Street harassment is not “friendly conversation”

Note: Street harassment can be perpetuated by men or women and can happen for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m specifically referring to gender-based street harassment by men and against women. In no way am I saying that other types of street harassment don’t exist.

15 – I was sitting in the back of the bus with my cousin and her friends when a guy put his hand on my thigh and said, “Anyone ever tell you, you have nice legs?”

17 – I was waiting at the train station for my boyfriend when a man came up to me and said, “I bet some people think you’re fat, but you’re perfect for a black man.”

21 – I was speeding through the station trying to get to my train when a guy who passed me turned around and yelled, “Hey shorty can I get your number?” After I said no, he continued to follow me and talk to me until I got to my train.

27 – I was squatting in front of a shelf at work straightening the products when some guy waiting in the pharmacy said, “Damn girl, you’re flexible.”

31 – I was speed walking down the street when a man said to me, “I like fat girls. They’re great in bed.”

33 – I was waiting for a bus when a guy came up and asked if I had a boyfriend. When I said yes, he proceeded to talk to me, ask me for my phone number, and then asked me if I wanted to move in with him.

34 – I was standing at a bus stop reading a book when a man started talking to me and asked if I had a boyfriend. When I told him that I did, he asked if he could give me his number “just in case.” When I said no, he said, “Okay shorty,” and grabbed my hand and tried to kiss it.

Street harassmentThis is, by no means, an exhaustive list . . . just some of the more memorable examples. Each one of these encounters made me uncomfortable. Some were outright terrifying . . . when my personal space was deeply invaded, when I’ve been pinned against the back of a bus, when I’ve been touched and grabbed.

These are not compliments. This is not “friendly conversation.” This is harassment. And it’s not uncommon.

It’s this kind of street harassment that inspired Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s art project Stop Telling Women to Smile, and it’s that art project, or rather, some of the responses to that art project that inspired this blog post.

There seems to be an overwhelming number of people who think “women are being oversensitive” or “women don’t know how to take a compliment” . . . people who think that this campaign demonizes men for just trying to talk to women . . . people who don’t understand the difference between friendly conversation and harassment . . . and people who just don’t realize and can’t seem to understand how frequently these things happen. So, I’m going to try to break this down as simply as I can.

No one is claiming that all men act like this. No one is even claiming that most men act like this. A woman might pass by hundreds of different men while walking through the city or traveling on public transportation, and the vast majority of them will mostly likely never say a word to her. They won’t invade her personal space. They won’t try to touch her. This campaign and anyone speaking out against street harassment are not targeting any of those men.

However, while most men will not behave this way, most women (particularly those who live in an urban environment) have experienced this behavior from men . . . on multiple occasions, some damn near every time they go out. At best, it’s uncomfortable and annoying. At worst? It becomes violent.

Hollaback! is another excellent campaign working to end street harassment.

Hollaback! is another excellent campaign working to end street harassment.

Speaking out against and trying to education people about street harassment is not being oversensitive. Telling a complete stranger she has a nice ass, must be good in bed, has great tits, etc. is not complimentary or flattering. It’s creepy. Telling a complete stranger to “smile sweetheart. It can’t be that bad” isn’t sweet. It’s condescending.

Here are some things for men to think about before approaching a woman they don’t know –

–Is she busy? Is she walking somewhere, on the phone, reading a book, or talking to someone else? If so, leave her alone.

–What is your motivation? Are you actually interested in having a conversation or do you just want to get her in bed? If it’s the latter, leave her alone.

–Would you say this to another man? If not, leave her alone.

–Does she seem engaged in this conversation or does it look like she’s trying to get out of it (looking at her phone, nodding and giving one-word answers, stepping away)? If she’s doing the latter, leave her alone.

–Is she physically moving away from you? If so, leave her alone.

One of the posters in Ms. Fazlalizadeh’s campaign states “Women do not owe you their time or conversation.” This is the most important and the most all-encompassing statement for me. To act as if a woman must engage in a conversation with any man who speaks to her or that she should thank him for “compliments” that most likely made her uncomfortable is dehumanizing and arrogant.

Or if all of that is still too difficult to grasp, try remembering this – women deserve to be treated as human beings and “are not outside for your entertainment.”


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