I avoided writing this post for a while because so many brilliant minds have already written on the topic*, but it has weighed too heavy on my heart not to speak my own piece about it here.
I’m talking about the “Hey baby,” the “Shake that ass,” the “You lookin fiiiiine today” that every woman I know has been forced to hear from a man while she’s walking down the street. These are uninvited comments that inject patriarchal oppression into our cities and our lives, and I pray for a world where they do not exist.
The comments do not even have to be crude to be harmful. A couple weeks ago, for instance, I was walking to the laundromat and a young man passing by slyly asked if he could help carry my laundry. I politely declined and he followed up his offer by saying, “You have a goodnight, beautiful.” Now this exchange didn’t frighten me. It wasn’t threatening or suggestive. In fact, I believe it was a genuine gesture of kindness. But nonetheless, the mere fact that a man can make such a comment—any comment—to a woman on the street, especially about her appearance, speaks troubling volumes about power inequality in our culture. When has a woman ever been permitted to call a stranger on the street “beautiful,” much less “sexy,” “sweetie,” “girl,” “mama”? Yet millions of women receive these comments on a daily basis in contexts where all they want to do is get home or get to work.
One of the most prevalent expressions of harassment on the street is actually nonverbal. It’s something I see several times a day in my city and I’ll call it “the swivel.” What happens is a man and a woman pass each other on the sidewalk and, as soon as she clears him, he turns his head around to stare at her butt. The swivel doesn’t care what clothes you’re wearing, how old you are, or how much you weigh—it just objectifies you in a glance. You don’t get to respond. Most of the time you don’t even know that it’s happening to you. But every day, up and down the block, hundreds of men are swiveling their heads around to stare at women’s behinds like it was their right. And it’s not.
The proper response to street harassment—I was taught this a couple years ago in a seminar—is to plainly alert the catcaller that his comments are unwelcome and inappropriate, and that no woman wants to hear them. Don’t ignore the harasser; look him in the eye. Furthermore, if you witness an instance of harassment, intervene with a simple “Please don’t say that again.” One of my favorite responses is: “Would you want someone talking like that to your mother? Your sister? Your girlfriend?” Didn’t think so.
Street harassment harms all women by instilling fear, anxiety and oppression upon their minds and bodies, but it also harms our cities—fragmenting them into segments of safety and permission based on gender. The words you shout down the street can be heard by everyone walking past, so think before you speak.
*You can find their articles all over the internet and I urge you to do so. StopStreetHarassment.org is a great place to start.