I'm swamped at work-- again. So I had to tinkle around in my personal archives for a post today (there are a good 50 or so unedited posts on my laptop.) Here's one I meant to post after I wrote about sexual harassment on the street.
I hate to revisit a topic so soon, but I want to re-address this one. It pained me that the guys didn’t get it. I’m rambling, a bit but I hope it makes sense by the end.
So I had to really sit down and thing about why the guy yelling out the backseat of someone’s truck about my earmuffs pissed me off so bad (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, search the archives). It wasn’t lewd. He wasn’t threatening. I just didn’t feel like being bothered and he bothered me, but that’s not the end of the world. He did holler out his car at me like I was a streetwalker. That’s fair reason to be pissed. But more than anything, it’s because I was used. I may as well have been the freshly bootlegged Erykah Badu album (comes out tomorrow: COP THAT!). I was a random object upon which he can showcase his bravado for his boys and picked solely because I was a female within earshot.
I was upset because hollering really is harassment. There’s little that I can do about it and there’s an underlying threat of violence to it. The latter is the bigger issue.
*When I was 16 at a friend’s house party, a guy hollered, asking me to dance from across the room. I turned him down nicely with a smile, a no, and a small shake of my head. Told him I’d been on my feet all night, tried to let him down easy. He spit on me.
*I was walking down the street in Madrid toward three guys taking up the whole sidewalk. They passed and one of them grabbed my ass hard and squeezed it. I turn around and yelled “fuck you” at them. They laughed and one of them called me a punta. (This incident ruined my whole trip in that city. I stil hate Madrid.)
*I was walking down South Street in Philly one summer (18? 19?) and I was crossing the street. There were a group of guys crossing toward me. One of them yelled something at me. I gave him the obligatory clothed mouth smile so he would shut up. When we crossed paths in the middle of the street, the guys surrounded me and felt me up—ass, breasts, face, crotch—like it was an assembly line. I ended up standing on a street corner crying hysterically in my friend’s arms while everyone looked at me like I was crazy.
My stories are unique in specifics but the type are too familiar to too many women. I’m sure the ladies reading could offer up three or more grossly disturbing incidents of their own. It’s just a fact that women’s lives are filled with violence, or at least the unspoken threat of violence. It’s the reason we don’t walk through a park at night or take the subway home after a certain hour, or take the long way to our destination instead of the straight line because we don’t want to walk down the dimly lit street or through a path that includes a group of men. It’s the reason we “hold it” in certain malls, because the public bathroom is too far off the beaten path and we don’t want to be too far away from the masses in case we need someone to hear us scream. On the rare late-night train ride home, it’s the reason we scan the cars to make sure we’re not the only woman in one. It’s the reason we might give up a fake smile or a polite no when a stranger tries to get at us. Maybe if we just say hi, he’ll go the fuck away.
There’s nothing offensive about “hello” or “how are you?” or striking up a polite conversation. Nothing wrong with a genuine compliment said in a polite—not leering, sexually suggestive --way. Women who hate the holler are not saying “don’t ever speak to me.” (Although, if you do approach a woman politely and she rudely shuts you down, can you really be mad? You just interrupted the woman’s personal space when she wasn’t asking to be bothered.)
Someone asked if how I would feel if I never got hollered at again, and when I said I’d be over-fucking-joyed, he (I know it was a he) said he didn’t believe me. (My first thought: Then why ask?) But yes, I could die the happiest most recently alive woman on the planet if another man never hollered. I like it when a polite man pays me a compliment—an attractive or unattractive one. I like polite people, period. And though I have every right to shut down any stranger who speaks to me, I make a point of refusing politelyto any man who has shown the same courtesy.
But so we are clear, there is nothing likable about a man hollering out a window or down the block, no matter what he says or how fine he is. There is nothing likable about some man yelling “sexy” when I walk down the street, letting everyone in ear shot know that he’d like to fuck me. Nope, not at all. There is nothing likeable about a man making kissing noises as I walk by or making that gotdamned psst psst sound. (Those are the sounds you make to get an animal’s attention. Not a woman’s.) There is nothing likable about a STRANGER demanding me to smile or do anything else solely for his amusement. I am not a baby or a puppy. There is nothing likeable about strangers pulling up to me in their cars as I wait at the bus stop and offering me a ride. If I wanted a ride, I’d have called a cab. No way buddy, you’re not Ted Bundy-ing me.
I went though great pains to make my block a Holler-free zone for me. When I first moved here, there was a guy who used to holler after me every single day on my way home from work. I ignored him. That didn’t work. I smiled. That was encouragement. Fuck!
I’d gotten off the train one day in a particularly good mood and by the time I’d walked the length of the block to the corner, I was sour. I realized I was dreading passing this guy. I was tired of being harassed.
I turned the corner and he starts up again, yelling, “hey baby, you looking good, blah, blah.” I stopped. I turned. I walked up to his ice-y stand (yes, I am getting harassed by the dude who works the ice-y stand) and introduced myself.
“My name is [Belle]. If you’d like to say hello to me, that’s just fine. I respond best to a simple hi. There’s no need to yell after me every day.”
He looked at me like I’d told him to fuck his own grandmother. After he recovered his speech, he said “What you want to fight me?” And then he flexed on me.
Not the response I was expecting, though I don’t know what I was. I stood my ground anyway. “No, I want you to stop harassing me. Just say hi, if you want to speak to me. That’s all I’m asking. ”
I took that as his caveman understanding of my request and walked to my apartment building 5 doors down.
I came home the next day, expecting the worst. And I got… nothing. Dude, didn’t speak to me for months and neither did any of his friends. I mean no one on that whole side of the block spoke. I could walk by a group of drinking and smoking men on a Saturday night in unusually-warm-for-the- season weather and they’d get quiet, but no one would say anything. I guess ol’ boy told them I was crazy. I dunno. But I was damned happy.
The following April, I came home from work one unseasonably warm night and the guys were outside again. I was all prepared to do the silent walk-by when it sounded like one of them spoke.
I pulled my headphone out of my right ear and looked at him quizzically. “Huh?”
“I said ‘have a good evening, Sis.’”
I smiled. “You too.“
Admittedly, it was a nice moment. Just neighbors speaking to neighbors. Made me feel all southern again.
That weekend, I went out, saw the harasser standing on the corner alone. He was setting up the ice-y stand (yes, in April.) He looked at me. I looked at him.
“Hello,” he said.
I smiled. “Hi, how are you?”
That was two and a half years ago. We’ve spoken cheerfully whenever we encounter each other every day since. He’s progressed to saying “Hey, baby, how you?” when I pass and because we’ve become familiar, I’m fine with that. And with the rare exception of the time I was waiting at the bus stop across the street and some man pulled up and kept trying to convince me to get his car, I haven’t really been hollered at, especially in my neighborhood--until that unfateful morning.
Does it make sense why I was pissed now?