We fight our way out of the bustling underground of Penn Station as the train rumbles away on the steel tracks, tousling our hair and filling our ears with the roaring beat of New York City life. Traipsing up the stairs, we’re drawn into the calmness of night in a city of contradictions. The cool air teases us, nipping at our ears and toes. A curtain of darkness drapes over the sky, starless.
It’s a Tuesday night in New York, a rare moment of peace in a city that fills its corners with strains of all-too-familiar melodies and the laughter of strangers. But I can’t focus.
“Why are you walking so quickly?” my friend asks. He looks at me with a puzzled smile. My legs are shorter than his, we’re on vacation and it’s been a long night. I shouldn’t be in a hurry.
“Can I explain to you after we get back home? It’s just habit.” I ask, catching my breath. I glance behind us, for the fifth time. I spot a pair of tall figures walking in our direction and mentally ask myself if they turned with us on the last street corner. I can’t remember, but I pick up the pace anyways, keeping my eyes low to the ground. I glance at the men again, to see if their pace quickens alongside mine.
Most, if not all women reading this article will understand why I walked so quickly on that Tuesday night without explanation. They remember the echoes of their mother’s voices reminding them to always walk with a friend, check if anyone’s following you and have pepper spray on hand, even in the light of day. It’s second nature for us to keep our eyes straight ahead as we walk past men on dimly lit sidewalks, as to not to draw unnecessary attention. It’s not a conscious thought, it’s not something we talk about. It’s as natural as waking up in the morning.
The problem is that a surprising amount of men don’t understand (or do not have the chance to understand) the daily struggles of the women around them. A surprising amount of men have told me that they didn’t realize that sexual harassment is a part of daily life for women, rather than a sporadic occurrence for a select few. For women, assault doesn’t just happen to us — its gory details bind us to other women who fear speaking out. Just the other day, my best friend whispered over the phone to me that a boy had fully undressed her while she was drunk, even as she kept saying to him, “I don’t know you.” He responded by saying, “It’s okay, I like the parts of you that I do know.” She then asked me if the incident was sexual assault or not.
It’s not always about fear, either. Other times it’s about really practical issues, like the lack of trash cans or sanitary pad disposal bins in bathrooms here at Yale. Yale wasn’t built for women, and the new colleges are no exception. I wasn’t surprised when Silliman’s bathrooms lacked disposal bins, because a couple of decades ago, Silliman didn’t even have women’s bathrooms. I was shocked, however, when Benjamin Franklin, which was built this year, didn’t either. You don’t want us to talk about our periods? Fine. At least give us the luxury of concealing them behind the doors of the women’s bathroom.
Women, the conversation starts with us. We’ve been taught to keep quiet about discomfort, hiding tampons up our sleeves as we excuse ourselves in the middle of a conversation and keeping our lips sealed about our “I definitely didn’t want to do it but I wouldn’t call it rape” stories. Don’t be afraid to start uncomfortable conversations with the men around you. Tell them that you’re on your period, or that their joke is uncomfortably sexist. The power is in our words, but only if we use them.
Men, all we ask is that you listen. We don’t expect you to understand why our pace quickens as the sun sets. But we do hope that you listen when we’re brave enough to speak out about these things and fight for policies that don’t affect you, whether it’s a better system for reporting assault and rape to disposal bins in bathrooms. Speak up for us so that the burden isn’t always on us to fight daily inconveniences, in a world that was built around you and your needs.
For every uncomfortable conversation that I bridge, I make the world a bit more sensitive to the unspoken struggle that it is to be a woman, and for all the women who come after me. I’m no longer passively waiting for others to let me live in a world where I too can stand alone under the expanse of silence on a city street, utterly alone and at peace. I too, deserve the night sky.
Katherine Hu is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at email@example.com .