I’ve always loved walking alone. I listen to music and get lost in my thoughts, my steps turning into a rhythm that propels me forward as my mind races even further ahead. Nighttime walks in particular have a delicious feeling of magic that only comes when you’re alone; alone with the freedom to do as you please, to go where you want without anyone knowing.
Of course, the fear of sexual harassment or assault constantly looms over me whenever I walk by myself. The male gaze burns like acid on my back whenever a group of older men stops their conversation to watch me walk past. I tense up whenever men walk close to me, wondering if a hand will reach out to touch my body before I can do anything, then breathing a sigh of relief when nothing happens. I’m torn between not wanting to immediately suspect the worst in people and not wanting to let my guard down. All these feelings are amplified at night, when the slightest noise snaps me out of my daydreams and quickens my step. Walking alone at night without even the slightest hint of fear is something I don’t know I’ll ever experience.
When NYC’s lockdown was first instituted, like many people my age, I was worried about not contracting or spreading the virus, as well as dismayed that I wouldn’t get to see my friends. Yet a glimmer of hope appeared to me: because of quarantine, I could walk alone without worry! Solo walks are a way to maintain social distancing, after all, and by walking at night, or in places that weren’t crowded, I would be able to wander in peace, free from COVID and street harassment.
Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?
On one of my first jaunts outside, an afternoon run, I was catcalled as I waited to cross the street. Sweat poured down my forehead and onto my baggy long-sleeved shirt, yet the two men still made a leering remark and laughed as I glared at them - as if what I was wearing should have any impact on their choice to harass. I picked up speed as I ran away, wondering why, in the middle of a pandemic, these men still felt the need to sexually harass me.
My parents didn’t want me walking alone at night. It didn’t matter that we were in lockdown and that “nobody would want to touch me” (something I said to try to ease their concerns). They texted me whenever I was gone too long, bringing me out of my thoughts and back into worries. I still followed all my usual precautions: staying on well-lit streets, bringing my phone with me, and not going too far from home. Even though I told myself no one would want to try anything because of the pandemic, I still turned my head at every car engine revving and walked quickly past any group of men I saw.
This constant alertness is nothing new for girls and women as we walk down the street. It’s infuriating that we have to worry about harassment and assault, pandemic or not. Feminine-presenting people aren’t the only ones affected; POC and LGBT people have also been conditioned to train themselves to not get harassed or hurt on the streets they are supposed to walk freely on. The pandemic has forced us to find comfort in being alone for much of the time, but street harassment and its ever-looming presence has prevented this comfort from being universal. And as pandemic restrictions have eased and the streets of NYC overflow with life once more, there are even more leers, jeers, and muttered remarks around every corner. Whether it’s a crowded subway or an empty street, whether social distancing guidelines have been revoked or not, the fear remains.