Monday, April 12, 2010

Ladysquad Circle: how should one deal with street harassment?

Spring has sprung here in St. Louis, and along with the spunktastic blossoms of the Bradford pear, an even grosser set of local buds has bloomed: STREET HARASSERS!

Thus, I have decided to implement a New Post-Tag: LSC! Hopefully to be renamed, by someone else, to something even cleverer! In which, I envision, one of us brings up a problem, and we share wisdom and experiences and ideas, because that is the Ladysquad way. I mean, not unlike most posts? I dunno, please tell me if this is a dumb idea, but basically, I want all y'all's advice. With FEMINISM.

So: what SHOULD one do about street harassment? By which I mean, what should I do? I mean, I suspect the answer is, like, "Do what feels right and safe for you." But I haven't found that something yet, so I thought I would ask the wider world of ladies.

Three examples from my recent personal life (SHARING TIME!). These happened in the last weekend/week, in broad daylight, within a block or two of my apartment while I was walking alone.


I'm walking home from the Metro stop, having just come back from Passover weekend in New Jersey. It's hot out and I'm lurching asymmetrically with my heavy bag over one shoulder banging into my leg and wanting to switch sides but mostly just wanting to get home as fast as possible and I've been on trains and planes and buses for about 12 hours and ugh TIRED. Important: there is NO ONE else on the street. NO ONE. And then Street Harasser #1 comes along! Out of nowhere, dressed all in purple (what) and muttering to himself (what), so that it takes a minute for me to figure out that he's muttering about me. He comes right up to me, close enough so I can smell him, walking so close that he edges me off the sidewalk and suddenly I'm walking next to him on the grass. He sticks his hand out and tells me to shake his hand. I shake it.*

His speech is slurred and he's talking pretty crazily; this, in addition to the all-purple ensemble, cues me in to the fact that this is not, you know, a dude who I want to invite up for coffee. Samples of intelligible speech: "Yo, girl, legs like a [something]... [something something] that walk... you walking that way just for me... walk like a death wish..." Which at this point, I'm like: WHAT? Aaaaaah, my apartment suddenly seems so far away, wish I could walk closer, stupid heavy bag, aaaaaah. Then he invites me to join his gang! They wear all purple, they [something something], they smoke fat blunts, they don't start trouble they just [something] trouble. And he'll be around! His mom lives around here! To this, I'm sort of mildly active-listening--"Mmm. Mm. Mm." Which, I don't know, seemed somehow better than saying, "Mm-hm"?

At this point, I'm maybe a little scared and trying to think of a safety plan (Walk like a death wish?? What does that even mean?). Does the fact that this guy's almost definitely high and maybe mentally off mean that he's harmless, or dangerous? My apartment is close; he's still following me. What if he follows me inside? There's no way I can block him or slam the door fast enough if he tries to follow me into the building. I can't go to [male partner]'s apartment; he's still in New Jersey. I don't know anyone else in the building. Right when I've decided to just keep walking past my apartment (but I'm tired) until I see another human being who can maybe distract him or maybe do something if this guy does something (which I'm being silly, of course he's harmless, but ugggh)... but fortunately, the dude says something about his mom's house again and veers off the sidewalk, and I keep walking and I duck into the gated parking because someone's driving out the gate so he can't see what building I go into, and when I finally turn around he's gone.

In my apartment, I wash my hands like 80 times and post about it on Facebook. Um, consider yourself holla-back'd, SH#1.

*Post facto, this is the part that I feel stupid about. Justification: in the past, with more garden-variety semi-harasser dudes, if they see me and say, "Hey baby, how you doing," and I ignore them, they don't leave me alone. "Hey, what's wrong?" they say. "You're not gonna say hi?" And then it goes on until I smile or say hi or whatever. Still, afterwards, it felt gross, like I'd given him permission, encouraged him, "led him on" (I KNOW, RIGHT, I would NEVER say this to another lady! But that's the funny thing about self-blame). I resolved not to do it again!

#2: CONFRONT (ish).

I'm walking home alone from a barbecue. It is the loveliest spring day and I am having the loveliest time and I'm wearing the cutest little outfit including a cute little skirt and cute heeled sandals and today is the best! I'm on the phone with my mom as I pass a parking lot. On the other side of a chainlink fence, some older men are working on a car. As I pass, one looks up.

As I pass, I see movement and glance over. One of the men, SH#2, is giving me the uber-creepy sloooooow ogle, the kind where you can feel him inventorying you body-part by disembodied body-part, where you feel that you are tits and ass and thighs and calves (and nothing else). I hate the slow ogle! But who doesn't.

Of course, maybe I'm misinterpreting. Maybe I've been reading too many blogs! So I look at his face, and he makes eye contact, and he leers and nods: Yeah, I'm ogling you.

Oh, and here I was thinking I had the right to enjoy a nice day and the sun on my legs and the wind in my hair, as a person! When all along I was a thing to be looked at and consumed and put in my place. WHOOPS!

So--homgz!--I glare at him and keep walking. I don't think he even notices my glare, given that I'm wearing big sunglasses. But considering that this is the closest I've come to confronting a street-harasser, um... yay?


