Street Harassment: It’s Not a Compliment

Copyright 2012.  All rights reserved.

Street Harassment SignIt always bothers me when men say things like “If women on the street said that I looked nice, it’d make my day!” right after I’ve complained about something a stranger said to me.  Some even tell me that they’re jealous of the attention.  Perhaps it’s because they’re picturing something harmless or even sweet, like when the elderly gentleman I see most mornings on the bus shyly and politely compliments me on my smile.  Unfortunately, what they don’t understand is that the things random men shout from their cars or from across the street aren’t compliments, it’s street harassment.

Not Exactly Complimentary

Sometimes women can be flattered by attention from a stranger, but I think it’s important to be careful to not label all the various forms of “attention” from men as behaviors that would be appreciated.  For example, when the guy at the cell phone store called after me, “You have a beautiful smile!” I was amused by his impulsive compliment.  But lewd declarations like “Smile for me, whore” or “Nice rack” or “Great legs, c—” are a whole different animal.  Deirde E. Davis, in her article The Harm that Has No Name, says that these kinds of comments can be recognized as street harassment by “the unacceptability of ‘thank you’ as a response; and the reference to body parts” (Davis 55).  Street harassment can also include leering, catcalls, wolf whistles, pinches, or grabs.

There are a lot of different degrees of street harassment, and even something as mild as “Smile for me, Baby” or “Don’t you look pretty”can be frightening depending on the context.  Even women who may not mind being whistled at in the middle of the day as they walk through the mall, would feel completely different about the exact same behavior if it was dark and they were alone.  Whenever I find myself alone after dark or in an unfamiliar area and a man decides to show even a hint of sexual interest it’s scary because I feel out of control of the situation, small, alone, and unsafe.

Feeling Alone and Scared

In these settings I find any kind of attention frightening and intimidating because “[r]egardless of whether there is the possibility of actual rape, when women endure street harassment, they fear the possibility of rape” or sexual assault (Davis 484).  When I’m walking down a dark street and a man whistles there’s no way for me to know if he’s thinking that I’m a cutie or something more sinister.  All I know is that if it’s the latter, I’m in trouble.  My heart starts to beat faster as I walk with my head down in order to avoid eye contact; I scan the area looking for a way to make a quick exit.  And I don’t breath a sigh of relief until he’s out of sight again.  In order to try and limit these encounters, if I’m out at night, I never wear anything even remotely formfitting, sit as close to the bus driver as possible, and quietly keep to myself.  The goal: invisibility.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t even have to be nighttime for street harassment to be frightening.  Back before the city finally put a sidewalk on the main street by my house, I’d have random men in cars literally pull their cars off the road so that they could drive directly behind me.  They’d follow very closely for about a block while often whistling or yelling out their window.  It was terrifying because there was no way for me to escape from  being their personal show; the car directly behind me felt like a gun to my head instructing me to walk on.  I was beyond thankful when the city finally built a sidewalk.

Whether it’s happening at night or even in my own neighborhood, street harassment isn’t a compliment; it’s dehumanizing and sometimes even terrifying.


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