One of the highlights of my day is my walk from my apartment to JMU’s beautiful campus for class. I listen to music, soak in springtime, and enter a state tranquility. That is, until the inevitable wail of a horn, often coupled with a charming catcall from a passing truck, breaks my placidity.
“Hey baby! I like the way your tits bounce!”
…and of course, the ever articulate and impressive…
Have you ever had someone scream at you that they “like the way your tits bounce” from a car window? Because I have. And if you can believe it, it’s not nearly as charming as it seems.
If you’re a woman and you’ve dared to walk down the street or go out to a bar in anything short of a parka and giant opaque plastic bubble, chances are that you, like me, have had to face your share of street harassment. I remember the first time I was harassed in public at the ripe old age of 13. My friend and I were walking to the nearby grocery store, and had to pass a construction site to get there. I remember the guys yelling stuff at us as we passed, letting us know the explicit shit they’d like to do to us if given the opportunity. All I could think to say was “I’M THIRTEEN!” and run by as quickly as possible. I didn’t know it at the time, but that instance was the beginning of a lifelong cacophony of honking horns, explicit comments, and the ever popular “wooo”.
But why shouldn’t this behavior be considered flattering? After all, what woman wouldn’t want to be told by a horny, middle-aged man that her tits bounce in a pleasing way? The thing of it is, street harassment, cat calling, crude jokes and gestures at bars or in other public places happen all of the time. So much so that it’s more surprising to make it home without someone yelling or honking at me than it is to get yelled or honked at. To illustrate this, I started keep track of the harassment I encountered. For the last two weeks, I’ve been writing down instances of street harassment, logging the day, where I was, and what occurred. Here, dear readers, is the resulting account:
- Date: Monday, April 4, 2011 Location: Rt. 259, Timberville, VA
- While making a left turn, a truck in the lane I was passing honked at “wooed” at me.
- Date: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 Location: South Main St.
- Some guy cranked his head to stare at me as he drove by, yelling “HEY BABY” out of the window.
- Date: Thursday, April 7, 2011 Location: South Main St.
- Obnoxious, continual honking from a passing car.
- Date: Saturday, April 9, 2011 Location: 7-11
- In line to check out, I noticed a cop (yes, a cop) eying me up and down from his place in front of me in line. I tried to ignore him in hopes he would stop, but when he didn’t I stared back at him. When our eyes met, he sheepishly said “hi” and turned his attention to the cashier.
- Date: Sunday, April 10, 2011 Location: Klein’s Ice Cream Shop
- While eating ice cream with a friend, a truck of boys stopped in front of us, oogling and yelling “Hey ladies” before driving off.
- Date: Monday, April 11, 2011 Location: Rt. 259, Broadway, VA
- At a stoplight, a truck with two guys pulled up beside me. The driver looked at me and nudged his friend, who then began to stare at me from the passengers seat. When the light turned green, the driver blew a kiss at me as I drove away.
- Date: Saturday, April 16, 2011 Location: The Blue Nile
- Watching a friend’s band play, a crowd of people were passing behind me. I noticed one guy in the crowd stop behind me, lift his hand, and air slap my ass (you read that right), under the impression that I couldn’t see what he was doing.
Considering that I drove to campus most of the week because of terrible weather, I feel like this list is pretty extensive. But this is just my experience; every woman has her own story to share with instances of street harassment, and some men do, too. Experiencing harassment on almost a day-to-day basis isn’t simply annoying: it’s a reminder that your clothes, your face, your body, you are constantly on display, and up for critique by any slack-jawed gawker who can force a loud enough utterance out of his mouth. As our own aliasmitch pointed out in his post Slut Shaming and Street Harassment, street harassment is “fundamentally built upon the idea that women’s bodies are public property”, and may therefore be commented upon, looked at, or touched (or, of course, air-slapped). On an individual level, these actions are disrespectful and dehumanizing, but they also serve a much bigger purpose: keeping women out of public places.
