Last week, I was contacted on Twitter by a man who recently stumbled across an article I’d once written about street harassment, the bane of existence for every black woman walking, well, the street. My piece mused on the best way to engage the sorts of men who yell at women to “smile,” tell them how “sexy” they are (all while eye-humping them), or yell out of cars to tell women just how much they would enjoy a romp. Classy, right?
The man in question wanted me to know this: “you should be thankful (ESP. black women) that n****s is [sic] giving you the time of day. Stop taking street harassment for granted.”
Usually, I would ignore a comment like this, but the man’s inarticulate perspective is one I’ve heard before — actually anytime I’ve read the male comments on a post on street harassment. Many men, I’m afraid, just don’t get how awful, demeaning, violating (and common) this practice is no matter how often and long women complain about it. Some say that women are blowing it out of proportion, that men hollering in the street isn’t harassing, but flattering.
Street harassment: It’s not flattering
“How can women complain that they are single and there are no men, when they ignore the men that show interest?” they ask. “Isn’t that like shooting yourself in the foot?”
There’s a disconnect. So instead of getting frustrated or angry, let me attempt to build a bridge so that there’s more understanding.
The average, socially-adjusted woman is not offended by a man who says “Excuse me, miss,” or approaches her to say “Good morning,” “You look nice today,” or some such. That’s not harassment, that’s a compliment. And if it’s been a light day for street harassment, most straight women will welcome a kind word from a stranger.
However, if it’s been a heavy street harassment day, she’s probably not trying to hear it. By “heavy,” I mean any sunny day, especially if it’s a warm one and she’s not covered in a burka (and I’m sure a Muslim woman on U.S. soil has a story about being harassed in a burka). And by the time you — because of course you are a nice man, because in the history of reading and writing about street harassment, I’ve never seen a male commenter confess to it despite the overwhelming presence of men who actually do it — encounter her, she’s been through hell.
How threatening harassment feels
This is an average version of hell: you leave your house to walk to the car/ train and you’re minding your own business and a random strange man demands that you “Smile!” for him. You don’t know him, he doesn’t know your life or what’s on your mind, but he feels entirely comfortable telling you what to do with your own self.
Before you get to the car, you encounter another group of men, all of whom try to holler at once, and one may even invade your personal space, as he tells you how sexy you are. You keep walking — because who stops to talk to a group of strange men just hanging out? The guy, or all of them, get offended because you weren’t interested in his advances. You promptly get called an “ugly b***h,” a “dumb b***h,” or some other more creative adjective, which always precedes an epithet related to your gender. On a really bad day with a really rowdy guy, you can get spit at or on (happened to me), a guy will grab your arm or behind (both happened to me, and more than once), or you get hit (hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard testimonies).
Maybe you — the man reading– are wondering a blame-the-victim type of question, like, “Well, then why couldn’t she just be polite and speak so that doesn’t happen?”
Ok. Say the woman is polite, says “hi” with a small smile, thinking that if she’s polite, and keeps it moving, she’ll be spared the pejorative being hurled at her that morning. That’s tricky, too, because now she’s given a guy an “in” by showing some interest. Maybe he’ll go back to chatting with his friends (best case scenario), but maybe he’ll leave off and keep pace with her to spit his game — that she doesn’t want to hear — while she walks to wherever she’s going.
Why women are not “thankful”
God willing, a guy doesn’t drive by and yell out his window at her, or park and yell out of the window for her to come over later on that day.
Still think it’s not so bad? Imagine a man, or many of them at once, who are bigger than you doing this to you on a daily basis, multiple times a day and every time you leave your house.
Some women change their route to avoid it. Some women put on headphones and turn the music all the way up so they can pretend it’s not happening, because they don’t hear it. Some women just stay inside so they don’t have to deal.
Navigating this terrain is something women in places with moderate to heavy foot traffic deal with every time they leave the house.
Would you be thankful for that?
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk.