Listen to my radio interview with Steven Leser on this topic.
I bought a new pair of shorts last month. They’re by Theory, made of black linen. When I tried them on for my mom, she said they looked really nice. So yesterday, I steamed out the wrinkles and put them on with a long-sleeved, polka-dot blouse that buttons to the neck, and headed out.
I took a Citibike to my appointment. When I saw the docking station near my destination, I swung off and started walking my bike toward it. That’s when I heard the running commentary going on about three feet behind me.
“Yo yo yo. Look at that ass.”
“Aw man, that’s fat.”
“Shit, you can see a butt cheek, look, look. I’d like to tap that.”
“Fuck man. Juicy.”
They were talking about me. I turned to look, but they were already passing, the three of them, satisfied grins on their faces. And I was left there, holding the handlebars of my bike, yanking my wrinkled shorts down over my shameful body. We were surrounded by people on a crowded street, but no one said anything to them.
45 minutes later, as I walked away from my appointment, a man leaned out his truck window and made kiss-y noises at me, grinning. I flicked him off. He laughed.
You could say that it’s my fault for wearing shorts that wedged themselves up my ass, exposing the bottom sliver of my butt. (The shorts are in the “donate” pile now.) But consider this anecdote:
I was walking toward Penn Station to meet my friend for a day hiking trip. I was wearing a loose cotton t-shirt, running shorts and running shoes. Around maybe 5th Avenue and 28th, I saw him before he saw me. He was skinny and badly dressed, with a face that could have been aged, or just ravaged by drugs. He was loitering, nothing to do. My hackles were already up.
As I passed, he said, “I’d like to take that ass home, clean it up and stick my dick in it.”
My head whipped around to look at him with disgust, but my feet carried me forward.
“You only lookin’ ’cause it’s true!” he yelled after me. What’s true? That you want to fuck/anally rape me? You made that much clear, sir.
The young, well-dressed guy walking the other direction watched this scene, said nothing.
Sexual Harassment Is My Normal
I’m a woman, and I get harassed almost every day. When men pass me, they get close and murmur things below their breath, but just loud enough for me to hear, like “You sexy.” Men discuss me with each other as I pass, talking about what they would like to do to me. Or they comment on my ass. Always the ass. And it really doesn’t matter what I’m wearing, whether I’m wearing something tight or loose, whether it’s a nice outfit or not, or I’ve put effort into my appearance or not. When I step outside my door and I see men loitering, I know that even if they don’t say anything, they will watch me pass, arms crossed, licking their lips, smiling at me, like I’m prey they are about to attack and devour. This happened twice this morning already.
Let’s face it, I am prey. These rape-y looks, they say to me, “If we were not on a public street in daylight, you wouldn’t be able to defend yourself against me. I have power over you. Don’t forget that.”
Sometimes I feel like it’s my fault. Maybe this wouldn’t happen if I dressed differently (like a Mormon or Muslim or Quaker, maybe?), or been born with a different body. I’m not saying I look like a model, or that I’m even that attractive. I’m of medium build, short, with thick thighs, a round butt and boobs. Maybe that’s why I’ve learned about all the things strangers want to do with and to my ass.
But it can’t be my fault, because it happens to every woman in NYC. Yesterday when I got home, I posted a rant on Facebook:
I’m tired of being harassed on the street. I’m tired of the kiss-y noises, of hearing all the different things men would like to do to my ass, and low, creepy murmurs in my ear as men pass by me, close enough to reach out and grab me. I’m tired of feeling like if I wear anything but sweats, I’m opting into a play-by-play of all the nasty things that go through men’s heads. Whenever this happens, I get stuck in my own head, wondering what I could have done differently. If I had said something, would he learn that it’s not OK, that it’s not a compliment? Or would I be putting myself in physical danger? Does flicking them off just encourage them? What if I wore something different? Should I just buy a burka? Is there any equivalent way to harass a straight male? And most importantly, where do men learn that this is acceptable?
The response from my female friends was swift, and it came from girls of all shapes and sizes, and girls I hadn’t talked to in years and years. I got likes from young, old, black, brown and white, from Annapolis to Pennsylvania to Texas. Comments came from the beautiful Cuban with jet black hair, the tall and thin friend (who said a guy followed her home in a car in Brooklyn the other night), and the athletic friend (who says she only gets it when she’s out jogging). One girl says she gets harassed when she’s wearing her winter puffer coat. It’s indiscriminate. One girl says that a homeless guy parked outside her work building says disgusting things to every single woman who passes. “Every day I think about how I’m going to confront him,” she said, “but I never have the balls.”
What Could I Possibly Say?
Our generation of women has been raised to be strong and to stand up for ourselves. We have Lean In circles, negotiate for higher pay, debate with our guy friends on current issues, cuss and yell and root for our favorite sports team. We’re not used to feeling powerless. But street harassment is so cruel in that we are left on our heels, our dignity taken away for that moment. We are angry and weak and small.
