This Is Why Women Worry

What a horrific kidnapping has to do with the debate on street harassment.


Carlesha Freeland-Gaither, 22, the victim of a horrific kidnapping, was rescued last night after having been missing since a little before 10 p.m. Sunday night.

The story of her abduction made national news, with reports detailing the use of her ATM card in Aberdeen, Maryland, multiple videos of a person of interest, and finally, graciously, her safe return. The surveillance footage was chilling, mostly because the man who took her by force into his vehicle seemed to do so indiscriminately. Amid reports that there was no relationship between Freeland-Gaither and her accused abductor, what’s most terrifying, and what hardly needs to be said, is that it could literally have happened to anyone.

Women are taught to navigate the world in groups as a means to stay safe. At restaurants, we excuse ourselves from the table in pairs to go to the restroom. College-aged women walk their campuses using the buddy system. When we separate from each other at night, my friends and I have a standing rule to call or text when we get home to ensure we’ve arrived safely.

But sometimes women must walk alone. There are times that dimly lit streets are unavoidable. Even in daylight, there are times that women must push through large packs of strange men to get to our destination — we do this with expressionless faces, showing no signs of vulnerability, weakness, and most importantly, interest. We wear faces that say, “Please leave me alone,” and “Go away.”

Our accompanying body language is stiff, cautious, guarded, eyes piercing with a laser focus, straight ahead, to the destination only, while employing a sixth sense to assess our environment all the while.

Please don’t notice me.

However expertly executed, this careful stance remains impervious to street harassers, and to ravenous predators — like Freeland-Gaither’s abductor — whose intent is to inflict harm and discomfort. “Smile!” the men say, as women attempt to minimize contact.

Freeland-Gaither did exactly what any of us would do or have done ourselves before. In the video, she appears to keep her eyes straight ahead; saying nothing; avoiding his attempts to shake her hand, to start a conversation. She goes well out of her way to walk around him.

Saying nothing, women teach themselves, is what may keep them safe from predators. Avoidance trumps escalation. But the rise in acts of violence committed against women who are just trying to walk down the street demands a conversation about the real threats of street harassment, about the real, everyday fears that many women experience just getting from point A to point B.

A scenario like Carlesha Freeland-Gaither’s is exactly what I think about any time I find myself walking into a parking garage at night. Or down the dimly lit street to my front door. Or past a barbershop. Any time I find myself waiting for public transit or anywhere, really, that’s not my home or a public place surrounded by friends (or witnesses).

The impositions — as we all saw in last week’s viral video — are constant; the threats are steadfast and unpredictable, and women, as a result, are vulnerable. The solution is not to teach women to walk in groups; it’s holding men accountable and making streets safer. Women shouldn’t have to walk in groups, or smile more, or be more judicious or tender in their rejection of strange men in order to stay safe and alive.