Takin’ it to the Streets: The "I" in Street Harassment

A question was raised in the comments of the first post of this series* that comes up over and over again in discussions of street harassment: how do we establish (and maintain) healthy and authentic selves in a sociocultural environment that is hostile to who we are?

Okay, so the question wasn't exactly posed like that. Instead, Alexandra complained about when men she doesn't know command her to smile, Franchesca wrote about negotiating beauty and arrogance, Danielle wondered "how much is them and how much is me?" and TFIsabel asked why some women are harassed more than others. In spite of their differences, all these comments have the common theme of our trying to figure out how to balance personal responsibility for shaping both ourselves and the culture in which we live with the responsibility street harassers also hold for these things. What I appreciate most about these comments is that they all point out that while street harassment is not the fault of the victims, our choices do play a role in constructing the environment in which these scenarios occur—therefore, we are not powerless to stop it.

Now before I'm accused of implicit victim-blaming, I ask that you hear me out—because that's not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying that if we want street harassment to stop then we have to look at the overall dynamics involved in it. This means pulling back from simply examining a single micro-interaction for gendered power plays and also examining the many social and cultural elements at play that contribute to the existence and perceptions of street harassment. It means we recognize that we've got a lot we are juggling at any given time, and if we can teach ourselves to see those multiplicitous dynamics, we might also teach ourselves how to change them.

Considering this made me think of Jack Goes Boating, a really great indie film released last year that was directed by and starred Philip Seymour Hoffman. The most compelling character in Jack Goes Boating, imho, is Jack's oddball love interest Connie. Brilliantly executed by actress Amy Ryan, Connie demonstrates some uncomfortable tensions that exist for women when it comes to the threat of sexual violence in public spaces. Throughout the film we see numerous victimizing encounters Connie has with men who make her the focal point of some type of unwanted sexual attention (e.g., masturbation on the subway, harassment at work, being asked out in a hospital while her father is in a coma). The cumulative result of these encounters is clearly demonstrated in Connie's off-kilter behavior (she visually presents herself as plainly as possible, views all men as sexual predators, and fearfully and begrudgingly interacts with them), as well as men's behavior toward her: they seek her out for victimization or treat her as a broken person in need of their protection. But the genius of Ryan's performance in the film is this: the viewer is never quite sure whether Connie's point of view is wholly accurate. We are left wondering if we see what truly happens to her or if we've simply gotten a peek into how she constructs reality in a world that is dangerous for women. Jack Goes Boating musses up the dichotomies of intention vs. perception and real vs. unreal, subtly pointing out that both are important.

Street harassment makes it difficult for many of us to exist as the person who we "truly" are because our need to feel safe in public demands both self- and perpetrator-imposed behavior modification. And one of the biggest struggles we confront is not always having the ability to accurately discern the presence of danger; therefore, we err on the side of caution, assuming it's there and modifying our behavior as a result. So, trans people avoid public restrooms; interracial couples and queers don't publicly express their intimacy; and women alter their route in order to avoid places they may encounter bothersome men. Like Connie, we place our perception of what might be over what may or may not really be because past experience has taught us that we don't have the luxury not to. But doing this comes at a price. And that price is our own authenticity and perpetuating the status quo. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Franchesca made an excellent point about this when she wrote about rejecting traditional femininity, and going grunge instead, because she wanted to hide her body from strange men's gazes and avoid their sexual advances (particularly as a teenage girl being approached by older men). But she soon figured out that tactic wouldn't work. On one hand, she was getting "praise" for having the "right" presentation of her gender identity, which satisfied heteronormative male pleasure and privilege. On the other hand, she struggled with not being true to herself. Her fear of street harassment brought an unavoidable mixture of self-loathing and anger at the world for placing her in an unwinnable position. It wasn't until she reconciled the two by accepting the conflict itself as inevitable that she found some semblance of solid ground on which to stand to define who she really wanted to be and start living her life that way.

