I remember the first time I witnessed street harassment. I was a young girl visiting my Grandmother in a fairly large city. We were walking downtown to catch a matinee and just ahead of us was a woman wearing a beautiful red halter top dress. Although it revealed her shoulders and back the hem fell well below her knees. It was a hot summer day and considering the weather it didn't strike me as particularly immodest. I can still see her long dark hair. She was striking as she walked along with confidence and I could tell she felt beautiful.
Suddenly a truck going by her screeched to a stop and the driver leaned out the window leered and yelled to no one in particular and yet for all to hear, "G__ __ D__ __ __! Did you see that!" Everyone, including my grandmother, ignored the comment and eventually the driver, having informed the public of his hard-on, moved along.
The woman herself seemed to ignore it as well, but I could tell it affected her. I could tell by her step. She no longer felt confident. She seemed deflated and keeping her head lifted seemed a burden. I wondered if she questioned her choice to don that beautiful red dress that morning. If perhaps she should have chosen a different style or a different color. Then maybe she could have walked down the street unharassed.
By the time I moved to NYC when I was 24 I had been the focus of street harassment myself. By instinct I successfully ignored it. But living in the Big Apple upped the game and ignoring it was a lot harder to do in an environment where I frankly felt on shaky ground to begin with. But ignore it I did with dogged determination. I think also fear, because to recognize it and say or do something might have opened me up to other kinds of much worse assaults.
Sometimes is was just verbal, a whistle or a cat call. Those were easy to ignore. Sometimes it was pretty specific about my person. One time it was someone following me for several blocks before asking me for a cigarette even though it was painfully clear I did not smoke. Sometimes it was physical. That's when it became impossible to ignore and I handled it by just moving my body away from the offender.
I have to admit I was a little mystified by it. Was this an effective technique for attracting women and getting them to have sex with you, perhaps on the spot? "Why yes, I've always wanted to get it on with a large homeless type man a good 40 years my senior. You know some place around here we can go?" Or perhaps they were seeking the woman they could settle down with for the rest of their life and have a family. "It was the "hiss" I heard as I walked by him for the first time. Such a noble hiss. I knew right then I found the father of my children." What exactly was the end game here? Why yell out "Mom-mee, Mom-mee" as I walked by? I mean, what the hell is that even supposed to mean?
No doubt by now you've wondered how I dressed during these assalts. And I will tell you it doesn't matter. Not because a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants without getting harassed (Although I think that's true), but because I got harassed while wearing PERFECTLY modest clothing. I got harassed no matter what I wore. IT. DIDN'T. MATTER. In fact, some of the worst offenses happened when I was wearing something two ticks shy a burqa. Once I was severely yelled at by a stranger in front of a subway station full of people that it was "a damn shame" for me to cover up my legs. And he went on from there. Yeah, that was one of the times when it got physical and I had to move away. Sometimes I swear, and this will sound crazy, that covering my ankles provoked more attention than if I actually revealed my thighs.
Perhaps I was supposed to feel complimented. But for some reason, a random stranger coming up behind me and comparing my ass to a bowl of jelly didn't really boost my confidence. I don't know why. Maybe because it really wasn't about complimenting me. It was about making me feel uncomfortable. The man who yelled out at the woman in the red dress -- that wasn't for her, it was for him. It made him feel powerful. Perhaps because he knew he didn't have a prayer of a chance with that woman and so he did what he could. He made her feel uncomfortable in her own skin and although she tried to ignore it, that discomfort was abundantly clear. He reveled in it.
Street Harassment isn't about a woman making a man losing control, it's about a man taking control of a woman. Its purpose is to control someone by forcing a reaction from them. If you get someone to react, you've won. They're not thinking about what they want to think anymore, but about you and what you want. And knowing you've done that, and making someone feel awkward and uncomfortable to boot must be a real rush.
I don't suppose I can speak for all women but I for one resent the efforts of a total stranger to control me even from afar. Not only is it an intrusion it's intimidating because if a man enjoys forcing a reaction from me in public God knows what else he might enjoy forcing from me if he got half a chance. It makes me feel like I'm not safe.
And the truth is -- I'm not. Only 2 out of every 100 reported rapist will spend any time in jail. 1 out of every 3 females will be sexually assaulted before she's 24. Politicians throw around phrases like "legitimate rape" and the concept of consent seems to somehow be blurry.
No, I'm not safe. How can someone feel safe when they are taught from a very young age not to walk alone somewhere after dark? To be careful about being alone with a man you don't know, or even do know. To never accept a drink you didn't pour yourself. From the time we are girls, women are taught to check and watch and be ever vigilant lest we become a statistic. It's on us because our bodies have this amazing power over a man's judgment. So yea, a man aggressively asserting the effect my body has on him makes me a little nervous.
Street Harassment is the gateway rape. The men who do it aren't complimenting you or trying to meet a nice girl or even trying to hook up with someone. They are extorting a response that empowers them. That reminds you that in this "rape culture" they've got the upper hand. That you aren't even allowed to walk down the street without acknowledging them if they so choose. They can invade your thoughts and even your personal space and get away with it.
98 out of every 100 times they get away with it -- unless of course it's Street Harassment. That's 100 out of every 100 times. And although we may try, those odds are as hard to ignore as the street harassment itself.
I did eventually come up with something that was quite an effective answer to catcalls and the like. When faced with unwanted comments I'd tilt my head back, hock up a loogie, and spit on the ground in front of me. That sent a clear message that was pretty hard for them to ignore as well.