Street Harassment: Sorry My Daily Life Interrupted Your Penis’s Ego
I remember very distinctly the first time I was ever faced with the idea that women need to constantly be aware of their surroundings. I was about 14 years old at a yearly checkup, and my doctor was giving me a little female-to-female advice on what to expect in high school, socially. “Never let your drink out of your sight,” she told me. “Don’t put it down and walk away from it. Someone could put something in it.”
My doctor meant well, and overall that’s good advice for anyone going out to a place with an abundance of alcohol and unfamiliar faces. I’m sure I’m not the only girl out there who received similar advice as an adolescent either. But it’s only now that I’m older that I realize how conditioned I’ve become to being hyperaware of not only my surroundings, but how my actions supposedly warrant this treatment.
Going out at night, for a woman, is never a simple matter. Getting dressed is only a small part of it; an evening out needs to be meticulously planned. Where are we going? Who are we meeting there? Will there ever be a time when we’re out alone? I know that for me, any anxiety about going out at night comes from the amount of time, if any, I’d have to spend walking from one location to another alone. Each situation warrants a different response. I have no problem walking a couple of blocks from the subway to the train station alone when I’m taking the late train home from New York. I get a little nervous during the walk through the parking lot from the train to my car as the lot empties, but again it’s not enough to stop me from coming home late at night. What I do worry about is going out at night in my college town. If at any given time I have to walk more than a couple of blocks alone, particularly if it’s after midnight, I get paranoid. Every random passerby becomes a threat. And I know that I’m not the only woman who feels this way.
One night this semester, my roommate and I were heading back from the bar when we reached a street corner about two blocks from our apartment. At this corner was a house where two men sat talking on the front porch. I pass this house every day as I walk to and from campus, but until this particular evening I’d never exchanged more than a casual greeting with its occupants.
Just as we were reaching the house, a car with the windows rolled down pulled up to the stop sign on the corner. “Hey ladies, where you going?” “Looking good tonight.” “Aw, why are you ignoring us?” We immediately became tense at their words. Ten seconds before, we had been unable to control our laughter, enjoying our night out– but then these two strange men in a car take it upon themselves to take that good feeling away. Our arms had been casually linked as we walked home, and we instinctively tightened our grip on each other. I remember zoning out and trying to concentrate on making it the two additional blocks to our apartment.
Like many men who think it’s acceptable behavior to catcall girls walking down the street, our harassers expressed disappointment when we didn’t respond to their comments. In the past, I’ve responded in a myriad of ways to street harassers: I’ve tried the passive approach of just ignoring them; I’ve tried faking a phone call, or even talking to a friend’s voicemail; I’ve tried simply saying thank you and being done with it, but any time I’ve done this I’ve been followed; I’ve considered buying a toy ring from a machine and wearing it as an engagement ring in response to the multiple times I’ve ridden the subway alone and had strange men ask me if I have a boyfriend. Whether or not I’ve said yes or no, the men have refused to leave me alone. I once yelled “fuck off!” at a car filled with men whistling at me when I was walking back from a meeting on campus. It doesn’t matter how I respond to strange men when I’m alone and even a little vulnerable: any negative response, including a lack of response, has been met with nothing but contempt.
Image courtesy of Meet Us On The Street
I have to wonder what these men expected. Am I supposed to immediately unzip my pants and hop into bed with them because they gave me the time of day? Am I supposed to appreciate their words, instead of automatically feeling uncomfortable? Catcalling someone passing on the street and refusing to leave that person alone isn’t a compliment; it makes us anxious. I ask anyone who has ever done so this: does it make you feel better about yourself to make women feel uncomfortable or unsafe? Do you feel powerful? Do you feel better making someone else feel powerless? If so then congratulations, men: you’re playing into the stereotype of your gender perfectly. Have a cookie.
I’ve heard the arguments saying that street harassment is just a poorly-executed compliment. I’ve also heard from men who do not feel street harassment is the best way to compliment a woman. However, they still sympathize with the frustration their peers feel when a woman responds to these “compliments.” But there’s a major flaw in that way of thinking: the purpose of giving someone a compliment isn’t to make the giver feel good – and if you don’t agree then I seriously think you should reevaluate your decisions. We give others compliments to make them feel good. If you’re trying to make someone feel bad about themselves, you insult them. That’s the key difference: an insult puts someone down, while a compliment raises them up. It’s not about who is saying it or what their intention is; it’s about how it’s being presented and how it’s received. So forgive me if I don’t particularly care how my lack of response to your so-called compliment makes you feel. I wasn’t under the impression that your compliment was about you.
We live in a society that is constantly blaming the victim. When you live with this mindset, you can’t expect a woman to feel comfortable when a stranger talks to her on the street when she’s alone. Of course she’s always going to jump to the worst conclusions; we’ve been conditioned from adolescence to do so. The street harassment does nothing to tell us that these lessons we’ve learned as young girls is wrong. What I hear from a person I don’t know yelling from a car, “hey pretty ladies, where you heading?” is that you are attempting to follow me. And I want no part of a stranger following me home.
When you yell at women on the street, when you follow them on the pretense of giving them “compliments,” you’re not making them feel safe. You’re threatening them. From the time we begin going through puberty girls learn to always be on alert, and society only reinforces that mindset. When I’m standing on that street corner trying to walk home, I know exactly what society will tell me if the situation were to escalate. I’ll be told that it’s my fault because I was out drinking, despite the fact that I am legally old enough to do so. I’ll be told that I shouldn’t be out late at night, as though I’m supposed to just sit at home and never leave the house. I’ll be told that the high heeled boots I was wearing imply I want the attention, so I should just deal with it. It ignores the inappropriate behavior completely. It reinforces this “boys will be boys” mentality that seems to run so rampant in our society.
When a strange man calls out to me on the street or follows me, I don’t feel flattered by the attention. I feel harassed. I think about all the ways society will tell me I deserve it. And then my mind turns to the sickening fact that this person is bigger than I am and would have no problem overpowering me. And besides all of that, it’s so ridiculous that I have to have these fears, that I can’t just walk down the street without feeling threatened. No one tries to stop it, and no one seems to care, and it seems like few people even think it’s wrong. It’s just so incredibly fucked up.
How sad is that? How upsetting is it to think that men– and don’t cry “misandry,” folks, I’ve experienced enough harassment that I feel like I can make this generalization– don’t care about making women feel like this? I know I certainly don’t want to be that pessimistic, but it’s hard not to be when the instances of someone countering these actions are so few and far between. But it is true that they’re not completely unheard of. Almost moments after the men in the car began calling out to my roommate and I, we heard the neighbors on the porch speak up. “It’s okay, girls. Just keep walking. You’re almost home.” Then the car drove away.
In the context of street harassment, I see three types of people. There are the perpetuators of harassment, who care nothing for the strangers on the street they’re calling out to. There’s the people who see street harassment occurring and chose to remain silent. And there’s those who either speak up or attempt to help the victims out. It doesn’t matter how the latter is played out – whether it’s a stranger telling off a harasser, a stranger apologizing for scaring a woman by their actions, or my neighbors telling me to keep walking home and not worry about the men clearly trying to make me feel uncomfortable, it all helps. Women don’t need to be defended, but it would be nice if we were just left alone while trying to get back to our cars or houses. I want to feel safe again. I want to see less street harassment and more people sticking up for each other.
Opinions expressed in our editorials belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of Feminspire or its staff as a whole.
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