Everyday Harassment

Alone, a female body begs for correction.

I saw him halted on his tiny BMX bike in the middle of the sidewalk one beautiful Sunday morning while I was walking my dog. The man was in his twenties and seemed sober. Still, he waited there on the corner and watched a young woman cross Nostrand and continue down the street past him. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I saw his mouth moving as his eyes glued themselves to her tense frame as she walked quickly past his bike. I stared at him and approached with my dog until I was a few feet away. He looked over his shoulder and saw the two of us. I was two-against-one, I thought; a predator could become my prey.

I can’t know what the man thought on this day, but I hoped that he felt some self-awareness of the ironic turn in his everyday harassment. I think that the only reason he let me pass by without comment was because of the presence of my dog. As much of a baby as our 100-pound puppy is, many New Yorkers are afraid of him. I simply don’t get sexually harassed when the beast accompanies me outside.

Still, I regretted that even with my dire wolf by my side, I did nothing to stop this man.

 

Hello, my name is not ‘Hey Baby.’

 

Summer can be a tough time of year for women. An increase in street harassment accompanies an increase in temperature. And as an infuriating article that appeared earlier this summer in The New York Times pointed out, many continue to associate the way a woman dresses with her supposed concern for what men think. Harassment will occur no matter what one wears, but summertime seems to give the harassers greater license. We often laugh about it; what, for instance, did that one construction worker mean when he told me in these fragmented statements: “Gorgeous-girl biker-top two”? Of course I was annoyed to hear that I wasn’t “gorgeous-girl biker-number one,” but the comment was so strange that it distracted me from the bare bones of the insult: the female form itself gives permission, not the human who occupies it.

Many young women today choose not to dress for a man’s gaze, even when the weather seems to dictate the baring of skin.

-Amy Sohn, from her article “Women Who Cover Up (Even as the Temperature Climbs)

I love my neighborhood. Crown Heights sits atop Bedford Avenue and Eastern Parkway and runs from Prospect Park in the west almost to the eastern end of the tree-lined thoroughfare. My neighbors either go to the Baptist Church on Sunday or to temple on the Sabbath or to the coffee shop with their laptops. I live across the street from a fruit stand, half a block from a little birdhouse-turned-free-library, and right around the corner from an outstanding bagel shop. On fine evenings, neighbors stroll up and down the pedestrian pathways along the cool Parkway. But on the avenues, outside of convenience stores and near the laundromat, men wait and watch.

Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates conducted a nationally representative telephone survey of 612 adult women between June 17 and June 19, 2000. From this survey, they found that almost all women had experienced street harassment: 87 percent of American women between the ages of 18-64 had been harassed by a male stranger; and over one half of them experienced “extreme” harassment including being touched, grabbed, rubbed, brushed or followed by a strange man on the street or other public place.

StopStreetHarassment.org

Of course, Crown Heights is hardly a utopia. Just Google the phrase “Crown Heights hate crimes” or “Crown Heights race riots” or “Crown Heights gentrification.” I understand that commenting on street harassment as a white woman is problematic in Brooklyn. That’s why groups like Brooklyn Movement Center, Hollaback!, and Stop Street Harassment are so helpful with providing resources and suggestions for ways to combat street harassment. Twitter user, Feminista Jones cleverly uses one question, “You OK, Sis?” to disrupt and discuss street harassment that is directed towards women of color.

BMC’s anti-harassment campaign, “No Disrespect,” takes the idea of a neighborhood watch in a brilliant direction with its 4-person bike patrols. According to their website: “These bike patrols are a demonstration to the community that we are united against street harassment and we will not stand for it…We want to see change when we walk on the streets and that starts by educating, and holding accountable, our own community and neighborhood.” When I read about this group’s efforts, I will confess that this number one woman biker gleefully applauded. As the great Susan B. Anthony said:

Susan-B.-Anthony-Bike-Quote

Street harassment happens everyday to so many of us, including little girls, teenagers, and many members of the LGBT community. Our bodies are the punchline to a tired joke. Keep shuffling along with that stone in your heart and in less than five minutes, you’ll be somewhere else; the weight of those comments will become more bearable. You’ll be inside where it is quiet. You’ll be safe. Sometimes it feels like that’s all that any of us can do, really.

Unfortunately, silence won’t make this problem go away. Talk back, should you feel safe enough to do so. Stop Street Harassment has a list of strategies you can use and they recommend practicing those strategies inside your home before attempting them in the heat of the moment. Talk about your experiences with friends and practice your responses until doing so becomes second-nature. If you have time, you could consider joining a community foot patrol (here’s more info about how to do so in Portland). Confronting these normalized, destructive behaviors one by one is unpleasant, but social change does not come easily.

If street harassment is as predictable as the change in seasons, then let’s learn our lines.

Jessica Williams tackles street harassment one patriotic song at a time.

jwilliams-feminized

6 thoughts on “Everyday Harassment

  1. I started eating compulsively and got fat as a teenager in order to protect myself from male attention. (It took me a while to understand that, however.) As a fat female, of course I got harassed, but it was the kind of harassment that didn’t require a response. Come-ons and proposals did. They raised the question: How do you say “not interested” without riling the guy and maybe getting killed? Eventually I developed some of the strategies that women use to ignore and deflect harassment, like never make eye contact with anyone of the male persuasion. Not till I moved from big city to small town did I begin to realize what a box I’d constructed to move through the world in.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Susanna. I can feel your pain; as a child, it seemed to me that the entire world thought of me as only a pretty girl, a thing to contain and protect. You’re right, we construct these boxes (or armor) so that we can live in this world. Running the simplest of errands or just even literally down your street for exercise can become a battle. It’s not right.

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  2. Interesting to note that it is not only an American concern but a world concern. French women (I am from France and live now in the US) are also fed up. The major difference between France and the US is the relatively new concern and also the slow response with laws against sexual harrassment. They exist but are rarely applied. You are also right that summer is harder because of the weather and the clothes. Great article and thank you for the links.

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