“I often daydream about what it would be like to actually confront these dirtbags,” the jogger said. I know how she feels. After hearing that man say he wanted to stick his dick in my ass, I was consumed with anger. For the next twenty minutes, I imagined all the things I could have said to him, but they usually ended with him attacking me in a drugged-up rage. Yesterday I was so angry, I talked to myself in my mirror like I was confronting those three young men in the street. But in the moment of harassment, I’m always only shocked into silence.
Street harassment is a drive-by crime that leaves no physical evidence. By the time you realize what has happened, he’s already down the street. You would have to turn around, run to catch up with him and … then what? What could you possibly say that would change his behavior and make him feel bad, let him know that it’s not acceptable?
Last night I ran some possibilities past my boyfriend, seeking a male’s opinion on what would be the most humiliating comeback.
“You should go kill yourself.”
“I bet you have a small dick.”
He voted for douchebag. But somehow, “douchebag” doesn’t seem to have the same je ne sais quois as, “Why don’t you come home with me so I can fuck that ass good, girl?”
I considered other options, like turning around and slapping my harasser hard across the cheek. But I don’t want to touch him, or get attacked. Maybe carrying mace around with me, but it’s difficult to find in New York. [UPDATE: You can find out where to buy pepper spray in NYC here.) Maybe if I just asked him, “Why? Why would you say that to me?” he would pause and think about how it feels. Or I could get sassy, and say, “I’m sorry, did you say something? To me? Were you talking about my ass? I’m not sure I heard you clearly, why don’t you repeat yourself in front of all these good people?”
There are movements to stop street harassment, like Hollaback! and the everyday sexism project. But these websites are just women talking to women about it. You think any of these guys give a shit? No.
In the end, nothing seems like it would be adequate, or could guarantee my safety. And as my friend from Chicago pointed out, “If you say something, you’re just a dyke bitch who can’t take a compliment.”
“I would never do that.”
After I posted my rant, all of the comments–at first–were female. But I got private messages. A guy I knew in high school (a real douchebag) who I hadn’t talked to in years said, “Hi! How are you!” A French dude asked me if I was a man hater. “Well, I know you’re not the kind of guy who would ever say anything to a woman on the street, right?” He didn’t respond. Another, very nice, guy sent me a thoughtful message:
It’s so strange bc it’s like this hidden thing that I think most guys aren’t really aware of. Certainly we all know that stereotype about the construction site or whatever but I don’t think the guys in my circles would do this.
Similar story–sorority sister of yours and I had a comp sci class and were both working late in the c school. She finished before me and she kept waiting around. I didn’t get why she didn’t want to just leave until she finally got too tired and straight up asked, “will you just walk me to the garage to my car bc it’s like 1am.” It never even dawned on me that this would be an issue bc I had the perspective of male, no fear of walking alone at night.
I feel like this is similar. I don’t do this, nor do my friends, so I think it’s not an issue. But for a circle of guys they do this constantly. And the “non participant” guys don’t see it happening bc they aren’t exposed to it every day.
When men did start commenting on my Facebook post, it was all similar stuff. It’s probably a sign of my privilege that the men in my life were like, “Uh, I never do this and neither do any of my friends.” My boyfriend was shocked when I told him that this happens to me almost every day on some level. Guess what? It does.
He didn’t really understand why a man would do that. “If I see a beautiful woman walking down the street, even if I’m really attracted to her, the last thing I’m going to do is tell her I want to fuck her. That’s the opposite of what I would do. I would act like a human.”
It’s All About Power
I don’t think verbal harassment is a pickup strategy. I think it’s a power thing. This is an extreme example, but experts think that unemployment and economic disenfranchisement of young men in India leads to more sexual harassment. Couldn’t the same be true here? Couldn’t these lewd comments from low-income men be a way to regain some control and power of their life? Out loud they’re saying, “Look at that ass!” But what they’re really saying is, “You’re no better than me. You may have been to college, but I am stronger and larger than you and I can fuck you against your will.”
Racism is often a way for low-income Americans to feel like they are better than someone, to boost their confidence which has been chipped away by a series of small humiliations. Similarly, what easier way to re-stake your claim on manhood by telling a young, well-dressed girl on her way somewhere important that you can and would do dirty things to her?
Street harassers are like gum on your shoe: disgusting and worthless, but they still have the power to ruin your day. They had certainly ruined mine. I stomped around the apartment, telling my boyfriend about all of this, getting increasingly worked up, slamming a glass down into the sink. He approached me and wrapped his arms around me. “I tell myself that they’re sad and pathetic and mad at the world, and just taking it out on me,” I said. “But I still feel like they’re taking something away from me, and I can’t get it back.”
“They can’t take your dignity,” he said.
And I just started to sob, quietly, in his arms.