How I deal with street harassment

My modus operandi used to be just continuing on my way as I boiled with humiliation, anger, fear, and helplessness.

Until last summer, when I had a job that 1) gave me a lot of practice talking to strangers, and 2) was located just off a plaza where a number of verbally aggressive homeless men congregated.

I got fed up with the harassment and started talking back.

What helped me make a habit of responding: Thinking of one or two comebacks flexible enough that I wouldn't have to improvise. And plenty of dudes willing to "help me" "practice."

My standbys are:

  • "That's actually NOT my name."
  • "Did I ask for your opinion?"
  • "Excuse me?"
Add some righteous indignation and laser eyes, and you're set.* Useful on public transit as well as with panhandlers or fellow pedestrians.

When it comes to Jerks in Cars, there is not much time, so my repertoire is limited to gestures like the finger. Depending on proximity, speed of traffic, and how much berserker you have in you, you may have the option of assaulting the vehicle in question. (Speaking as a mere kicker of bumpers and banger of hoods, the dudes hate having to admit that their chariot of misogyny is not untouchable.)

Not surprisingly, coming back at a harasser is much easier in some circumstances than in others. Homeless men don't particularly intimidate me.** An young, expensively dressed man, a big man, a large group of men — any of these would generally be more intimidating me. Depending on my survival radar, I might decide it's not worth it. That's fine. (The point of talking back is not that you are a weak person if you don't.)

Respect for intuition/survival radar withstanding, no harasser has yet responded to me in a way that outweighed the satisfaction of talking back.

The point is: that you are allowed to be angry at men who try to degrade you, and you don't have to swallow that anger. That it is not your job to be pleasant and submissive. It is not your job to treat harassers as if they are not doing a terrible, shocking, unacceptable thing. Feeling helpless sucks, and claiming your right to act like what you are — a human being with reasonable rights and emotions and the means to express both  — is cathartic and constructive.

*Laser eyes can work pretty well preemptively too, if you're getting warning vibes from someone's demeanor.
**Almost all of the men who harass me are panhandlers or otherwise visibly homeless. Somewhere in the overlap of race and class with sexism and this being San Francisco, there is an answer to this. I have an inkling that harassment in public places generally takes place across boundaries of race and class, and that men harassing or assaulting women of their own class and particularly race are more likely to do so in private.


Q 7/26/2012 6:28 AM  

And physical harassment? A guy grabbed my roommate's backside on a bus the other day, and she said one of the worst things was that she had no idea what to do. She isn't like me––she wouldn't just up and hit the guy––so I didn't know what to tell her. Any advice for those situations? 7/26/2012 7:17 AM  

YES y e s YES!

sui sea 7/26/2012 7:41 AM  

This is so relevant and timely, since I've been pondering street harassment-- or catcalls, as I've been referring to them, but cats are cooler than that...-- lately, as catcalling is the thing about New York I like the least.

The problem is that none of the dudes who remark at me are homeless. Ever. (They're right when they say SF/West Coast homeless people are a lot more vocal; the ones here are pretty quiet, and keep to themselves.) I don't feel helpless anymore, but instead anger and rage, which then attempts to melt itself into understanding/compassion.

95% of the people who harass me are men of color, and based on the neighborhood, most likely poor. I've been theorizing with my [black male] friend that poor men of color feel so powerless and oppressed in every other way by rich white heteronormative patriarchy that the only way to try to claim any power is to oppress a class even more oppressed than they are: women. (I've also started to read We Real Cool by bell hooks [semi-relevant].)

I find I can't talk back because my fear of violence and/or assault is greater than my need for retaliation. The men who harass me are [most likely] able-minded, and have homes. I don't want to start anything. :| Silence, pretending I didn't hear them, and staring straight ahead with laser eyes is my best defense-- I don't want to feed their bullying with attention.

Ironically (or perhaps sensically? like the opposite of nonsensically: it makes sense that) I've never been harassed on the (NY) subway. It actually feels a safer place, although I've heard of subway harassment for sure (against a fellow man).

Holly 7/26/2012 1:42 PM  

Q - Yuck. Poor woman. That hasn't happened to me in quite a while, happily, but consensus from others is be loud and call others' attention to the harasser and his actions -- You just grabbed me! This man just groped me! Do not touch me. Get away from me. Sexual harassment is a crime, etc. I've seen bus drivers intervene. It is indeed hard to think in the shock of the moment; practice helps. Stop Street Harassment has some solid notes [here].

Kait - "Remember; resist; do not comply." *fist of solidarity*

Sui - Here's what I think:

* Anger isn't inherently at odds with compassion or understanding in my opinion -- in this case, perhaps anger comes from understanding perfectly well what is going on. [Standing up for oneself doesn't require being cruel or abusive.]

* The right to harass women cannot be anyone's consolation prize in the game of patriarchy.

* Most harassers are bullies and don't want to escalate things with someone who asserts herself and keeps walking.

* NYC definitely does sound like it has a different culture. Do you ever read the Harpies? They're mostly New Yorkers and have written about street harassment -- try under the sexual harassment tag.

sui 7/26/2012 7:50 PM  

- I agree, re: anger... anger can be transformative, constructive, etc. You're right. That's still my "you SHOULDN'T get angry if you're a good person" (and female socialization, too) talking, I think.

- I also agree re: consolation prize, but I'm saying that it explains their behavior better to me. Just like it explains why a lot of Asian guys tend to be patriarchal, but it doesn't make me any less angry... (Although I find myself more compassionate for non-Asian men of color, probably because I am angry that so many of "my" own "race" are so ignorant about oppression.)

- Nope! re: Harpies, but I shall check that out.

I think despite my ridiculousness, I can be passive in asserting myself against injustice, especially against myself. So in a way maybe it still is feelings of helplessness, and a lot of residual fears/uncertainties from past traumas. However, I definitely do encourage fellow womenfolk to fight back!

Holly 7/27/2012 1:02 AM  

sui - I hear you! Making sense of things is indeed a valuable step. And we all start where and as we are, including how past experiences have shaped us.

Jenica 8/01/2012 3:49 PM  

Oh, brava. You are brave.

Holly 8/09/2012 1:26 AM  

Jenica - We do what we gotta do.

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