyndale, on all the major Minneapolis thoroughfares, she handed out her cards and tried to start a dialogue. “Why are you saying that to me?” she would ask.
Her harassers’s responses were revealing. “It’s always geographical or theological,” Lindsey says. “It’s ‘I’m from Ohio, and that’s how we do things,’ or ‘Adam gave his rib for Eve, so I could holler at women.’” Or as one man she taped put it: “Women are put on this earth to satisfy a man, so if she gets offended, she should have never been born.”
Lindsey's videos and her “Cards Against Harassment” generated their own viral surges. One video has close to three quarters of a million views. Lindsey was subsequently featured on Good Morning America and in People magazine, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, and loads of other media. But all of the attention about her efforts generated even more harassment—her Twitter feed is besieged by men threatening to rape her, and every comment section beneath a story about her fills up with speculation that she’s ugly, conceited, and an enemy of flirtation and romance.
“It would be dishonest to say [the Internet abuse] doesn’t bother me,” shrugs Lindsey, her blue eyes darkening for a second, but the idea of letting injustice go unchecked bothers her more. “Law and order was always just a theme growing up in our house.” She was also the middle child of three girls, and women’s issues were never considered trivial. When she went to the University of Pennsylvania for law school, the level of street harassment she encountered in Philadelphia horrified her.
But it was only after starting her career in Minneapolis that she realized how incidental sexism affected women at work—the ability for women to work into the night and not be afraid to walk to their cars, how harassment on the way to a meeting could potentially affect a woman’s participation in that meeting.
“I was not really a feminist in high school,” Lindsey says. “I thought I was not personally limited by my gender, and I thought that’s what feminism was. I expected that women’s equality was already in place, and that that would be the world I would operate in.” Then she found that it wasn’t.
The Elliot Rodger deadly rampage in California last year as a result of being rejected by women, and the resulting bizarre Internet outpouring by “pick-up artists” who insisted the massacre was a reasonable response to men being “friend-zoned,” cemented something in her and so did the hashtag #YesAllWomen, a response to Rodger’s killings in which women talk about living in fear or suffering misogyny.
“We’re acculturated to see street harassment as a petty annoyance, but it reflects some fundamentally concerning cultural themes,” Lindsey says, in the sort of full and articulate but perky and alert way that she has. “If people would see a woman on the street as a person with her own motivation and intent, if women were allowed to make noise, take up space, and pursue their own path freely, the world would be a better place.”
So Lindsey will endure the slings and arrows of the Internet, and continue to hand out her cards against harassment. She’s also been named to the Minnesota Super Lawyer Rising Stars list for the last two years, is now on the national board for Stop Street Harassment, and is setting up a meeting with the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District to talk about how the city can be a safer place for women.
Will the teenage girls of the future be taught that street harassment is the price of being alive? Not if Lindsey has anything to say about it, and she’s not afraid to speak up, not at all.