You might think:
I’ve certainly experienced it, but not every day, so is it really a big deal? Isn’t it just part of life? Isn’t it just men’s way of telling women they look nice or pretty?
You know I’m going to say NO. But why?
I started to think back on my experiences with street harassment, the ones I could think of. I started to think back on my reactions to it and to my feelings about it.
As a teenager, in Atlanta, GA, I remember being with a friend and giving a homeless man money who was begging. He thanked us and we started to walk away. He called after us saying “Oum(kind of a grunt sound, like damn), you two sure are fine.” We giggled and walked faster, but I had the sense we were being ogled and it was uncomfortable.
I remember in Atlanta being called Baby several times and one man groaning at me while I walked by. It made me mad and I felt like I was being watched.
When I lived in Mexico, men said Piropos, which at the time were seen as culturally appropriate ways for men to flatter women. Some were funny and cheesy, like “Tantos curvas y yo sin frenos” ‘So many curves and I don’t have brakes.’ I heard that one once and my friend Amy and I just laughed out loud, but we didn’t know what else to do. I remember in school at the University of Guadalajara, they even gave us a list of ones we might hear, but it made me mad when someone would say one and sometimes they weren’t funny, they were threatening and/or scary. The Mexican women I talked to all said to ignore them. A few said that’s how it was and others said it was horrible. A friend of mine said that some people thought it was how you knew you were still young and beautiful- like when they stopped saying things to you, you knew you were washed up. Really?
I think things have been adopted into cultures under Patriarchy and yet are not traditionally really cultural? Patriarchy ups the ante- women are out and about doing their thing and should be home according to Patriarchy. Street harassment keeps them at home if they don’t want to hear it. And if they are out in the world and hearing it, whether they want to or not (because that certainly isn’t a choice), they are called out as sexual objects for the pleasure of men. That’s never good for women.
When I was in the Peace Corps, I lived in Costa Rica and there were more than two incidents, definitely, though I will only talk about two.
I remember a man on the street downtown staring me down, staring at my breasts and rubbing his nipples as I walked by (and he was obvious about wanting me to notice what he was doing). It made me feel disgusting and there was an underlying sense of shame. It also made me feel anxious, like I had to watch my back.
Another incident: One night I was headed home to my neighborhood in San Jose, Costa Rica, when it was already dark and there weren’t a lot of people out. The money for rent had been deposited into my account, so I stopped to pull it out of the ATM because I knew the family I lived with needed the money. That particular ATM was down three or four stairs and through a door into a small glass box room. I pulled out the money and went to leave and there was a man coming down the stairs toward me.
“Do you want to fuck?” My heart raced.
“What?” I asked.
He asked it again and I went off on him about why would he ask that to any woman? Did I look like I wanted to fuck? (I think he was surprised I could speak Spanish). Was I giving him any indication that I wanted to fuck anyone at all, much less him? Would he say that to his mother? To his sister? His aunt? His daughter? His cousin? His grandmother? His friend? Oh no? You wouldn’t? Well, would it be okay that someone else does?
I went off for a while, moved past him and was about to continue on my way and he began to apologize and then in the end asked me out for coffee or a drink. I told him no (hopefully that was obvious).
It was empowering for me to be able to say something back, but it was also survival mode. I was worried I was going to be hurt. I was scared, period, and once I got away from him, I ran all the way to the bus stop.
In Albuquerque, NM a few years ago, I was walking my dog early in the morning about 6:30 or so, but light out, and a car pulled up beside me and said something, I looked over and the guy said something nasty to me that now I can’t remember what exactly, but I also thought he was masturbating.
I walked faster looking around everywhere for the man. Was he going to come back? Was he waiting for me? I didn’t want him to see where I lived. I also hadn’t brought my phone, so there was no one to call. When I got home, I told my partner, but the next day, I didn’t go walking. I didn’t for a couple of days and then I took a different route, still looking around for that man.
And then there’s construction sites. It’s so cliche, I know. I actually haven’t been harassed by workers at a construction site in a while, but that may be because I don’t walk by them if I can avoid it. I did once, a long time ago and more than one man was whistling at me. It felt totally uncomfortable and there was a strange sense of humiliation that accompanied that feeling. It made me mad and want to laugh and cry and to yell out “Fuck You” all at the same time. Just that sense of men looking down at you from above and seeing you as enough of an object that they can whistle at you, it’s scary because you know they can’t see you who is scared or you who likes to write or you who has dreams and friends and family and when they can’t see that, you are just an object and it not only feels degrading, a whistle could become grabbing, could become rape.
Street harassment is power over. It is men using all the privilege they have in the world to dehumanize women and assert that power. It can make women feel like they can’t walk freely in the world and it can make us afraid to.
It’s End Street Harassment Week. Raise Awareness! Stop Street Harassment!
Grrl Code: Street Harassment is a tool of Patriarchy and it isn’t just how it is, boys being boys, or cultural. It’s misogyny. Don’t make light of it and don’t let men think it’s okay to perpetrate it.