Danielle's string of questions following an unwanted encounter also exemplifies this conflict nicely. She wonders to herself, "Was my dress really that short? Why would he yell at me? Why am I letting his comment affect me?" We vacillate between blaming ourselves then the perpetrator and then society and then back to ourselves. The questions are circular because "blame" is multidirectional. (To be clear, this next bit is not about Danielle specifically, but an abstraction from the situation she described.) From the harasser's point of view, and our cultural one as well, the skirt may have been too short. But from a social justice perspective, the length of skirt is irrelevant because safety and common courtesy should be a right, not a luxury. Maybe he yelled because he doesn't know any better or because he feels entitled or because he genuinely thought he was being complimentary or because he wanted to take his bad day out on a stranger from whom he could quickly flee. Maybe the feeling of disgust is because you find the man who yelled at you unattractive and that makes you question your own physical appeal if an ugly dude thinks you'd actually be interested in him. Maybe you let the comment affect you because it's both humiliating and scary to be yelled at by a man in a car, especially when there is no social sanction or institutional recourse to match such behavior.

There is no one magical answer to any of these questions—nor to the question that started this post. That's why they're asked again and again. Instead, what we gain from asking and thinking about them is that context is important and that we have to interrogate the ambiguity and complexities in order to find solutions beyond frowning at a command to smile or wearing baggy clothing or screaming at a guy who slaps our ass then reporting him to the police. No matter how uncomfortable the process might make us.

* Many thanks to Alexandra the Tsaritsa, Danielle, TFIsabel, and Franchesca (a lovely ladyfriend from my salad days, btw) for providing the inspiration for this post.

Photo credit: Blank Noise

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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I think one of the jarring

I think one of the jarring things about street harassment for me is that it exists outside of social norms. Whether I'm in my hometown in Maine, or in Philadelphia where I go to school, or Quito, Ecuador where I studied abroad, the style with which street harassment is expressed is distinct from any other type of social interaction that happens between people who know each other or are getting to know each other. It always just comes across as bizarre. But it comes in shades of bizarre, so when old men I've never spoken to on my block tell me I look pretty that's less bizarre than when a man drives down the wrong way of a one-way street to tell me I'm "sexy as shit."

My solution is usually to not engage, and I'll say thank you if I get a somewhat polite comment and no thanks/I'm busy if it's a dinner invitation or an offer to be the father of my child (as was offered to me this morning). I've fortunately never had any super-negative experiences with street harassment, and can usually shake off honks and cat calls (pretty much incessant in Ecuador), but the only time I've really ever felt unsafe was once in a bar in Ecuador when three drunk men would not stop hitting on/calling out to three of my friends and me and I finally told them to shut up and leave us alone, but I definitely would not have done that if we'd been in an alley or something. My question is, if street harassment is so outside of social norms of interaction, how does it become normalized as an appropriate expression by some people (mostly men)?

ooooohhh!

Lizzypride, your analysis and question are making me giddy. :-) Some of the other comments have asked something similar, so I've definitely got this on my list of things to address in future posts.

I wrote about street

I wrote about street harassment in Ecuador last fall for The F-Bomb blog and tried to talk about that... it's really hard though to think about deconstructing embedded social norms that ... aren't norms for everyone. Or everywhere. I think it's interesting how race/ethnicity and location play into harassment, and my friend who is studying abroad in Kenya has said some really interesting things about ideas of propriety that apply to Kenyan women but not to American women. Power and perceived sexual availability are part of it... Hey Shorty is going on my list of books to read this summer. I wish I had a better way to respond to street harassment in the moment, because I don't know if yelling, "Have you never seen knees before??" would be effective necessarily.

http://thefbomb.org/2010/10/street-harassment-and-sluts/

Tools

Thank you for writing this. I'm going through my struggle with strangers right now. I've written out an apology to those men, for not acknowledging them, because they're just hurting inside. I have become verbally aggressive toward men for whistling at me. I'm constantly in anxiety whenever I go anywhere because I think men will yell at me from their cars. Even though they're victimizing me, it's two-sided. I'm victimizing them as being emotionless tools. In some cases they seem to be, but they're really not..reading this article stirred up some vengeance in me again though!

Around the World....

I am an American woman who has lived in Spain and Costa Rica. I currently live in Turkey. Being blonde and blue-eyed I stand out no matter what foreign country I visit (except Norway...). I have been harassed by strangers everywhere I've gone and the experience is different in every community but has similarities around the world.

The one question I have is for the harassers: "What do you hope to gain from the experience?" Has any woman ever responded affirmatively to "Show me your tits!"

