I’m listening to the footsteps around me, very aware of group dynamics, how much space I have to move, what the street lighting is like, what my escape routes are. I cannot afford to be completely relaxed because judging wrong can be dangerous.
Street harassment is incredibly common. Stupidly so. I was in downtown Berkeley with Penny Barber a couple days back, killing twenty minutes while we waited to go into a movie. We were in dresses and heels, nothing particularly notable or shocking, sitting and chatting with each other, obviously in the middle of conversation.I counted 6 different men who approached one or both of us, interrupting our conversation (often really rudely) to “compliment” us, one even going so far as to get in her face to say “hey, nice tits”. She had previously asked if I objected to her getting back in the face of someone who did that, and I said no, and was delighted to see her tell him to piss off and that she wasn’t asking him. He gave a half-hearted apology- I heard him later whining to some girls that he was “just complimenting her” and “why did she flip out?” As we walked to the theatre, another guy wolf whistled and another followed us to the theatre, asking where we were going and could be be invited.
Seriously? Does that EVER work? You wonder why she flipped out? Honestly?
I can give you two reasons why we snap. One, I was assaulted in the UK by someone who catcalled me and then proceeded to grab and kiss me, full on the mouth, while I tried to get to my bus stop in Stratford. It’s not some vague “oh maybe it’s violent” thing- it is a form of objectification, intimidation, and harassment. It is not a fucking compliment, and it’s not meant to be- I have never seen a woman go up to a catcaller and ask him out, but I have seen many women try to make themselves look smaller, vacate an area, move more quickly and shield their body.
Secondly, when I complained about this, a friend of mine, someone close to me, first asked what I was wearing, then told me that “we all have our crosses to bear” and that mine is that I’m “young, gorgeous and desirable”. Funny, that. I didn’t feel desired or gorgeous. I felt like prey. And there is nothing as invalidating as hearing from a friend, particularly a male friend, victim blaming bullshit. I get it- it’s my fault for being Female In Public- shame on me.
The fact is, I’ve been harassed in jeans and a sweatshirt more often than when I’m in a skimpy costume. Maybe I look more like I’m going to shank a dude when I dress up, because I feel the need to protect myself more viciously. Maybe I look more vulnerable when I’m not dressed in high femme. But I get this kind of attention all the time and it doesn’t matter how I’m dressed, it’s simply because I am Female In Public. I have friends who have been sexually harassed when they’re with their children. Seriously?
If your iPhone gets yanked from you on the street, I rarely if ever hear someone say “well, you shouldn’t use your smartphone in public”.
I understand that it can be difficult to understand how threatening a seemingly harmless “Smile, beautiful! can feel\’but let’s get one thing straight. Go ask any woman in your life whom you respect\’mother, sister, cousin, lover, or friend\’how it makes her feel when she’s loudly and publicly objectified, the recipient of obscene comments like “suck my cock, or followed down the street. I promise you that it doesn’t make her feel good or beautiful or respected.
Street harassment has a negative effect on us all. No single man wants the actions of a few to be attributed to his entire gender, but studies show that male harassers impact victims’ perception and reaction to men in general. Still, most street harassers aren’t “bad men\’they don’t fully realize why their actions are hurtful or disrespectful to the female population. Sometimes they don’t even realize they are harassing women at all….
…Men: would you find it complimentary if it were commonplace for other men to yell out “I’d like to take that home with me or “Why the sad face? I’ll give you something to smile about while following you down the street? Men who could, hypothetically, force you to go home with them if they wanted? Think about it. I suspect most of you would feel uncomfortable, threatened, even scared.
–A Good Man’s Guide to Catcalling, Katie J.M. Baker
It infuriates me to hear men defend this behaviour. Men I thought respected me, respected women generally. Men who know about sexual trauma. Men who have some social consciousness, I thought. It’s a misogynistic thing to defend, dude. It’s not ok behaviour, and if you aren’t going to combat it, I have to seriously wonder if you support it.
And it’s not just the men who defend it. It’s the men who look longingly, wistfully at me in my trembling anger and violation,who say “god, I wish people looked at me that way”. No, you really don’t. It’s not sexy or fun to worry that maybe this time, this guy will decide he doesn’t want to take no for an answer. It’s terrifying. And it’s exhausting to never be able to relax- there’s no age that protects you from that kind of harassment.
“It’s not a compliment if the recipient’s response is anger or hurt” says a blog post on iHollaback. I think that’s important to remember. And in the end, that kind of behaviour just humiliates you, publicly- Penny turned to me that night and said wryly “If only they knew that their comments were like a glowing neon sign saying that they can’t get laid!” It scares some women, and makes others raise their eyebrows at you and think “that dude must have *no* skillz.” Both results are not what you’re going for.
Please, guys, if you actually want to make the world a safer place for the women in your life, to support them and fight sexism (which I hope you do) please think before you open your mouth. Otherwise, expect hostility. If you want a positive response, treat women as human rather than shout at and intimidate them. I can’t believe I have to say that but I obviously do. And we need to speak up about this a lot more- no more sitting quietly not wanting to cause a fuss.
It’s fuss-causing time, and you’d best watch out.