Like everyone, I have been profoundly affected by the #metoo posts on Facebook and Twitter. I hate writing this in some ways, because it makes me feel (for reasons I have yet to unpack) less fabulous. But the truth stands: Women cyclists are sexually harassed. It’s the same reason women don’t get on bicycles in Portland and in India and all over the world. Cyclists are a target, and female cyclists even moreso. Speaking out about it is the only way it will change, so I am choosing to be bold and write a #metoo post. Now that so many people have come out of hiding and bravely shared, I know I need to as well. My experiences, and those of women cyclists I know, are so commonplace that they’re almost routine.
When I first became aware of the harassment, it was because I mis-understood a comment yelled at me years ago while on my sweet little Huffy, Gem: “Lucky bike!” I smiled and yelled back, “It is my lucky bike!”, thinking the comment was because the bicycle itself was a good luck charm. Later, I laughed it off, realizing what they were really saying and my obliviousness.
How many times I’ve been whistled at, catcalled, or offered a ride in a car at random I can’t say, but I always excused it as being “nice”. It hasn’t always been so obscure, though. “Sit on me instead” “I bet you have an ass of steel,” and “Damn, ride me like that bicycle” have all been yelled at me in recent memory. Things so blatant, even when I have become so accustomed to brushing off harassment, I can’t seem to shake. One of the worst was getting my bike unlocked outside a bar and a group of men going by with one of them saying, “Don’t let that bicycle wreck that pussy”. Whereas once I would have tried to forget it all and move on, such comments have stuck with me. It makes me feel soiled or wrong somehow. But my love for riding my bicycle tops the harassment, and so I have just learned to let these things slide, because what else can I do?
Being out in the street, whether walking or on a bicycle, is especially annoying for women in Portland. Over 10 years ago, a friend of mine (who still lives in the Pearl) joked than any women outside in even a burlap sack would get harassed. That is certainly still true and Portland collectively has never made improvements, even as other countries I’ve traveled to that I’ve been warned about (ex, Costa Rica, Italy, Mexico) have seemed to clean up their act in regards to street harassment.
What’s keeping women off of bicycles is also systemic though, and I’ve experienced this too. The bicycle share program in New York City (as I’ve reported) was originally a flop because bike share racks were located in poorly-lit or less-trafficked areas. A painful acknowledgement on my part: I’ve locked my bicycle up during the day somewhere and been too afraid to walk back to it in the pitch dark.
These fears are founded folks: Once as I walked down a neighborhood street toward my bicycle (the only available bike parking 3 hours earlier was the fence of a small parking lot), I witnessed a man look at me, then my bicycle, then start pulling his penis out of his pants while trying to make eye contact with me. Immediate thought: “I’ll get my bike tomorrow.” It crosses my mind that my bike might get messed with, but I quickly decided better the bike than me. At the time, I thought it could have been anyone, and that he was only looking at my bicycle to see where I was going. In time I’ve had to face the fact that if I were in a car, I could have gotten in and been ‘safe’, but he knew I wouldn’t be able to do that.
I once was followed for over 20 minutes by a vehicle that blasted Nickelback while the intoxicated men inside yelled out the window at me, until I finally just stopped in a business area so they wouldn’t find out where I lived. I literally bought a sweater because I felt shamed, although my brain refuses to remember specifics of the taunting. I do remember I was wearing pants and a short-sleeved T-shirt at the time and it was summer and I was overheating with the sweater on but never took it off.
Growing up here in Portland, there was an infamous incident in the news about how a girl on a bicycle was intentionally hit by a car and kidnapped while injured. It would be a total lie to say that every time I set out on a ride alone I don’t think about that. Furthermore, stories like this (real or legend?) stoke the worst fears of women who want to avoid being targets. For instance the fears of vulnerability to attack on a bicycle were pervasive in India. Not unfounded.
Is bicycling the only time I’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault? If you’re wondering, the answer is No. However, I will assert that it is the most blatant and obvious and pervasive of all the targeting I’ve experienced.
Targeting women on bicycles is sexual harassment. It needs to stop now. I’m not going to let it scare me away from something I love, and women should never feel targeted or afraid in the streets.
These stories are incredibly difficult to share, if for no other reason than doing so has forced me to come to terms with what has really happened to me. I sincerely hope that with this blog post I’ve made a difference as another voice in #metoo.
Please break the silence and share your bicycle stories too.