We have to continually discuss street harassment because it is an issue that plagues the lives of women all over the world, still, in 2013. It affects women because it invades them, it imposes a sexual tone where there is no consent, and it inhibits women’s ability to move freely in the world. As we commemorate International Street Harassment Week , we understand that the real work to combat this issue must be done in the streets, in public spaces, in every area where women are made to feel unsafe. More than feeling unsafe though, women also feel devalued, dehumanized, and vulnerable to physical attack as they walk, daily, through their lives.
As Black girls, we begin dealing with catcalling, and sexually suggestive comments at an insanely and predatorily early age. I remember being eleven, in the beginnings of blooming, and consistently having men my father’s age discuss how juicy my a** was getting, how my breasts were rising, and how I was ripening. It wouldn’t be long before those same men, and eventually boys, began to introduce vocalizations of what their d**ks could do for and to me. We begin to normalize these behaviors early, these interactions. We learn to cover our bodies, and adjust our routes home; we practice the dance of bowing our heads and finding balance between smiling and frowning as not to offend or upset the grown man being so aggressive and explicit towards such tender, little girls. But none of those things are ever really effective, are they? Just a while ago, a man followed me through a department store after he saw me in the lingerie section looking at underwear. He kept offering to help me pick out sexy panties, and how good I’d look in them, among other things. I was with my daughter. I threatened him, got security to escort him out of the store, and cried myself to sleep that night. I was horrified and disheartened that my daughter had to observe such an ugly, offensive and threatening interaction. I chose to take action instead of ignoring the offender, hoping to set an example for my daughter of how to stand up to being sexually harassed by strange ass men in public spaces. She’ll need to see plenty of resistance, as she too is a Black girl who is growing up in a world that is becoming unreasonably violent towards women.
Speaking on the work of resistance, I am particularly inspired by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s street art project called “Stop Telling Women To Smile” where she combines posters of images, t-shirts and other paraphernalia that include prints of women and phrases like “Stop telling women to smile” and “My name is not baby, shorty, sexy, sweetie, honey, sweetheart, ma.” Fazlalizadeh’s hope was to inspire dialogue on the issue by curating those images in the very public spaces where such harassment occurs.
Encouraging conversations between men and women about street harassment and how it affects women physically, mentally and emotionally, is difficult. Understanding the differences between casual flirtation, compliments and harassment seems inconceivable to many. Anthonine Pierre of Brooklyn Movement offers, what I believe is a concise and spot-on explanation of how men should and shouldn’t approach women publicly. She asserts:
“The problem is, when a man tells a woman to smile or “compliments” her “fat ass” or asks her if she likes it doggy style, she doesn’t know if he’s going to turn into the dude that threatens to rape her. Or follows her home and rings her doorbell at odd hours. Or takes off his shirt and chases her through the street. How do we women, walking at 10pm through a poorly lit and empty park, know that Smile Guy isn’t one bad interaction away from becoming Sexual Violator Guy?
…Most of us are not against street harassment just because we’re annoyed. We’re against it because we’ve been followed, we’ve been raped, we’ve been killed. We’ve met Sexual Violator Guy, and that mother**ker almost always starts out as Smile Guy. Hey Sexy Guy. I Love Your Juicy Lips Guy.”
It really is that simple. When we normalize the idea that women have no sacred spaces, not even in their own skin, we promote interactions that could potentially (and quickly) turn towards violence. What would make streets safer for us would be for men to not only recognize when they are harassing women and stop, but also call out other men who harass women too. Those awkward conversations could save a life, or a little girls innocence and we should all play our parts.
Josie Pickens is an educator and cultural critic. Follow her musings on Twitter: @jonubian.