I think this calls for a Rod Stewart sing-along

16 05 2011

We’re coming upon an interesting, exciting time in the Bronx–summer. It’s fun wherever you go, but in the lower-income, multi-problem areas known colloquially as “the ghetto,” it’s time to wild out.

The warm weather does something to people. Especially after a long, harsh winter like the one we just had. Talking about it, I start to sound like a pioneer wife who neglected the canning the previous autumn. Once the temperatures heat up, people are outside more, drinking on stoops, playing basketball in the street, wearing less clothing.

All in all, it’s a fun time. But there’s one thing that brings me down.

Street harassment.

For people who don’t deal with it in their day to day lives, it tends to sound kind of funny. People say ridiculous things to you, in some lame attempt at a hook up, or any reaction, really. For those of us who do deal with it all the time, it’s decidedly less amusing.

I don’t flatter myself into thinking that this is because I’m so distractingly hot. (I mean, I am, but I don’t think that’s the main factor at play here.) I’m very often the only white person on the street. I stand out. I’m also usually dressed (somewhat) professionally. People assume I’m a social worker, teacher, something like that. I’m young, and I look even younger. There are also a lot of unemployed guys in the neighborhood where I work, who have nothing better to do than stand outside and annoy passing women.

The combined factors of my race, age, and perceived profession seems to make people think I’ll be easily intimidated.

Take a moment to guffaw at that one.

Part of my job is being out in the community. I am always walking to people’s homes, or going to see kids at schools. Being familiar with the community, and being a part of it, is an important part of social work.

So I get lots of comments. They’re often some variation on “lookin’ beautiful, mami,” “hey, white girl,” “baby, you can’t stop and talk to me?”

If I may quote the great Ms. Jackson, my name ain’t baby. I do not know you sir. I have my headphones on, I’m walking with a purpose and clearly on my way somewhere. There is no way that you have misinterpreted my body language to mean, “I’m walking the streets of the Bronx, looking for a date or perhaps a random sexual encounter. I hope a strange man on the sidewalk will approach me with a backhanded compliment!”

Men have a difficult time understanding why women feel offended or afraid of this kind of behavior. “If I couldn’t walk down the street without someone telling me how good I look, I’d take it as a compliment!”

I’m sorry, but someone leaning into my space and saying, “Hey snowflake, you look sexy, you lost?” is not a compliment. It’s an attempt at intimidation, and at making me feel out of place. It’s a way of a man asserting his superiority through sexual aggression.

I mean, that’s how I take it.

There’s no consensus on the best way to respond. Some friends and I were discussing this recently. They said that sometimes they felt that just saying hello made people leave them alone.

My feeling is, you can’t win. If you ignore the guy, you’re a bitch, and he’ll let you know. Often, in one of the great mysteries of the universe, you’ll be called a slut for not dropping everything to blow this stranger in public. If you say hello, that’s rarely satisfactory. Then we need to have a conversation. This guy will feel at liberty to follow me. When I walk away, again, I’m a bitch.

You might not believe this, but sometimes I think a snarky response is in order.

Recently, I was doing a home visit and had to walk through a crowd of young men standing in front of the building. I had my headphones on, as always, and said “excuse me.” They let me pass, but one asshole always has to ruin it. He leaned over, asking where I was going, why wouldn’t I stop to talk to him, all that nonsense. I just walked by and ignored him.

Of course, guys like this tend not to have a ton of social engagements to attend to, so he was still there when I walked out. He tried saying hello to me again, and ignored my polite attempts at letting him know I was not available for conversation. I was putting my headphones on, and he asked, “What kind of music you listening to, snowflake?”

He had nothing to say when I replied, “Lesbian folk rock.”

What an idiot. I was actually listening to mind altering indie.

Did my sarcastic retort change this man? I’m sure not. But it shut him up for a minute. I don’t like the idea that I should play nice with someone who makes me uncomfortable, because that’s the best way to stay safe. I’m not generally in the mood to smile demurely and say “thank you” when strangers comment on my physical appearance. Whatever gets you through these kinds of encounters, and makes you feel better, I say go for it.

I don’t owe anyone anything, not even a hello, just because I’m walking down the street. This is my neighborhood too. If I feel like talking to someone, I’ll let them know. By talking to them. Guys can talk about how they think they’re just being nice, but I’m quite sure that they know exactly what they’re doing.

So if you need a witty, mildly obnoxious comeback, you know where to find me.

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11 responses

16 05 2011
CW

I encounter this shit almost every day in the warm weather. This is the worst thing about the spring/summer. It really upsets me. I usually ignore the guys, any response at all is perceived as an invite to have a conversation. I’ve had guys walk next to me for over a block, trying to talk to me while I ignored them. It’s super uncomfortable and mildly scary. I wish there was something more women could do to end this behavior.

16 05 2011
socialjerk

Definitely, even if you get caught off guard and just look up, they seem to view that as a positive response. I wish there was more we could do, and I wish it was more socially unacceptable. I wish men were embarrassed to behave this way, instead of women being embarrassed for being on the receiving end of it. I think making guys we know aware of how unpleasant, and not at all flattering, this kind of attention is, might be the first step.

16 05 2011
socialjerk

http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/

This site has some good suggestions for everyone!

16 05 2011
socialoverworker

I hate being harassed in the street. Guys tend to do it from cars here, so you don’t even have a chance at a quick retort.

The other morning I got “sexy!!” shouted at me, on the way to work. Seriously?? And car honks, that’s another.

Do they think they’ll get a free blowjob for every 100th honk or something?

16 05 2011
socialjerk

Shouting from cars is bizarre. I remember first getting that when I was about 13 or 14. (Especially gross, because I was clearly that young.) Do those guys expect you to chase after them and catch them at a red light? “Wait! I must have you immediately! Slow down, I’ll jump on the hood and hang on!”

I’m a little disappointed to hear that English guys are not classier.

16 05 2011
Esther

I got whistled at TWICE last Thursday at work. And I work at an apartment complex for the chronically homeless. So whoever whistled at me (twice) knows exactly who I am and could actually have been one of my clients. I don’t know who the whistler(s) were because they were inside the building and I was outside, and couldn’t see into their windows. I think it was two separate people because it happened on two opposite sides of the building (different apartments). I told a male co-worker. His response was “Well that’s a confidence builder.” Really?! No. Not a “confidence booster”. It’s creepy and gross. I wouldn’t want one of the residents to think of me that way. I’m sure some of them do. But the thought is just discusting to me.

16 05 2011
socialjerk

I’ve gotten into so many arguments with men who say things like that. They encourage me to take it as a compliment, saying they’d love to hear that from women. I think it’s hard for them to understand that, in addition to this kind of behavior being degrading and embarrassing, it can be physically threatening.

And the idea that you should be flattered to get whistled at by someone who is possibly a client? That’s just gross.

17 05 2011
Nectarine

You could always hollaback –> http://nyc.ihollaback.org/

17 05 2011
socialjerk

Thanks! I actually just downloaded the app for my Droid yesterday. I am anxiously awaiting its first use…

18 05 2011
Carlos

Must be annoying being harassed like that. >.< I guess ignorance can work. If not, break out them tasers and pepper sprays.\! 😄 (Also, I have a bit of a fear commenting this entry in particular, so be gentle. X] )

18 05 2011
socialjerk

Mace is something I seriously keep meaning to get. My only fear is that I am uncoordinated enough that I would accidentally spray myself in the face

And never fear! Intelligent male allies are always welcome. It’s always nice when a guy can understand somewhat and set a good example, or tell another guy not to act like an idiot 🙂

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