street-harassment

Once while crossing the street in Washington Heights a man screamed out at me, “Hey Sexy!”  I was wearing baggy jeans, a sweatshirt, a baseball cap and glasses with no makeup.  I looked a step away from a vagrant.  I didn’t respond.  Just then, I heard the same voice shout back at me, “Ya fat ass. Bitch”

I was crossing the street at the light.  Was I supposed to stop, walk over to the sound of the voice even though I had no idea what car he was in.   I knew the man was talking to me as there were no other women around, but I looked so grubby it seemed strange that he would call me “sexy.”  This same scenario plays out daily, sometimes several times a day no matter what I’m wearing or how I look.

In the worst examples I’ve been grabbed by random strangers.  They usually grab me by my arm and try to pull me into them.  It’s so inappropriate it borders on assault.  If a man did that to another man, he’s libel to get punched, pushed, shoved or slapped.  It’s just unacceptable.

One night while walking home from a comedy show a group of young teenagers walked up to me for no reason, and one of them pulled my hair and then ran away laughing.  It was near Union Square, the streets were quite busy.  My response was to immediately start screaming at the boys.  It ended with me chasing them down the block.  I did get some satisfaction when they finally decided to start running from me, the look of fear in their eyes gave me hope they wouldn’t try it again any time soon.

The infamous video that is making the internet rounds lately stirred a fairly heated debate among my friends.  When I watched the video, I saw a woman dealing with street harassment as she wore a t-shirt and jeans and did nothing more than walk silently through the streets of New York City.  What my friend saw was a racially biased video that portrayed black men as the primary source of this type of harassment.  Interesting how people from two oppressed groups can see the exact same footage and get something completely different perspectives from it.  The video did contain some white men who were harassing the woman, and a few voices were of undetermined ethnicity.  However the makers of the video did make a mistake by only using a white woman.  It would have been a better experiment to use women of various ethnic backgrounds.  Not only would the non-white women still get comments, they would probably get racist remarks on top of it.

Since I’ve lived in New York City for 13 years, I have friends from every background imaginable.  Street harassment is something that nearly all of my female friends complain about.  It doesn’t matter if they are white, black, Asian, Latina or some combination.  Every woman under a certain age regardless of size has experienced it.  Some women just block them out, but for many of us the remarks feel like acid, constantly wearing us down as we are just trying to get from one place to another.

I’ve had to deal numerous sexually charged incidents of violence over the years.  I would list them all here but I’d rather not.  I don’t really want to go there again.  A few of them were so bad though, that I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  PTSD is normally associated with men coming back from war, but anyone who has lived through traumatic experiences can develop the disorder.  When I was 19 years old I got jumped by a guy after coming out of a bar.  I was thrown up against a wall and the man was trying to rip open my clothing.  I was too terrified to do anything.  Luckily someone else noticed what was going on and the man stopped.  But that incident left scars.  Now when someone grabs me on the street I explode.  I tend to start screaming, my blood pressure rises, my heart races, and I go into full flight or fight mode.  I struggle to control myself when this happens, but it’s as if a demon has been unleashed.  Luckily for me this usually causes men to immediately drop their hands, and back away.

To really prove this is a universal problem Hollaback should remake their video and show it happens to all women, and that men of all shades of skin engage in this behavior. I could see my friend’s point that it looked biased.  What troubled me instead were the comments that so many men were making regarding street harassment.

  • It doesn’t exist – women don’t really go through this
  • We should be happy to get such attention
  • If we don’t respond we are stuck up snobs
  • Women have nothing to fear from men
  • Men don’t mean any harm by these comments
  • Men can’t help themselves when they see women walk by
  • Women should just put up with this because it’s not harmful
  • If the guys were attractive we wouldn’t mind the comments
  • This is just how men act and we should accept it

Several women tried in vain to point out that this really is unwanted attention.  Why would women feel less safe when random strangers invade their personal space and try to force them to connect with them verbally or otherwise?  Why are we so guarded when walking down the street?  Why can a man just walk down the street without experiencing this?  Sure some women might make a comment towards a man, but women overall are far less of a threat to anyone’s physical safety.  About 90% of all murders are  committed by men, and 95% of all sexual predators are men.  Now this isn’t to say all men are violent, of course they aren’t.  Most victims of violence are men, and most victims also tend to know their attacker and be the same race as their attacker.  But the chances of a woman committing the same acts of violence is extremely rare.  Violent criminals tend to re-offend, so it literally is a minority of men who are the problem.  Because of this, women are far less likely to assume that every man who she encounters is going to be harmless.  Every day we have to judge if  “Hey Beautiful” just an innocuous statement or if it is the start to a physical assault?  Most of us have found that if we engage with men on the street, some will take that as an invitation for more contact.  In my own experience I’ve found even eye contact is an invitation to a few deranged individuals.  I’ve just been grabbed too many times to assume it won’t happen again.  It’s also sobering to note that according to a recent government survey 1 in 5 American women reported to be a victim of rape, or an attempted rapeAbout 80% of those women reported that it happened before the age of 25.  So any cat caller has about a 20% chance that he’s chatting up someone who might very well been a victim of a previous sexual assault.

Instead of logically trying to explain this to the men who don’t understand, I’ll simply say this.  If you don’t believe me, and you don’t want to read my stories then I implore you  to sit down with your close female friends, your sister, your girlfriend, your mother, your daughter, your niece or your aunt.  Ask them if they’ve ever been sexually intimidated by a man.  Ask them if they’ve experienced sexual violence.  Ask them if they had a man follow them down the street, block their path, or grab their arm when they were minding their own business.  I think you’d be surprised what you would find.

And if that still doesn’t get you to change your point of view then think of a young girl in your family.  Think how you would feel if your 8-year-old niece had to put up with the same comments.  I’ve seen girls who are clearly underage get lewd and creepy remarks from men in their 40’s and 50’s.  Think about what that does to their self-esteem to have a man older than her father treat her that way.  If you wouldn’t want your mother to put up with this, or your sister, your niece, your granddaughter, your daughter, your girlfriend or wife, then why is it OK to do it to random woman?

Among my circle of friends it’s usually harder to find the woman who hasn’t had some type of scary incident in her past.   I know one friend who was attacked with a hammer just last year.  She fought off her attacker but had to have staples put in her scalp to repair what he had done to her.  I know of another who admitted to being nearly raped by a man who held a gun to her head, and another still who was driven to a remote location and attacked by a cab driver. Most women have stories like these, the incidents are not rare, and it’s exactly why we are on guard when we are walking down the street by ourselves.

Sadly the woman in the video got rape threats in youtube comments.  Men trying to defend this as simple harmless behavior in the same breath threatened to sexually assault the woman.  It’s as if they are proving our point.  If it really was a compliment, “Hey Beautiful” shouldn’t be followed by “Bitch.”

So start a dialog.  Start it right now.  Talk to your trusted female friends and family members and see what they tell you. Ask your daughter if she’s ever had a man treat her like this.  We aren’t going to get past this with a simple “boys will be boys” attitude.  I’m willing to concede that a lot of men don’t realize that this is upsetting to some women.  Many honestly do think it’s complimentary or a nice thing to do.  Women we just want to live our lives like anyone else, and sometimes that means silently walking down the street without interruption.

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