Street Harassment and the state’s failure to recognize women’s dignity

Walking back from the Farmer’s Market, one block from my house:
-Muttering man walking in opposite direction: “You fucking bitch, whore, slut, I’ll fucking slit your throat”

Sitting, waiting for a train at the Lafayette BART station, on a warm fall evening:
-Man sits a yard from me.  “Excuse me.  Will you make love to me?”
-Self, disgusted face, in my best Clueless voice: “No.”
-Man: gets up, scratches his ass, drops his pants and exposes himself to me

Walking out my apartment building’s front door:
“Hey there beautiful, good morning baby, what’s your name, why won’t you talk to me, you’re a bitch, I’ll kill you bitch”

All three anecdotes above are completely true and happened within the past six months.  If you’re a woman, you’re not surprised; if you’re my boyfriend, you don’t quite believe me.  All three are classic examples of what’s called “street harassment,” which I’ll loosely define as when a man you don’t know marks you as a sexual object and forces you to engage with him in a public space, against your own will, without your permission.

My earliest recollections of street harassment are from when I would walk home, about a mile, from my middle school in bucolic Moraga.  I was about 11.  For the record, I was chubby, wore hideous glasses and tomboyish clothes, had an extremely short bowl cut (thanks, mom), and generally did not convey conventional sexiness in any way whatsoever.  Even then, nearly every day I walked home from school on the sidewalk flanked by a golf course and the main road, I would be catcalled.

Why do I mention this?  Because it demonstrates, so unequivocally, that it WAS NOT MY FAULT.  At all.  In the slightest.  I was just a kid, a little tall for my age, sure, but pre-pubescent and dressed like the Deion Sanders fanatic I was, it was so clearly not my fault that anyone who tries to argue against me on this must just end up sputtering in his own general asshole-ness.

Extrapolating from these instances, again I want to emphasize that WE ARE NOT “ASKING FOR IT.”  I don’t care how attractive I may or may not be, how much I may or may not weigh, how much clothing I’m wearing that day, how tight it is, how horny you are, how bored you are.  MY PURPOSE IN LIFE IS NOT TO BE SOMETHING FOR YOU TO SHIT ALL OVER.

My scariest street harassment experience, ironically enough, was not in the street at all.  Nearly six years ago, I came back to my dorm room from a Welcome Week event to a four-hundred-word comment on my blog that described exactly how its writer would find, entrap, torture, rape, and dismember me.  I deleted it immediately, but now regret it — I wish I had it, word for word, so I could show you all just how fucked-up this shit is.  I assume this person didn’t only do this to me, because when I went to look at his account, it had already been deleted, before I’d even complained.  I assume this person went on a sexual cyberassault rampage and hit lots of people all in a row, maybe even with the exact same message.  Why?  I have no idea who this person was, but again, I’d assume it was to terrorize me and whack himself off.

I’ve experienced fairly benign street harassment (“Hey, beautiful”) all the way to just plain scary harassment, like that detailed above.  Street harassment exists across a huge continuum, from the almost-innocuous to beatings, rape, kidnapping, torture, murder.  While all street harassment is symptomatic of sexual discrimination and problematic patriarchy, I’d argue that, when it comes to practical action, we should judge street harassment on the level to which it’s designed to intimidate the woman.

For me, the problem usually is trying to figure out how to respond to said harassment.  I’ve said nothing; shot disgusted looks; yelled “fuck you, asshole;” given drivers the finger; etc.  After especially egregious assaults, I feel dirty, frustrated, depressed, angry, and, most of all, completely helpless.  This helplessness is what makes me want to do SOMETHING, but that desire juts up against the idea that maybe all the man wants is some sort of response from me, and yelling “fuck you” is giving him exactly what he wants.  What do I do, complain to the cops?  What law are the perpetrators breaking?  What cop will recognize my concerns and take me seriously?

So…what do you do?????????

One: let’s up the ante.  Why do we call it “street harassment?”  Why not just “street terrorism?”  As far as I can tell, its main purpose is for certain individuals, usually men, to exert dominion over their surroundings — to create new power dynamics in their favor.  To them, the ONLY reason to attack is BECAUSE WE ARE IN PUBLIC.  Therefore, the whole purpose is twofold:

a. to make the perpetrator feel in control; and
b. to intimidate women for daring to be in a public space — for daring to step outside women’s “proper place,” the private sphere

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve decided to take a different route home, or changed what time I’m leaving the house, or where I’m going to do my grocery shopping, or even whether or not I will read for an hour or two on my balcony, purely to avoid street terrorism.  And yet, when I say this, many of you still will not understand why.  “Why do you let it get to you?  Why does it even bother you?  Why let them control what you do?”

So, reader, some homework: what can we do to combat this?  In this situation, how do we best demonstrate courage and agency and demand our right to be in public?


4 thoughts on “Street Harassment and the state’s failure to recognize women’s dignity

  1. I have no idea how to combat this problem. Every time it happens to me I ignore it, although my face tends to show the disgust. I have wondered about what would happen if I said something witty or insulting or even affirmative. The odds are that the catcallers have never actually gotten any; how would they respond if you said “sure”? Or what if women started responding with a conditional yes that asked for them to loose weight, make more money, and buy a house. I feel like experimenting now…

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