Thinking Aloud: About Street Harassment

If you haven’t been under a rock this week, you’ve probably seen the video of the young woman walking in New York City. They recorded 10 hours of her walking, and edited it down to showcase men speaking at her.

I will say upfront that I do find the video problematic because the majority of men trying to engage with the women are black or Latino. Many people are glomming onto that fact.

I’ll tell you right now: White men do it too.

As a young woman, I lived on the South Side of Pittsburgh. As a young woman, I was regularly harassed on the the street: yells from cars, greetings from men I didn’t know, cat-called, followed, etc. etc. The majority of these men were white. Some were saying, “Hello! How are you?” Some were commenting on my assets (usually my legs). I can’t remember it being welcome. Even on the days when I was feeling attractive and flirty and had on a cute skirt. Random comments from men I didn’t know were not validating.

I’ve seen a lot of men on Twitter, on Facebook, in the comment of articles talking about this video protesting. “Saying ‘hello’ is harassment?” “My mother taught me to be polite.” “Asking someone how they are doing is wrong?”

If a person walking along greets every person he passes, or who passes him, I would say that’s not necessarily harassment. As long as one is greeting every Tom, Dick, and Harriet that he sees — fine. He’s just trying to be a nice guy.

But if I have walked 10 blocks, and twice on every block — or even once on each block — have heard some man I don’t know trying to engage with me, whether it was “hi” or “Smile!” or “What are you doing later, baby?” By the time I get to an innocent “how are you today?” I’m annoyed and feeling harassed.

Here’s the line: Is it about her or is it about the speaker? When a woman is walking along, lost in thought, by herself, why does someone feel the need to speak to her? Because it’s not about her. It’s about the speaker. He wants her attention, even for an instant. He wants to snap her out of her self-introspection for a second of feedback from her. Not necessarily harassment, but definitely irritating.

I can’t believe that street harassment works as a method to meet women or get a date. If that is the defense of the strategy — I’m not buying it. Has that ever happened? Does saying, “hey, baby,” to random women on the street score the caller a phone number? A hook up?

It is also about what happens after the attempted engagement. Does the speaker call after her again? “Hey, I said hi!” “Don’t you want to look pretty?” “Bitch!” That clearly crosses the line into harassment.

Does he follow her for any amount of time? That’s full-blown creep. (Did you see the alarm on that woman’s face when that man walked beside her for five minutes? I was scared for her.)

Here’s the thing. If you don’t think the way you engage with women in public spaces is a problem, please check yourself. Do you engage with everyone the same way? Why are you going to engage with someone you don’t know? Is it about you, and seeking validation?

Because if it is, you’re part of the problem.

If you have no expectations from the encounter, it may be okay, and the problem may be with the woman, who has probably been spoken to several times already. Just keep that in mind, too, next time you want to say hi to a pretty stranger. You’re probably not the first.

ETA: Think about the woman being your wife or daughter or sister. Is it still okay with you?


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