Something has been on my mind lately…
Street harassment has been a hot topic recently. It sprang into the news earlier this fall when The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams responded to some clueless Fox News anchors describing claps and catcalls toward women as “compliments.” She then proceeded to sit down with women in Manhattan to talk about their personal experiences with street harassment, as well as taking The Daily Show viewers on a journey through her daily footed commute in downtown New York City.
Being hassled on the street is not new (my mother has told me stories of men hanging out of cars and making kissing, slobbering noises as they drove past her in the 60s and 70s), but the media attention it’s receiving is. It’s a pervasive issue: I don’t know a single female over the age of 11 who hasn’t received unwanted attention from strange men.
In talking to guys I know about the issue, I’ve received a number of reactions. Most of them have been along the lines of, “Dudes are so creepy,” and “Women are brave just stepping out the front door in the morning.” It does take some bravery, but that’s not all there is to it. I’ll get to that in a minute. The second response I’ve gotten is, “They’re just telling you you’re pretty. You should be happy!” Uh, what? There is a huge difference between complimenting someone and going out of your way to interrupt a stranger on the street to tell him or her that you are “warm for their form” (only one of the lovely “compliments” I’ve received on the street). Compliments, in general, are welcomed. Pests are not. Especially pests that make you feel like your appearance is theirs to judge, and that you sure as hell better listen to them discuss your body and the things they want to do to it in graphic detail.
Now back to the issue of bravery.
Besides being incredibly offensive and inappropriate, one of the things that make me the angriest about street harassment is how it makes my friends and me feel. Yeah, the dudes are scummy mouth-breathers, but if you dare to let them know their advances are unwelcome, roll your eyes at them, or even ignore them, there is a good chance they will let you know you’re a stuck-up bitch. Being called a bitch by a douche on the street is nothing. What is harder to deal with is the inner twinge of guilt that maybe that stranger was right. That maybe I was rude to him. That even though all I’m guilty of is walking down the sidewalk minding my own business, I’m the bitch for not smiling/flirting with/reacting positively to a sexually inappropriate interruption from a stranger. Yeah, catcalls can be scary and require putting on a brave face, and that sucks, but what I think sucks more is the feeling of guilt many females feel for not responding positively to these assholes.
Aside from the vague “compliments” received, the vast majority of street harassment I’ve personally experienced is being told to smile. I have what M and some friends lovingly refer to as Resting Bitch Face – that is, my natural, relaxed facial expression looks stand-offish and, obviously, bitchy. Usually my facial expression is a good way to ward off most catcallers and would-be Lotharios, but, sadly, this is only true about 35% of the time. The suggestion to smile might seem pretty innocuous at first, but if you think about it for more than a minute, it too is street harassment, especially when the suggestion is presented in such colorful ways as “You’d be prettier if you smiled” (thanks?) and the always popular “I bet I can turn that frown upside down” (no you can’t because I hate you and everything you stand for. Also barf.)
Jerry Seinfeld once commented that he didn’t understand what catcallers were hoping to get out of these situations. Perhaps, Seinfeld guessed, the men were hoping the women would run after them and return their feelings of attraction. What it really seems to come down to, like most negative things between the sexes (street harassment, abuse, rape, etc.) is, in my opinion, control. Men on the street want women to know they see them, that they have objectified and judged their appearance, and now they are going to force you to hear their opinion of your body, facial expression, etc. These men have reduced us to objects of appraisal that don’t deserve the same amount of respect as a human being.
By simply ignoring them, we take this control away, the catcallers get angry and want more control, etc. It seems to be a pretty vicious cycle. Women like Jessica Williams and Shoshanna B. Roberts (she recorded 10 hours of her being catcalled in NYC) are taking back control for all the women out there who have been subjected to this form of harassment. They are shining light on the men who do this, pointing out just how ridiculous and shitty they are. Hopefully by getting a taste of their own medicine (albeit much more appropriately), by publicly calling them out and judging them, this form of harassment will hopefully soon disappear.