TW: street harassment
Yesterday something amazing was proven. Y’all ready for this? It’s groundbreaking. *Drum roll* It is possible to compliment someone–a stranger–on their appearance without scaring them. Compliments without massive power plays–wow. As I was going into work yesterday, a man passed me on the street.
Man 1: I like your outfit.
Then we both kept walking. This interaction was not creepy, aggressive, or terror-inducing. It did not make me reach for my keys or rush into work and slam the door shut behind me. We’re certainly not obligated to want compliments or be open to receiving them, but overall Man 1’s approach was pretty low-risk. I appreciated the compliment and continued on with my day, looking fly.
The Much More Common Alternative
After an awesome day at work (dear god, I wish that were more firmly rooted in my memory than the rest of this shit), I headed to the train to go to an artsy networking event further downtown. While walking to the train, I saw a group of five men–all in their 60s–standing on the sidewalk together. As I neared them, one of them came up to me, moving progressively closer to the point of nearly pushing me into the buildings. I was on the phone with a friend and trying to ignore the man walking with/on me, while his posse stared me down. I sped up and so did he. Then he pulled out the same old line that is thrown at women all the fucking time: “Smile! Hey, smile!” He said it five times, with increasing aggression. He kept pushing and his buddies kept staring.
This is when the diatribe that is constantly playing inside my head actually came out of my mouth. Pulling ahead, I spun around and yelled “NO! I SMILE FOR MYSELF! I DO NOT SMILE ON COMMAND!!”
They all stared, taken aback. I hurried away. A second later, a voice in my ear asked “Did someone just tell you to smile?” Having momentarily forgotten about my phone conversation, I’d clearly just yelled in my friend’s ear as well as at five men on the street. Whoops–that part was unintentional.
It wasn’t until I reached the train platform (a block later) that I realized I was shaking and freaking out. “Holy shit,” I thought to myself. “I just yelled at five men for harassing me. Finally. I’m glad I did, but that was scary.”
“WTF? That’s so sketchy. Who does that?”
To anyone reading this and thinking, “Wow, that’s so messed up. You must’ve been in a ‘bad neighborhood’ or have really bad luck”: NO. CHECK YOURSELF. This stuff happens all the time, everywhere. If you’re unaware of it, you’re in a position of extreme privilege. I’ve had literally this same encounter–let’s call it the “smile bullshit”–at least four times in the past two weeks (minus the attempt to push me into a wall–that took things a big step further).
What type of man would do that?
All kinds. Our society trains us all to believe that men deserve access to women’s bodies. Do all men buy into that? No. Some boys and young men are raised around wonderful people who adamantly reject this notion. Others work hard to unlearn it. But still, there are zillions of men all over the place who believe this–consciously or not–to varying degrees.
I’ve noticed an awkward dichotomy in the way our society views older men. Either:
- a) they’re automatically assumed to be perverts and merit extra suspicion, or
- b) when they’re actually predatory, their actions are justified to no end. “Oh don’t worry about him–he’s just set in his ways. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Generational differences, blah, blah, blah. He doesn’t mean anything by it; it’s harmless.” FUCK THAT. YES, IT’S MEANT TO BE AGGRESSIVE AND NO IT’S NOT HARMLESS.
Why does this happen?
Because patriarchy. (Isn’t that the answer to so many things?) Women and girls are always supposed to smile, appease, and be visually appealing and available to men. Especially if you are feminine, in which case you should acquiesce passively at all times. Great system, right? *Gags* This shows up in childhood when kids are told “Give a kiss to that relative you’re uncomfortable around. He’s your [insert familial relationship here] and he’ll be sad if you don’t.” It shows up from pre-teenager-dom onward when men catcall, yell at, make demands of, and physically grope and grab at gender minorities on the street, in our workplaces, in stores, in relaxation spaces, on the beach, at the everywhere in the world.
This is not to say that men never experience street harassment or that perpetrators are always men. There are many targeted identities and many factors that could lead to someone being harassed. However, in the vast majority of these cases, men are the harassers and people perceived to be men are safer on the streets.** Because many men never experience street harassment (and other types of “casual” attacks), they’re often totally unaware of its existence and prevalence. There are two groups of out-to-lunch people here:
- The willfully ignorant: men who’ve been told by women in their lives about these incidents, but refuse to believe them and try to invalidate their experiences. “You’re overreacting.” “That’s never happened to me, therefore it can’t be true.” “Jeeze, can’t you just take a compliment?” These men are
tacitlyendorsing harassment. They’re assholes and I have no time for them.
- The unenlightened: some guys have literally no idea that this shit happens. They’re not trying to support patriarchal attacks, but they’ve never given them any thought. I start telling stories like this and they’re actually blown away when I tell them that–even in my most relaxed state–I live with a constant baseline of fear. I don’t let fear govern my life and curtail all my actions, but it’s always there.
Then there are the guys who are aware, look out for these situations, and call them out. I appreciate those guys and I feel safer around them. Yet this post is not about them and they do not deserve magical ally cookies just for being decent human beings.
It is never the responsibility of oppressed groups to educate privileged groups. No one is obligated to do this, but I do believe it’s valuable to speak out if and when we want to, so that some of this inadvertent ignorance decreases.
Aftermath of Shitty Encounters
Beyond all of the bullshit already described, the thing that really makes me angry is how these comments–tossed out at no expense to the harasser–have the power to ruin my day. Ya know what I mean? I had an awesome day at work, after which I texted several friends and my mom about how excited I was to have met all these amazing artists. I accepted an awesome opportunity, bonded with people over sequins, and was feeling on top of the world. Then, the unwanted actions of five strangers threw my mood from euphoric to scared and wanting to curl up in a ball in bed. I spent the train ride down to my evening event talking myself out of that and willing myself not to let those guys ruin my night. Fortunately, I ended up meeting some great people and I’m glad I went. Still, I hate that this bullshit happened last night, that it impacted me enough that I’m still preoccupied with it today, and that it happens all the time.
Attention, Chicago residents: I am sick of this. You come near me in a potentially threatening manner and biting your head off is the very least I will do. Stay the fuck away.
**I am referring specifically to this type of catcalling “smile for me, baby” street harassment, which is usually directed at women and feminine-presenting folks. That is not the same as racial profiling, trans*phobic attacks, etc. and should not be equated to those.