Not your baby

Street harassment foils enjoyment of the warm weather.

Bronwyn Miller

This weekend, in honor of the delightfully warm temps, I happily hopped out the front door in a skirt sans tights for the first time this year. I had barely skipped down my three front steps to the sidewalk when a car full of guys rolled by and they yelled, “Show us your boobs!” among a variety of other colorful statements. After honking up a storm, they then proceeded to blast “Candy Shop” and trail me going five miles an hour for two blocks. Needless to say, my thrilled attitude was crushed immediately.

Street harassment is defined as unwelcome and unwanted attention of a sexual nature, objectifying and targeting people of all genders. Nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment enumerates its many forms: “catcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation and assault.”  And like mosquitoes and humidity, street harassment reminds us that warm weather is not all sunshine and rainbows.

When I lived in South America, it was a hissing that sounded more appropriate to shoo away a raccoon than acknowledge a person, a hissing that I literally still hear in nightmares sometimes. Here, it’s the man on the bus who tells me I have pretty eyes and then asks me if I like to be on top. It’s the yelling from car windows, kissing noises and whistles, surprise invasions of personal space and the “compliments” that are in fact just demeaning, threatening and discriminatory.

Street harassment happens everywhere: in First and Third World countries, low and high income communities, rural and urban areas and public and secluded settings. It’s not only intimidating, but according to Hollaback!, a worldwide, crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment, it is a form of gender violence and a human rights violation. And sadly, the majority of women — more than 80 percent worldwide — and lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender/transsexual people will encounter gender-based street harassment in their lifetimes.

But when we complain about street harassment — in the moment or after the fact — we are often chastised for being a bitch, stuck up or ungrateful for the attention. We are accused of misinterpreting “flattery” for harassment and told to relax and stop being difficult and overly sensitive. We are sometimes told to stop getting our feminist panties in a bunch. More egregious, we are told that it is just an inevitable consequence of our decision to show some skin.

Encountering street harassment is a lose-lose situation. Women are told our entire lives — from the first day we lament the boy teasing us on the playground — to just ignore the treatment. But not responding to whoever is trying to holler at you opens you up to being disparaged as a snob for not being interested in the advances, an outcome that could potentially be accompanied by violence from someone who thinks you deserve to be taught a lesson. I don’t even want to think about what the response I secretly wish I could entertain — which would be BACK THE F UP — might elicit. On the other hand, being “polite” and giving a short greeting in return is also a slippery slope. Even the most abrupt and uninterested “hi” can be mistaken for showing interest and open the door for continued unwanted engagement.

After years of dealing with belittling, offensive and scary instances of street harassment, some of us might be slightly guarded. Because for every innocuous “good morning,” there have been five more instances in which the next words were along the lines of “it would be better if I could tap that ass!” To reasonable individuals who recognize the ubiquity and detriment of street harassment, I think it is understandable that being on the defense might be common at this point.

Yet, rest assured that even those of us who may be slightly guarded can generally discern an innocent compliment from street harassment quite well. A kind word or greeting delivered in a non-menacing way, even if it is from the stranger, will typically not be viewed as overly aggressive and offensive.

The other day, I held the door open for a man with a cane, and he told me I was “a lovely and dashing young woman.” It kind of made my day. The distinction between someone who is just being nice and someone who is being a stage-five creeper is accomplished pretty quickly. It must be in our genes.

On the mornings of warm days, I sometimes consider the probability of street harassment as I peruse my closet, but I hate that I do. I hate that I have sacrificed comfort and worn pants in the dead heat of summer to avoid street harassment because that implies I am its cause. Our fashion choices should not be dictated by the fear of what a stranger might say or do. An outfit is not an excuse to engage in sexual harassment, and even if we get so fed up that we calculatedly avoid the possibility of showing any leg or cleavage, we’re still leaving the house with a vagina. Our bodies will still be viewed by so many as public property, openly deserving of commentary and expectations. Street harassment is a daily reminder for women to sure-as-hell know our place and not forget that we are still seen as objects, around for the whimsy and entertainment of men, above which they can publicly assert their power.

To the catcallers: Never in my life have I seen a girl chase after a car whose passenger is honking at or yelling out to her. I would estimate the “success rate” of catcalling at a .00001 percent or less, so I think it’s time to drop the pervy, aggressive comments and try a new, less misogynistic strategy. A “Hello, how are you?” will have much greater effectiveness than a “Yo girl, your ass makes me wish I was that bike seat!” And don’t worry: Our self-esteem will survive without you incessantly expressing your “appreciation.”