Walking home alone from same barbecue. Minutes later, still on phone, suddenly feeling like an idiot for wearing what is clearly the world's shortest sluttiest skirt. I'm waiting at a crosswalk for the light to turn so I can cross the street and get home and change. Enter SH#3, shuffling behind me. Sample patter: "Hey girl, nice legs, you wear that skirt just for me, come home with me, look at that ass," etc. I freeze, deer-in-headlights. Or, like, really pissed-off deer that wants to yell, "No, I didn't wear this skirt for you or for anyone else, and you suck! HERE, READ SOME BLOG POSTS ABOUT WHY." In headlights. When actually I am just thinking, Please, please, SH#3, keep walking, don't follow me, don't touch me, pleeeeease. I ignore him, and indeed he walks onward, and I don't look at him, and ten years later the light changes, and I cross the street.

Now, I could talk about why these incidents are symptomatic of broader patriarchy and men's entitlement and blah blah. But I feel like that's choir-preaching. So, in summary, street-harassment: it's annoying! And sometimes sad! And sometimes scary! And also, in the scheme of things, for me, on these occasions, not a big deal. But still, it's another of those daily symptoms of oppression that is annoying and gross. And I want a better way to respond.

My experience so far: ignoring sometimes just ramps up the harassment; responding feels horrible and surely encourages the behavior; so far, "confronting" does not feel safe unless the guy is literally behind a chainlink fence. I know there is a whole blog devoted to this stuff, but: "If you can't slap 'em, snap 'em"? Feels a bit advanced for me, at this point, since making a frowny-face is the extent of my feminist confrontation.

I guess what I'm idealistically looking for is a quick reaction that will 1) end the guy's behavior towards me, right now, and 2) discourage him from harassing other women in the future. To be deployed only in circumstances when I feel safe doing so, of course.

What have other women done? What have YOU done? Ideas?


  1. I have been practicing saying, "Fuck off!" or "Fuck you!" or "Shut the fuck up!" in my head, when I've been walking alone lately, which makes me really excited and hope that someone will give me shit. However: the last time I was seriously street harassed, by a coherent person who just wouldn't let me leave the conversation he started, I gave him my phone number, and then cut my evening in DC short, zig-zagging all the way back to my apartment, slut-shaming myself for wearing a (thick!) white dress, that has a few stripes one can kinda see through (it's a "Mexican wedding dress," if you're my mother) without a bra or panties (I had just ordered my vibrator, see, and felt really sexy. This is what happens when I feel sexy). It's really hard to not feel trapped, not feel like I have to apologize for not wanting to have a conversation. When it's just taunting from the sidelines, I ignore it, and that has been happening a lot on buses lately. New paragraph/comment on the way!

  2. The "Smile, baby," guy takes the form of "I don't need your change, just a smile," or "It's nice to see a smile!" in oly, which means it catches me off guard when I'm actually being requested to smile. I tried to adjust to oly's level of friendliness, after moving here, because not smiling, not saying hello, not engaging a little with the folks around me made me feel like I was being perceived as a snob. Figuring out when I want to be friendly, and when I want to draw a boundary and not interact, is helping me determine when I will Be a Bitch, should a SH call for it. I silently practice saying "Fuck off!" when I know I want to be alone, and I will let you know what happens when the time comes. I ignore sexual muttering and knife threats, though, so Gloria knows how I prioritize. Amanda Hess and WCP commenters have helped me feel more confident that I can speak up and remain safe, but I don't know if that confidence will show up when I need it. In the mean time: practice. (I also visualize elbowing the dude sitting next to me in the chest really fucking hard if it looks like he might put his hand on my knee. I think I'd do that, and yell "what the fuck" too.)

  3. Personally, I walk the streets with a death glare. Y'know how many runway models look like they're about to kill you? Like that. Lowered eyebrows, highly alert/I'm gonna kill you/I may be a little crazy eyes, closed expression. I think I hatched the beginnings of this look in high school, and then when I went to school in Actual Dangerous Places it just...whoomph. I don't know if it's important, but this is matched with a very quick stride if I'm alone and arms held fairly still at my side. Basically, I look like the opposite of friendly.

    I like what Z said regarding visualization and practice. I spend a lot of time, too, mentally preparing for things I may have to do. For that dude who railroaded you off the sidewalk (fuck I hate that), I would have done a 'Get AWAY from me' in a low, threatening tone; failing that, 'Get the fuck away from me,' failing that, evasion or confrontation depending on how events unfold. This is just me; Z's 'fuck off' probably gets to the point a liiiittle sooner. Things that I can pass by I ignore, although I wouldn't say no to flipping the bird.

  4. "When actually I am just thinking, Please, please, SH#3, keep walking, don't follow me, don't touch me, pleeeeease."

    If it helps, this is no longer how I think. I spend all my time thinking things like 'Get any closer to me and I will FUCKing kill you.' Of course, I wouldn't actually be killing, I'd probably just say some of the above comments, but Lady Gaga does it puff you up and give you murderous eyes. Y'know how yr cat/bird/dog can make itself look twice as large by rearranging itself? This is what you're doing. You are creating an image that is too scary to fuck with. Personally, I think about pumas. Pumas on the hunt, pumas on the kill. Wara will fuck you up if you try to take her off a kill.

    This one doesn't actually help you, but I often pretend I am walking a puma. Powerful. Don't fuck with me, I am a fucking lion tamer, here is my lion, she is with me.