When I walk down the street, I walk with the anticipation of someone yelling something at me. And how many women will avoid going somewhere, especially alone, because they know there could be the possibility of harassment from a particular person or a group of people? How many of us will cross the street early or find an alternative route just to avoid comments from construction workers or frat boys? Harassment acts as a means of keeping women out of public spaces by exerting dominance over them. And while it’s true that some harassers are oblivious, and think that a creepy wave and a steady eye-fuck should be taken as a compliment, some harassers do in fact have more malicious motives behind their actions.
With any kind of verbal harassment comes the fear of escalation to physical assault. According to Marty Langelan, an expert on harassment and harassment intervention, certain predatory harassers use “unwelcome verbal or physical intrusions to test potential victims’ reactions and select vulnerable targets for attack” (Langelan & Associates, 2011), a technique that has become known as rape testing. As brazen as my lady friends and I can be, the fact remains that we’re not physically strong enough to ward off an attack. So we, like most women, are taught to pretend that harassment isn’t happening in order to avoid physical confrontation. Or we’re taught to fight back by screaming at the offender like a character from The Real Housewives of New Jersey, vomiting out a slew a curse words and thrusting middle fingers into the air. However, studies have shown neither of these tactics to be particularly effective in putting a stop to harassment.
So what is a woman to do? We seem caught within a binary of being either the passive, accepting victim or the ranting, raving we-don’t-have-to-listen-to-her-she’s-so-crazy bitch. Don’t despair, reader, because there’s good news: there are ways of intervening in instances of harassment that allow you to get your point across without escalating the situation or exhibiting a learned helplessness response. A few weeks ago, JMU hosted a street harassment intervention workshop guided by none other than Marty Langelan herself. In it, Langelan presented her “tool-kit” of smart, tested, reliable intervention skills meant to diffuse the situation and act as nonviolent confrontation. Here are some of her most effective:
- The All-Purpose Statement: When someone feels the need to comment on your appearance, simply look them in the eye and in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, say “stop harassing women. I don’t like it- no one likes it. Show some respect.” This simple statement is surprisingly effective- most harassers will back off, some will even- dare I say it- apologize! If he gets defensive, simply repeat yourself. He wouldn’t be defensive if he didn’t think what he said was stupid in the first place.
- The A-B-C Technique: “When you do A (the behavior you don’t want), the effect is B (how you feel), and I want C (the specific replacement behavior) from now on.” Be calm and concrete- it’s very difficult to ignore shitty behavior when it’s blatantly called out.
- The Socratic Question: Face your harasser, and ask him why he just did a specific behavior. For example: “That’s so interesting- why did you just blow a kiss at me from your window?” The dumber the action, the more difficult it is to explain. If he gets defensive, stick to your question and watch him flounder for an answer. Or end it on your terms by calmly saying, “There’s no excuse for that. No one likes it.”
- The Spotlight: This one is my personal favorite. When someone says something stupid to you, ask them to repeat themselves. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that, please?” Statements like “I like the way your tits bounce” usually sound dumber the second time around, and forcing someone to take accountability for what they said or did often results in embarrassment. I actually got to use this method just the other night. After catching the aforementioned young gentleman fake smack my ass, I stared at him, raised an eyebrow and asked him if he’d like to repeat what he did for the rest of the audience. He stepped back, started stammering, and made his exit faster than you can say “douchebag”.
These methods aren’t just for women either; men can take an active role in preventing and stopping harassment simply by speaking up when they see it. In aliasmitch’s article on Street Harassment, he notes that as his friends (myself included) were getting harassed in a very public place, not a single person stepped forward and told the guys responsible to knock it off. And for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t participate in the harassment of women. If you do happen to be a harasser, allow me to say, on behalf of harassed women everywhere: Knock. That. Shit. Off. Our bodies are not yours to comment on, and we have just as much of a right to walk down the street without feeling anxious and afraid as you do. Together, we can make the streets safe for everyone, but it takes a collective effort.