In Spain I was young and "adventurous" and didn't mind attractive men making sideways remarks to me. I can only remember two times, in the six months I was there, that I felt victimized by strangers. One was a group of construction workers (really helping the stereotype!) in the subway who would not stop yelling at me and my girlfriends no matter what retort I gave in Spanish. The other, much more traumatic experience, was in Plaza del Sol, the most public, busiest square in Madrid, during broad daylight. I was waiting to meet someone by the famous bear statue and I was wearing my new white skirt (going commando because, hey, it's white). I am minding my own business when I look down and notice this man, possibly homeless, crawling on his hands and knees to try and look up my skirt. Shocked and disgusted and scared I kicked at him and he jumped up and came at me. Out of nowhere this beautiful Spanish man takes my hand and in English told me to run. I distinctly remember him saying "Run, come on! He's got a knife!" The hero and I ran up a side street for a minute before he felt we were safe. There he met his beautiful boyfriend and their adorable son, they asked me if I was ok, and departed. The whole memory still leaves me shaky.

In Costa Rica men will say anything for a little attention and as far as they're concerned any attention, positive or negative, is good attention. Men hiss like snakes, bark like dogs, and make all sorts of other animal noises hoping one mating call will lure the women in. Generally these tactics fail. As frequently as I was catcalled and harassed by men of all ages in Costa Rica, I never felt unsafe there. I lived in a small community with a host family who I love dearly and took comfort in being able to understand (other than the animal noises) what these men were trying to communicate. I could also respond, if I chose to, which is empowering. Probably 95% of the time I ignore any street harassment but every once in a while I respond, and depending on my mood it can be a polite inquiry into why they're addressing me or what they want, or a scathing string of swear words.

Here in Turkey I live in a very touristy city so the locals are used to seeing non-Turks, but there are a lot of Russian sex workers in my neighborhood (so I've heard) which means I get propositioned in Russian more often than not. Usually Try No. 2 is in German, and finally they resort to English catcalls. I ignore them all, or, if I am being yelled at by street vendors who are trying to get my attention to earn a living, I respond with my modest Turkish. They are always taken aback and say "Aferin!" or "Good for you!" when I do. I was warned that men in Turkey are "worse" than men in Costa Rica by two of my classmates in graduate school who had been here numerous times but until recently I didn't understand what they meant because men generally do not say anything, in any language. I had one older man stop his foot and whinny like a horse at me but I think he was channeling his inner Costa Rican. But, I feel like I am constantly under a microscope here; being watched by all the men all the time. The gaze, staring and leering gets old quickly. Only occasionally do men actually yell something at me and it's those times when my soul crumbles. I feel so helpless when I am out in public and trying to look nice and professional and some strange man says something to me I do not understand and I have no way to respond. It has gotten to the point where I have considered dying my hair brown and getting brown contacts, not that that would help me blend in as "more Turkish"... or giving up wearing skirts all together. Obviously none of these are viable options because they make me feel like I am shrinking into nothingness. My only real choice here in to learn enough Turkish to be able to engage in the women's movement here and combat street harassment alongside the women of Turkey.

Thank you for addressing the complexities of the issue, asking the questions you are, and helping all of us explore how being harassed changes us and how we can change harassment.

How YOU look has no meaning to harassers.

"It has gotten to the point where I have considered dying my hair brown and getting brown contacts, not that that would
help me blend in as "more Turkish"... or giving up wearing skirts all together."

As someone with brown hair and brown eyes and has been publically harassed, please realize that what you wear or how you look isn't going to decrease your chances for being catcalled.

i beg to differ

This will be the topic of a future post, but I do plan to write about how looks do effect the frequency with which a woman is catcalled. Just ask older women. It doesn't make it go away completely, but it does happen less as we age. But as I said... more on that in a later post. :-)

apology letter

Hey Periwinkle, Is that apology available online? I'd love to read it.

One of the most effective

One of the most effective things I've found to deflect street harassment is to simply make eye contact. Looking down is seen by many as submissive, whereas staring directly back at the perpetrator makes them aware of your being a human being. Granted, this has only been my experience, but I've noticed that if I stare back, they look away first. It's almost uncanny in its simplicity.

I do have a kind-of funny story, though. I was walking through my college town and I passed a small group of construction workers. One of them yelled out something fairly standard--I think it was "Where YOU goin"?" I gave him a sideways look that I hoped communicated "You're kidding, right?" Apparently, it did, because his (also male) coworker yelled to him, "She don't wanna talk to you, she knows she's beautiful!" And I had to crack up. It was a rather silly thing to say, to be sure, but at least he was aware of the stupidity of such a remark.