What It's Like to Walk in KW as a Woman

As a child, I disliked the anxiety that came with playing musical chairs. Some children may have found it exhilarating, but I found it distressing. As I walked past the empty chairs, my eyes would constantly assess which one was the closest; something which changed by the second. My mind and body were unable to relax as they constantly prepared to run to the safety of an empty seat. It was a game where I always felt uneasy.

The older I got, the more I realized that feeling never goes away.

Walking down the street after nightfall forces the same reaction from me as musical chairs did when I was young. As I approach each store, I assess whether they’re open. Does it look like a safe place to run to if I need help? Are the lights on in the upcoming house? Does it look like someone is home?

As I continue to walk, I assess which is closest at that moment; the store or the house? I can feel my heart beating forcefully in my chest as I memorize the positions of everyone around me so I’m not caught off guard.

It’s the childhood game all over again, however instead of upbeat music, I hear the jingle of my keys, as I hold them between my fingers, just as my grandmother taught me to do to fend off attackers. I’d love to put on my headphones and drown out my anxious thoughts, but I can’t risk dulling my senses.

This is not paranoia.

This is a learned behaviour from repeated exposure to street harassment.

I’ve been chased through Victoria Park by two men while partaking in a charity walk.

I’ve had a man follow me home in Waterloo while calling out behind me about wanting to see what I could do with my mouth.

I had a man try to grab me through his car window on Regina Street.

I ignored a man on Erb Street and was met with highly aggressive screaming.

I’ve had my breasts grabbed on the GRT.

I refused to give a man outside of the Kitchener Public Library my phone number and he reacted by grabbing my arm and demanding it.

Yet when I discuss these problems with male friends, family, and acquaintances, the most common response I receive is: “Are you sure you’re not overreacting? It can’t be that bad.”

But just because you don’t experience a problem does not mean it doesn’t exist. Over 80% of Canadian women say that their experiences with harassment by male strangers has a “large and detrimental impact on their perceived safety in public." I assure you that 14.3 million Canadian women aren’t just imagining this problem.

As a woman, I am hyper-aware of my safety when I’m in public. I avoid making eye contact. I avoid smiling at people. I avoid walking alone. I avoid downtown Kitchener. I avoid being outside at night. I avoid doing things that I enjoy because I need to protect myself.

Ever since puberty, many men have decided that they have the power to make me feel unsafe when I’m in public, as though my breasts are an open invitation. And they unfortunately do have that power. As I’ve said before, men will always be one of our biggest threats. I have mere seconds to decide if I should say something in protest and further risk my physical safety, or ignore it and try to escape to somewhere more populous, more brightly lit, more comfortable, or just further away from that man because sometimes these events happen in populated, brightly lit, comfortable spaces.

I live with this everyday, as do many people. 70% of Canadian women experience this before they even turn 15 years old. Strangers are teaching children that they can’t take up space in public without being sexually harassed and that lesson will stay with them their entire lives.

This does not deserve a response of “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?” We have been gaslit and manipulated our entire lives into thinking that we are the problem. Some of these people even claim to be our allies.

What we need to hear is “I’ll walk home with you”; “I believe you”; “Do you want to talk about it?”; or “How can I help?”

Don’t you dare try to tell me it’s “not that bad” when I still can’t shake the feeling of a stranger’s tongue on my cheek.