Street Harassment: It’s Not a Compliment

It’s spring. As temperatures continue to rise, I’m impelled to think about the crude comments women are assailed by, as they walk down the street in the summer finery they waited all season to wear.

Street harassment is a daily occurrence experienced by women all over the world who navigate open, shared spaces with men. According to Stop Street Harassment, between 70-99% of women experience street harassment at some point in their lives while trying to simply walk down the street safely, by men who will say the most inappropriate things and make the most dictatorial demands of us, as we wind our way around their abuse. And often, the street harassment and gendered violence experienced by black women is especially troubling; given that black women face the highest instances of street harassment and sexual assault, and are often silenced or dissuaded from speaking out about it. Even worse, the infractions committed against black women often go unnoticed and unopposed because we, somehow, asked for it or brought  it on ourselves.

Women walk past a group of construction workers gathered on the street during their lunch break Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010, in New York. Although these men did not harass any of the passersby, a New York City Council committee heard testimony Thursday from women who said men regularly follow them, yell at them and make them feel unsafe and uncomfortable. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)

It’s not uncommon for me to scan either of my social networking timelines, and come across some Bitches Be Like… “Dear Black Women…”picture meme or missive by a  segment of men who love to flex their entitlement under the guise of ‘constructive advice’, when it really amounts to nothing more than backlash, taking women to ask over some perceived slight against their ‘manhood’. The primary issue seems to be the expectation that black women should speak when spoken to by strangers on the street, and smile on command lest we present ourselves as “bitter” or bearing a grudge against black men. The comments provided by the brigade of men who love to wax indignant about how ‘uppity’ black women supposedly are and voice their growing disdain for us, are generally par for the course. The internalized patriarchy displayed by other women who seem more than happy to throw their sistren under the bus for the favor of that male gaze, never ceases to disappoint, however. I won’t even bother dissecting the surge of ‘life coaches’ and relationship gurus, offering up advice to fledgling sociopaths, on the art of coercion and matters of the like, when a woman says ‘no’.

I’m tired of this culture of misogyny and patriarchy dictating that it’s somehow my job to placate some man’s ego, for fear of being berated, stalked, attacked, or looked upon unfavorably because I’m exercising my right to do whatever and emote however I see fit. As an adult woman in her mid-30s, I feel no sense of obligation to speak or smile on cue just because some stranger I’ve never met or interacted with, will feel slighted.  On any given day, a woman can be in the throes of some experience that has her distracted or under distress, or just not feeling particularly social.

Recently, I was watched (unbeknownst to me) and then stalked into a wine bar, where I was then  told by the perpetrator that he “had the right” to basically invade my space and rattle off a list of unsavory and crude things. Specifically, he vehemently said that he “deserved a woman like me” after I was vocal about my discomfort and asked him to leave me alone before being saved by the woman tending bar that day.

street-harrasment-yo-shortyListen, my humanity– if and when it’s acknowledged at all– has been relegated to a binder’s worth of fucks. Having to navigate a predominantly male political landscape that wants control of my reproductive rights and thinks rape is legitimate, with any resulting pregnancies considered a gift from G-d, is treacherous enough; when I’m prompted to lament a culture that champions the blueprint for date rape, or the prospect of having to walk on eggshells around a subset of men who’re more than willing to defend the right to be able to stomp the shit out of me , because I won’t say “hi” or smile, is too much.

When you tell me to smile or insist that women need to speak when spoken to,  as if this isn’t a democratic society, the short answer is NO, I won’t and don’t. Your response should be to move on without incident.

To besiege women with verbal or physical assault, or wade deep in your feelings via some hateful online manifesto, because of  a woman  has refused to comply with your demands or advances (benign or otherwise) is sick. If you’re a man whose treatment of a woman is contingent upon whether or not she smiles and bats her eyelashes at you… a stranger… on the street, and it has that much of an impact on your ego you, then it speaks volumes about you more than it does about whatever perceived, negative dispositional affect, men love to diagnose black women as having.  It’s not a matter of black women being incorrigible… it’s a matter of consent and recognizing a woman’s agency over her own person. Men shouldn’t have to be encouraged to stop harassing women on the street with pleas that they think of their mothers, sisters, nieces, girlfriend, or wives to humanize women, and as a way to underscore behavior that’s just wrong. Period. Regardless of personal relationships.

Here’s the official MEMO: I will speak if I feel like it and reserve the right to smile if a situation warrants me to crack one. I will, under no pressure or obligation to do so, or just to put you at ease. All women have the right to that very same entitlement without the threat of vitriol, push-back, or hate. You’re not automatically guaranteed a date , a smile, or my time to exchange  pleasantries with you on the street,  just because you’re a man or because you’re “being nice”.