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Yesterday, local cat-calling chronicler Hollaback DC asked for some street-harassment intel: “Have you been harassed on your bike in the DC Metro area?” According to Hollaback, “We have received several stories from individuals who have been harassed by a biker, but have yet to hear from any folks who have been harassed while biking.”
The inquiry was sparked by a recent Guardian piece, titled “What is it about a woman on a bike that attracts such unwelcome attention?” Author Jessica Reed, frustrated by the cat-calls she suffered while biking in skirts, resorting to a program of “dressing head-to-toe in black lycra” while riding the city streets. “And wouldn’t you know?” she reports. “The catcalling ceased immediately, except for that recent time when I had the incredible audacity to go on a bike ride wearing shorts.”
My experience biking in the city has been similar to Reed’s, though the harassment I’ve experienced has been less sartorially-motivated. Usually, just biking while female is enough. And I think I’ve figured out what it is about a woman on a bike that attracts such unwelcome attention.
It’s an easy in. When it comes to picking up women, pick-up artists will tell you that the initial contact is often the hardest part. When your female target is perched atop a big, mobile metal contraption, would-be harassers have an easy way to spark conversation—-or harassment. I’d say half the harassers who have targeted me on my bike resort to variations the same line: “Wish I were that seat.” Simple, offensive, effective.
Bikers are a natural outlet for road rage. Bikers—-whether preventing the driver’s ability to drift thoughtlessly into the bike lane, or turn right without looking at who they might swipe in the process—-are a constant annoyance to drivers. I’ve experienced my share of non-sexual harassment while biking as well—-but it’s a short leap from road rage to sexist verbal bashing. See: General outrage at “women drivers” of all vehicles.
People just love fucking with people on bikes. Pedestrians, too, love fucking with bikers. I have a few theories on why this is true. First, it’s relatively effective and low-risk: bikers are close enough to the sidewalk to hear the harassment, but going too fast to bother to start shit. I also suspect that in some circles, biking is regarded as incredibly douchey, and harassing bikers is hilarious. This may explain why, several months ago, a woman leapt onto my boyfriend, laughing maniacally, as he attempted to ride past her. She didn’t seem to want money or sex—-just fun.
Bike naturally puts your ass on display. Just sayin.’
As a result, the bike serves as a proxy for the short skirt. As Reed points out, certain wardrobe choices tend to encourage harassers. Even on foot, a woman’s interest in wearing a short skirt becomes a harasser’s invitation—-hey, she’s not wearing pants, so she must want me to discuss her vagina! While elevated onto a bike seat, the harasser interprets your interest in using an efficient method of transportation that happens to elevate your butt as free vagina access. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter what the victim is doing—-all that matters is that the harasser can find a thread of justification for the cat-call.
So, what is a girl biker to do? Given my history with biking harassment, I was intrigued by the testimony of Lauren Mardirosian, a D.C. resident who launched pro-bike-helmet initiative “Safety is Sexy” in an effort to look sexier while riding. In March, CP‘s Tanya Snyder wrote of Mardirosian:
As a recent transplant, she liked flirting with people on bikes, figuring they shared at least that one interest. But she “felt dorky with a helmet on.” Instead of just chucking the helmet, though, she set out to change the reason she felt dorky, launching a “Safety is Sexy” campaign. Her trademark sticker, “You’d Look Hotter in a Helmet,” fits perfectly between the vents on helmets. She says she wanted people to look at someone riding with a helmet and say, “Hey that guy’s hot, he’s wearing a helmet—that’s smart.”
Reed started wearing androgynous clothing to look less sexy while peddling. While Mardirosian took an opposite measure—-starting a campaign to make androgynous biking gear seem sexier—-I think we can learn something from her tactics. Mardirosian “set out to change the reason she felt dorky.” Instead of lady bikers curbing our own behavior—-we like riding and wearing skirts for ourselves, not the harassers—-I can’t help but think we have to change attitudes, not wardrobes. I’m not sure how that’s going to happen, but chronicling our bike harassment on Hollaback DC sounds like a good place to start
Photo by mindfrieze