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Ending Street Harrassment

Times Square: I walk up to the 2/3 subway stop at 42nd, and on a corner is a group of men in suits, smoking cigarettes. One asks if I have a light, and I shake my head no. The blond guy looks at me and jerks his pelvis up and down, licking his lips.

Upper West Side: Two people, a man and woman, are standing outside a club, presumably trying to get people to come in to see a show. “Hey, Slim Fast,” the man says as I walk past, “you want a ticket?”

Lincoln Center: I’m going back uptown from a doctor’s appointment, listening to music, when a man sidles up next to me. All I hear is “tits” before he continues walking. I turn around to see him watching me.

I think about street harassment for days after it happens, and lately, it feels like it happens every day. There’s a lot to process on a lot of levels. At first I’m shocked and not even sure it happened. Then I’m angry, and I want to do something like scream or punch the harasser. I think about what I’m wearing, evaluate whether or not I look particularly attractive that day. (Let the victim blaming begin.)

Street harassment is an equal opportunity act. It’s not about how you look, it’s about an assertion of power, and it is also about choice. Men aren’t biologically programmed to catcall and comment, but when they do, it’s largely approved-of by other men.

My friends and I talk about street harassment; it seems to be a regular occurrence for us all. Here are some of their words:

Something that always strikes me is how at the first sign of harassment, i try to make my face blank and impassive…and then i worry that i look like i’m scowling. why should i worry about that? who cares if i’m scowling? i hate that my options are to grin and bear it, or to reinforce their already one-dimensional stereotype that women are bitches.

Another friend says:

I moved out of a neighborhood because some men every morning would whistle and make comments about my butt. I also changed subway routes to my friend’s house because some men that hang out on the corner commented about my ass as well. I got pissed off and turned around and told them to shut their f’ing mouths and asked if they talk about their mothers or sisters like that. Their response was they were being friendly and saying hi. That’s two of many.

Women are socialized to desire and cultivate the attention of men, and that men believe that women’s bodies are public property. (See? Sexism hurts everybody.) Women are also taught to mistrust our instincts except, of course, our maternal one, which we should indulge.

As a result of this, and of the shame we feel over the objectification, there is tendency to downplay street harassment -to call it flattering, to brush it off as “boys being boys,” and to question whether or not the person who harassed you actually meant it.

I’m specifically guilty of this last one-maybe I’m too sensitive? Maybe he was trying to flatter me, and so I should be flattered, as opposed to feeling humiliated, anxious and unsafe? This questioning of what we know to be true, whether or not it’s in regard to sexual harassment, is intrinsic to how sexism (and other oppression) works.

My friend J sums it up well:

The thing about street harassment is that it takes you by surprise. Suddenly, I felt like I had done something wrong. Somehow, being female, and being out and about, meant that I was on display. And, that attention isn’t flattering- it’s about making someone feel small for your own enjoyment.

It’s important for women to share our experiences and process them together in order to build our own power. Visit StopStreetHarrassment.org and iHollaback.org to hear other women’s stories, find resources, and be part of growing a movement that confronts street harassment and works to end it.

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