The now-infamous video of a young White woman walking the streets of New York City is a bad place to start trying to understand street harassment (for reasons that are mentioned here, and others.) It is my sincere hope that this is a better one.
Picture it: Chicago, 1992. My mother at I are walking into the Jewel-Osco on 35th and Lake Shore Drive when we are approached by a group of teenage boys, who address her in a way I’d never heard before, but that I haven’t forgotten in the nearly 25 years since:
“I like your shirt!”
“I like your shorts.”
“I Iike your bootay!”
Wide-eyed, I looked at my mother expecting…something. I’d never heard anyone be rude to her before—surely she would set them straight. How could they get away with speaking to an adult, a woman, my mommy this way?
She shrank. I’d never seen her do that before, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times that I’ve seen her do that since.
So began my introduction to the pain of street harassment, the toxic byproduct of a global patriarchy; a set of behaviors that are condoned, if not affirmed, by the widely-held belief that women’s bodies belong to the public and that leaving one’s home means that you are available, accessible and ripe for the picking.
Street harassment is primarily committed by men, most of them straight. The victims are usually women and LGBT persons. It is a curious brand of sexual harassment that can be as ‘innocent’ as aggressively demanding that a woman engages in a conversation, but also often includes overtly sexual comments guised as flirting, throwing insults when advances have been rebuffed (“Fuck you, bitch! You wasn’t cute no way!) or, more terrifyingly, following a victim or assaulting her physically.
It is maddening to explain over and over again how street harassment hurts its victims. It is devastating for men who look like me to make my sisters and my LGBT fam feel as safe in our communities as the police make them feel. In fact, the defenses of street harassment that I have encountered often remind me of the same arguments made by those who would defend the likes of Officer Darren Wilson:
“Why were you wearing a short skirt?”
“Why were you wearing a hoodie?”
“Men are going to react to good-looking women, you have to accept that.”
“Police are going to react to the sight of dangerous looking Black men, you have to accept that.”
“You look like you want to be approached.”
“You look like a suspect.”
I invoke the name of Officer Wilson not to use Michael Brown’s killing as a rhetorical device, but to beg—yet again—for the men of our community to acknowledge our pain and act accordingly.
But what about the nice guys who want to tell you ‘Hi,’ or ‘Good morning, beautiful?’ How can you women complain about being single if you can’t even meet me on the street?
Many of us have no problem responding to a polite greeting, but it is worth acknowledging that sometimes, that leads to the expectation that you are available for more: a conversation, sitting together on the bus, giving him your phone number. If this is not the case, one may opt to quickly nod or say nothing at all to avoid an uncomfortable situation—and because even men who have entered an encounter with a simple ‘Hello’ have escalated to name-calling and worse.
For the men who challenge this, I ask which is more important: protecting a man’s ego, or a woman’s safety? The street just isn’t the best place to approach people, but if you are going to try, the least you can do is engage politely, be prepared to be ignored and don’t take it personally if you are.
If it was Idris Elba or Denzel Washington out there saying ‘Yo, baby, yo,’ I bet you’d be okay with it. But if you don’t like the man, you got a problem with it. You all are hypocrites.
Perhaps Halle Berry or Nia Long could get your to change your stance on dating women in their 40s, or who have kids, or who have gold teeth or bad credit or any number of things. Or not. Might a “Good morning, beautiful” from a man you are attracted to go further than one from a man you don’t fancy? Sure, but rude, overtly sexual commentary from even a “fine” man on the street is likely to end with a pissed-off woman. Just this summer, I spotted a really handsome brother near my house—and lost all interest just as soon as, “Damn ma, you got some sexy-ass lips” tumbled out his mouth.
Also, Idris and Denzel probably aren’t going to move the needle for a lesbian, so this line of “logic” is not worth revisiting. Let it go.
Why is it so hard to just be friendly? You should be grateful that someone wants to talk to you anyway!
Aside from assuming that a woman on the street must be straight, single and available to date you, this reasoning also dismisses the many reasons a woman may want to be left alone aside from her need to simply stay safe: she’s tired, she’s sick, she has something on her mind, she was just diagnosed with a devastating illness, she just lost her job, she’s trying to remember what that one line Nas said on “Halftime” was, she’s writing a screenplay in her head.
I’ve heard some of the same brothers who will assert the need for Black men to be the sole leaders of our community make a case for cat-calling. It’s kind of amazing to see how men who envision themselves as some sort of warrior-kings don’t have the fortitude to suffer the grave indignity of being ignored by a woman on the street—might need to toughen up just a bit before fighting in the revolution, I’m just sayin.’
If we cannot call upon you to check each other on how you address women, the least you can do, the absolute very least, would be to refrain from catcalling and to find other ways to meet women aside from demanding that they engage you in conversation on the street. You must understand that you may be a “nice guy,” but that the experiences she has likely had with street harassment by the age of 14 may make her uncomfortable with the idea of being approached this way and that you can’t demand your way past that boundary.
If you still find room to argue you here, it is rather obvious that your concern is not with women, but with yourself. And you probably aren’t a nice guy.
A few years ago, I was heading to the train to make my way to DC for a friend's funeral, literally carrying a black dress in a dry-cleaners bag. A man on my block said “You too pretty not to smile.” I ignored him, but he kept going and going until I turned around and said, “I’m not fucking smiling because I’m on my way to a fucking funeral!” He replied: “Bitch, I don’t give a fuck about where you’re going.”
But I already knew that.
Here are some additional resources:
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY.com's Senior Editor and an 18-year-veteran of constant street harassment.