On the Subject of Street Harassment


When I wrote my post about my Fourth of July, I mentioned that it was mostly mellow. For a moment, however, it wasn't so mellow, and I'm going to write about it today and also some other things I've been thinking about lately. I almost called this a Snark Bite post, but it's not quite. It's definitely a rant, but it's too serious an issue for me to label my response to it as merely snark. That issue is street harassment and my personal experiences with it. Settle in, this will be a long post. I'm sure there are those who will laugh it off as a trivial issue, a minor annoyance at most. Some will say it's no big deal and means nothing, that it's not like real issues women face. It's not like being sold into sex slavery, or being gang-raped and left for dead like that woman in India for daring to ride a bus with a male companion, after all. I think there is room in our hearts and minds to consider all issues, however, and that the seriousness of one does not negate the existence of the other. Nor the possibility that they have some common threads running through them. Just because there's a hurricane down the coast doesn't mean you ignore the funnel cloud brewing in  your own area.

Anyway, things have been sort of shitty for women lately. Questionable SCOTUS decisions. Mass shootings by misogynists. Racist, sexist Twitter rants. Police brutality towards women. A generally hostile atmosphere. So these things have been fresh in my mind.

    This first story isn't about street harassment per se, but it had that feeling, this  unspoken expectation for what women are supposed to be like, and what, if anything, they owe men. Friday while I was grilling out G chatted with our neighbor E. He's an okay guy, sort of awkward and clearly lonely, drinks too much. G sees the best in people and hangs out with him occasionally and has a beer. No biggie. I'm not one for small talk, but I'm cordial and polite and say hi when I see him. He once mentioned to G that he thought I was "coy," which I found odd. Just because I'm an introvert who is proper and reserved with people I don't know or necessarily care to know doesn't mean I'm "coy." It was a strange, sort of antiquated assessment, but I blew it off. 

         So Friday he and another neighbor (who I really don't care for) were talking with G and I was minding my own business cooking, going inside and outside, bustling about. Once I was done with the grill and dinner was ready I called G in to eat. He said goodbye to the guys and came inside, and I went outside to close the grill and bring in my supplies. E was still outside, and as I was getting my stuff together he calls my name from his front door. He says, audibly slurring his words, he had clearly been drinking a lot by then, "You've really pissed me off." I raise my eyebrow at that, but figure maybe he's going to make a joke about me not saving any chicken for him, as he had made a reference to that earlier in the evening. That's cool. I say, "Ok, sorry, why?" And he says: 
"You're being a bitch again."
I was stunned and confused, certain I'd heard wrong. "Excuse me?" There was a definite edge to my voice and I heard some unintelligible mumbling, followed by
 "just fucking with you."

So I hadn't heard wrong. The guy just called me a bitch, for absolutely no reason. There was something even more jarring and unexpected about it coming from a casual acquaintance rather than a total stranger. Even meant as a joke it made no sense, there was no context or precedent for it. I respond "Um, well, you're too dry, man." Meaning if it was a joke, it wasn't obvious to me. And I went inside. I told G, more baffled than angry, "E just called me a bitch." He was flabbergasted. I had barely explained to him what had happened when E knocked on the door and G opened it. E started apologizing profusely, and G told him to apologize to me. He came in and just started rambling frantically, clearly embarrassed and extremely drunk. He was going on about the other guy he and G were talking to, saying he was a jerk, as if E was angry at that guy and decided to just project that onto me. He said there was no reason for him to think that about me and he thought I knew he was kidding. I just told him "thank you for apologizing" because there wasn't much else I could say. It was like speaking to a blubbering, drunk child. It was sort of sad really. 
When he left, G started doubting his practical, diplomatic response and was wondering if he shouldn't have basically kicked his ass. I told him that escalating it was no answer and he did the right thing.

 He approached G later when he was taking the trash out to apologize more, and G had to literally explain to him that you can't talk to women like that, and he ended up playing armchair psychiatrist while E explained that he was really joking around, and it was his way of trying to "make friends," which sounded to me a lot like the boys that would chase you on the playground and stick gum in your hair because they "liked you." It was bizarre and disconcerting coming from an adult, and I didn't know which rationale disturbed me more, the acting out because the other neighbor was a jerk and I was a "safe" outlet for his frustration, or he really didn't understand that calling a near-stranger a bitch was not a super effective way to make friends. The most likely scenario however was that the booze that night was a truth serum that allowed him to say what he really thought about me: that I'm a coy uppity bitch, who, because I'm not gregarious and smiley and paying loads of attention to him whenever I see him, that I deserve to be taken down a peg or two. This is the most likely scenario because I've gotten this assessment from men many times in my life. 

I was on the receiving end of street harassment starting early in high school. I was extremely awkward in my skin, a very curvy girl with really bad skin and really huge glasses. So while the boys at school wouldn't give me the time of day, the body that I kept under careful cover still seemed to warrant constant, leering notice from those on the street. It was a confusing dichotomy and really made me question my worth. I remember once walking home from school, wearing a turtleneck and coat, and a truck drives by me, pulls a U-TURN into the parking lot next to me, and the man inside starts calling at me, wondering if I'm available. Available for what, exactly?

Once, when walking to a friend's house a few blocks away and upon walking to a park together, I counted being catcalled no fewer than six times. I don't know why I felt compelled even then to keep track, but already it was bothering me, getting under my skin, changing me. I felt like I wasn't safe to walk freely, that I needed to have someone with me, that I needed to change how I moved in the world to adapt to how men were responding to me. But even then it didn't always help.

The summer of junior year that friend and I were walking at that same park. There was a residential street next to the sidewalk surrounding the park. We were just walking along, when a pickup truck with five or six men inside drives by slowly. We hear one of them shouting at us "hey, are you the white bitch who sucked my dick last night?" We don't know why he's saying this, we're scared, we say nothing. Keep walking. He shouts it again. The truck stops in the middle of the street. The doors start to open and they move like they're going to get out. He says it again, almost a scream this time "hey, are you the white bitch who sucked my dick last night?" My friend, a legendary extrovert, says nothing. Keeps walking. That lets me know how serious it could be. In that moment I can feel their hatred radiating; I'm clearly sheltered, I've never been called on my race and my gender at once before. I feel dirty. I feel like if they say it again we're going to have to start running. Somehow as we get some distance,  they don't pursue. I can still hear the sheer, blistering venom in his voice, and I've always told myself I would never let myself be consumed that way, that I wouldn't use that experience as an excuse to hate. But that doesn't mean I forget.

It's a shame to say luckily, but luckily that is the most extreme example of street harassment I've experienced. I've never been physically assaulted, never witnessed anyone openly fondling themselves, so I suppose I should count my blessings? (sarcasm intended). It's been more garden-variety since then: the cowardly man hurling slurs at me like knives from the safety of a moving vehicle, jarring me from my private thoughts with bellows of "nice tits" with rabid, mindless ferocity. There is nothing nice about it. It feels like a verbal assault. They don't like me, they aren't trying to compliment me. None of it is for my benefit. Instead it feels like an overblown instance of what happened yesterday: I dare to walk down the street as a sovereign being, not paying attention to them, and it pisses them off. Thus, they act out and throw a nasty tantrum in an attempt to show me who, in their mind, owns the road. 

These experiences are not the same as a friendly "hello", holding a door for someone, etc., because normally if you do something genuinely nice for someone, there isn't the expectation of something in return or a tendency to turn hateful if the attention isn't wanted or reciprocated. There is absolutely a difference, and when you've experienced it, you know. With the kind of viral street harassment going on there is a level of dehumanization and objectification that is palpable and potentially dangerous. How many times has a seemingly normal, polite guy made a pass at a woman, only to lash out viciously if she turns him down? Maybe it's easier to blame her, call her a bitch or worse (that two minutes ago they were so interested in getting with), rather than entertain the notion that there might be something wrong with themselves. Nowadays I feel like I have to handle these guys with kid gloves, as I have no idea how they're going to react. Nowadays especially I'm reminded of the Margaret Atwood quote:

    “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

One day, when I still worked at our larger downtown library years ago, I was walking to my bus stop after work. I kept getting honk after honk after catcall, in rapid, unrelenting succession. Over and over again. I don't know why it happened so much that particular day, but it was over the top. It felt like they all got together and decided to just catcall me at the same time, like it was a planned thing. Of course it wasn't, but it was just crazy. And saying this makes it seem like I'm so conspicuous, like I'm either so distinctive looking or wildly attractive that I can't help but draw attention. This couldn't be further from the truth. I am totally average, curvy, yes, but I can guarantee after work I was wearing nothing more scandalous than a T-shirt and jeans. Not that it should have any bearing whatsoever, but that's the thing. Like any other assault, it can happen to anyone, and it is way more about power than sex or physical attractiveness. Anyway, I started to panic, and I ended up rushing back to the library, calling my dad crying, asking him to pick me up. I literally hid behind a stone pillar so no one would see me. I just wanted to disappear. It was a horrendous feeling, and they never even had to lay a finger on me. 

What I've experienced even more of in my life is men commanding me to "smile." It sounds so innocent and innocuous in comparison, doesn't it? Yet it has an insidious nature too. For this isn't a kindly hope that I feel happy enough to smile, no, these are demands from perfect strangers, telling me to alter my physical appearance to project the image of docile, pleasant agreeableness, no matter what I actually feel. These men intrude on my personal space, and literally bark this order at me. No consideration for what I may be thinking about, be it my grocery list, nuclear physics, the fight I had with a loved one, my dog that just died. They don't care about that. They just resent me for walking down the street without an insipid grin on my face, proof that I'm trying hard enough to please them.

