Street harassment: Anatomy of a pain in the ass

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Walking to the grocery store yesterday, I passed by two teenagers who were smoking and drinking 40s behind the taco joint next to the club across the street from my destination.

As I got close to them, the one with his back to me glanced at me and then back at his friend, who took the cue and smiled like a daft young wolf as he intercepted my gaze.

I let my eyes wander away a second too late. Contact was made, and the opportunity was seized. “Hello there!” said the wolf.

Most days, this stuff is easy. The trick is to sass them first and sass them better. Do this with spirit and they’ll be left confused, on the defensive, even respectful. But today I wasn’t on my game — not enough coffee, maybe, sluggish — so I just nodded and kept walking.

For him, this was a golden opportunity.

“Oh, not going to say hi?” he said, cartoonishly disappointed.

Then, as I kept walking, in a hurt tone, “What’s your problem?”

Then, in anger, “fucking bitch!”

And as I walked out of earshot, “Go back to wherever you moved here from!”

Getting hassled by men on the street (or “street harrassment” as it is popular to call it these days) used to completely faze me. I still get moderately flustered, but I’ve learned to see the pattern, which is pretty much identical each time. I think of it as a series of buttons. They are pressed one after the other, in a prescribed order, until one lights up.

First there’s the initial invitation, often nonverbal, to engage in a flirtation.

The next button comes the instant you don’t respond enthusiastically, and pushing it entails explicitly reminding you of your obligation to respond to a social cue — “Why don’t you smile?” Worse, there’s the danger of hurting his feelings — “Don’t you want to talk to me? I’m a nice guy.”

If you don’t play along at this point, the next button is where things go downhill fast. There’s something wrong with you — you’re rude, you’re crazy, you have a bad attitude, why are you scared of me?

Next, the insults. These are sometimes vicious and heartfelt, other times shouted casually.

And then, finally, if you’ve thus far proven impervious to this comprehensive menu of potential triggers, and if you wait around long enough to get to it, you come to the great moment of truth, the blurting out of the aggression or resentment or expectation or whatever it is that’s motivating this guy to keep on trying to coerce you onto his wavelength. It’s the kind of thing you could have a conversation about, in different circumstances.

If at any point you give in and play along, start talking with him, answer his questions about you, flirt back — as I used to sometimes do when I was younger and didn’t know better — he suddenly gets real nice, complimenting you effusively and taking an interest in your life and your availability for a date. Never mind that he was hurling insults at you just a minute earlier.

This pattern plays itself out in a lot of different situations, not just on the street. But I’ve noticed that it not only happens frequently in public, but it’s something I almost expect when I go out. The older I get the less often I’m accosted, but it still happens every week or two.

This particular encounter left me shaken and upset, but was relatively benign, typical enough that I probably would have forgotten about it after an hour or two if I hadn’t recently been reading a slew of stories (and a cartoon!) about way worse situations. And others that are way, way worse.

Street harassment has started to come up consistently in the growing national conversation about the gender gap in cycling. But after it’s mentioned it just hangs there — nobody seems to know what to do about it, or even what to say. Meanwhile, it’s a real barrier. Not just in bicycling, but in our ability to participate freely and equally in public life. This kind of encounter doesn’t just make you feel bad, it makes the place you’re in feel unsafe and unwelcoming. It makes you think twice about going there again.

So what do we do about it? One thing we can do is see exactly what’s going on and not fall for it. We owe it to ourselves at least to learn the difference between the one-sided power plays of street harassment and a real conversation with a stranger who sees women as human beings in our own right and is willing to take no for an answer.

But it also isn’t really on us. Whatever the satisfaction is in hassling women on the street, it doesn’t actually require our participation to ruin our day, and plays out the same way no matter what we do — especially if we aren’t interested. No amount of badass mojo on the part of the world’s women is going to stop guys from doing what they do, and thinking it’s entirely on us to control other people’s behavior is symptomatic of the same problem.

Maybe I’ve had Malcolm Gladwell’s work on my mind a little too much, but the more I look at street harassment the more I think it’s just a trend. These guys don’t actually seem to care about whether or not you talk to them, they’re just doing this thing that everyone does. Which seems like an unstoppable force, but it’s actually the kind of culture that can change really quickly, like the embrace of bicycling or yoga or third wave coffee. My friend Meghan was recently telling me that sexual harassment has pretty much been made uncool at a local soup kitchen thanks to a method called “gentle personalism.”

What if every single one of us, male or female, responded to situations of street harassment by gently letting the harasser know that it just isn’t cool? It takes guts to stick up for someone on the street, and even more to do it with confidence, not to mention empathy towards the harasser. It could work, though it’ll only work if there actually are enough of us on the street, in public, to witness and intervene.

Who’s in?

Update: Thanks to the commenters below for some excellent ideas and resources for dealing with street harassment, including this handy list of ways you can intervene without getting punched.