When I started this blog a year ago, I set out to write about feminism and wound up talking about writing and cooking instead. When I started writing posts again this fall, I set out to write about webseries and have been talking about feminism ever since. Typical.
A short video recently caught my eye, and has been prickling under my skin ever since: Jessica Williams’s piece on The Daily Show regarding street harassment.
I’ve read articles about street harassment before, and I always have the same set of reactions to it: Disgust, incredulity– and gratitude that I haven’t had to deal with it. I guess that’s just in big cities, I thought.
That short, satirical video about catcalling changed my definition of street harassment.
While I consider myself blessed to not have had to deal with truly profane harassment like many of the women on Williams’ segment, I have in fact dealt with catcalls, some more upsetting than others.
Any time you are walking down the street and someone yells/hollers/whistles/comments/speaks to you a) in a way that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, and b) stems from your gender/race/sex/etc.— that is street harassment.
Look, if you see me walking down the street, go ahead and smile and wave. Say “hi” in passing (I live in places where it’s very common to give a smile and a “nice day, isn’t it?” to strangers; in New York City, that would be weird). If you’re lost or I look injured, by all means say something. If I’m wearing a t-shirt with your favorite band, you can say, “I love Bastille!” and move on. But if the only reason you’re talking to me is because I just happen to be a woman, don’t.
What do I mean by this? During the summer, I spent 2 months at home after traveling through Europe. On numerous occasions, I received a shout or comment when I was just working in the garden or walking my dog. Once, I got out of my car at home and a guy on a bike hung around the edge of my parents’ property watching me and trying to catch my attention, until I ignored him long enough.
What I think is the really insidious aspect of street harassment is that a lot of the time, it feels like I should be flattered. Flattered by the attention, flattered by the implied compliment, flattered because how else should I react to various comments? But I never walk away from being addressed or shouted at, and feel cheered up; instead, I walk away feeling uncomfortable and bothered with something I can’t articulate.
Sexist comments, comments about my body, even strangers who strike up conversations on the street and act like I owe it to them to respond to them– it’s street harassment.
In Europe, I had many, many experiences of sitting on a street corner, writing or just resting from the weight of my enormous backpack, and random guys would come up and strike a conversation with me. Now, I’m talking about men 10-20 years older than myself, different nationalities than me, while I was a single young woman who didn’t speak the language. The whole basis for their striking up a conversation with me was that I was a woman- and a woman alone. I felt extremely vulnerable, and wasn’t entirely comfortable with the situation, but they were these perfectly nice guys. I would walk away from the encounters feeling rattled and thinking, What gives you the right to come up and demand a conversation with me? Why do you act lie I owe you anything? I don’t know you! I’m a polite person, and so what they got from the conversation was me smiling and nodding but not being especially eager to continue the conversation. Invariably, they would make passive-aggressive arguments about how they weren’t the “kind of guy” a “girl like me” talked to (I have no idea what that means).
I’m guessing these guys have no idea what it’s like to be a woman traveling alone, always alert for the possibility of danger. When I’m looking out for my safety, having strangers approach me on the street or shout at me is very disconcerting. I’m not saying I don’t want people to talk to me, ever. I love meeting new people. But there’s a time and a place for everything. If we’re in the same tour group, the same hostel, looking at the same piece of art at a museum, something that isn’t you drawing me into conversation on the street when I’m minding my own business, then by all means strike up a conversation if you’re interested.
I don’t know if I’m making my point well here. It’s hard to take these things apart and examine them rationally, when I’m affected primarily because of how they make me feel. The biggest thing, I think, is safety and location: If you approach a woman in this situation, could you make her feel unsafe?
Even here at school, at a women’s university, I’ve been heckled by a car full of guys– and of course, I’ve experienced guys shouting at me from cars in every city I’ve lived in. Talking with my girl friends, the consensus seems to be that this is so normal it doesn’t even merit talking about. Why talk about something that always happens? It’s like talking about getting poor quality food at the school cafeteria. Why bother?
I think this is worth bothering about. Ideally, yes, I’d prefer not to get yelled at from moving vehicles, and to feel safe on the street. But at a more basic level, a level I can actually control, I think we need to talk about street harassment so women can stop internalizing this toxic nonsense. We need to talk about it so women don’t feel like they have to take it as a compliment even if it makes them feel uncomfortable.
I had a hard time distinguishing incidents to talk about for this post, because like my friends, to some extent I just expect it whenever I go out. That’s sick.
One thing all the women in that Jessica Williams video had in common was that every single one of them had a “bitch face,” and were ready to paste this unyielding glare on their faces at a moment’s notice. I perfected my own glare while studying and traveling abroad; I call it my Assertive American stance or my Confident Woman walk: Head up, shoulders back, eyes meeting those of passersby, chin set, stride brisk and confident. Don’t mess with me, it says, i’m confident and I know what I’m doing.
If there’s one good thing to come from all this, it’s the Bitch Face/ Confident Woman face. Because I am a confident woman.