 Don't believe me? Think I'm being a curmudgeonly, unfriendly, overly-sensitive shrew? You don't know me really, and it would be easy to write me off as such. I can understand that. I can't prove anything to the contrary, only share what I know is true in my experience. Why can't you just be nice and smile, you might ask. I actually do consider myself a nice person, I simply don't enjoy receiving arbitrary orders from total strangers, plus it all depends on context. I remember once I was shelf reading as a library aide in high school, tucked by myself into a totally deserted aisle, doing my work dutifully. Then I hear someone walking behind me, and a creepy security guard commands me to smile. Just that one disembodied word piercing the silence. No hello, please or thank you very much, of course. Smile, while I'm sitting there by myself, doing my work. I almost laughed at the absurdity. But it angered me too. It was pretentious, assumptive, invasive, and utterly rude.

 I can't begin to count how many times men have said this to me, often when I was otherwise alone, with no real impetus to be grinning like a Cheshire Cat. I've never received this command from a woman. And I can't see those men ever saying the same thing to another man. Why? Because it's okay for men to walk in the world with purpose, not going out of their way to make themselves pleasing for anyone. No one tells them to "keep sweet."  It's true that I have a naturally small mouth that at rest can appear a little pouty. But that doesn't mean I owe anyone anything, including an apology for it, or a comforting, "look, look, I'm all sweetness and light, don't be threatened by little old me." I still haven't perfected a response to these commands. You would think I'd have some real zingers in my verbal arsenal for such occasions. But I'm sad to say most times I'm still taken aback and just give a half-hearted smile as if on cue and before I can stop myself, quite against my own desires, but I am a well trained little pup. And then I mentally kick myself. Why did you do that? You did what that perfect stranger told you to do...and why? Can't you even think for yourself? What a slippery slope it is...

I often take public transportation to work. It saves gas money and gives me ample time to relax and prepare my introverted mind before the social onslaught at work. That time is very precious to me, and I'm absolutely not interested in small talk or being hit on by the men who loiter at the station. I always wear headphones and make myself busy with my Nook, reading or whatnot. I also like when it's sunny so I can wear sunglasses, as unintentional eye contact can imply I'm interested in talking. Only the most brazen or socially clueless will still approach me when I have all these safeguards in place, and insist I remove my ear buds so I can hear their sales pitch. It's ridiculous that I have to resort to such measures and such walling-off of myself just to preserve my right to be left in peace. 

Just recently I've been having trouble with a bus stop creeper who simply won't get the message that I'm not interested in talking to him. This guy is well into his fifties, with a distinctively seedy vibe, and for a while I was perfectly polite when he'd say good morning to me at the bus stop, until I started getting that nervous twinge in my belly- always, always trust your gut. He does this annoying thing where he'll rush up to the bus before me when it arrives, just so he can gesticulate to it for me to enter first, as if he's this chivalrous white knight. It makes my skin crawl. I made the mistake of telling him my name once when he asked, and now, unbidden, he uses a diminutive form of it when referring to me, which is a pet peeve of mine, seemingly to make it appear we have a "relationship." 

The past few days he has started asking me odd questions and standing uncomfortably close. Last Wednesday, even while I was actively looking at my NOOK and trying to show I was busy without being outright rude, he was asking me "do you work?" 
WTF? I tell him "yes, I work." He asks me if I attended a local school. "Um, no, I didn't."
Then this morning he was sitting on a bench outside right where I normally stand, and I situated myself well away from it. I try fiddling with my cell phone, sunglasses are on.
 No dice. He comes over and stands much closer than necessary, and asks me where I work. Since this subject has been on my mind lately, I have the presence of mind and strength of conviction to tell him "I don't tell people I don't know where I work." You would think this chilly response would tip him off to not ask any more questions, but no. He asks me where I went to school. I'm getting pissed now, and as a stickler for decorum I hate that he's forcing me to be bluntly rude: "why do you want to know?" He says it's because he thought I went to a local school, the same one I clearly told him last week I hadn't attended. I reiterate my answer from before. Then he uses the diminutive of my name again, along with "are you married?" 
"I have a boyfriend who drops me off here...every single day."
And then I walk to the other side of the bus stop area, and still he follows me and makes a few more comments about how he might not be using this bus stop during the winter when the weather is bad. Not soon enough for me. I shrug and say "OK" with zero eye contact. He finally leaves me alone after that. There is no way I'm going to keep going through that stressful song and dance every morning, so I'm probably going to end up going to a new stop from now on. It's unfair, having to rearrange my day all because this joker can't pick up on basic social context clues, or willfully chooses not to.

I'm not sure really how to conclude this, what I wanted to accomplish except for perhaps a catharsis of sorts. This is just my story. A lot of women have similar stories, much worse stories. Stories I can't even fathom. They are stories worth hearing. I don't have all the answers. I have my theories, but I can't say with certainty why this is happening, or how to fix it. But at least people have been talking about it, and that's a start.

If you have any stories of street harassment you would like to share, please leave me a comment. Keep the conversation going!

If you'd like more information about this topic, check out Hollaback.

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