Yesterday morning I listened to a segment on the Brian Lehrer show about street harassment (cat-calling) in NYC. Lehrer interviewed three women: Latosha Belton and Ashley Lewis, two Brooklyn teenagers who worked with Girls for Gender Equity to create “Sisters in Strength Strikes Back: Our Struggle with Street Harassment,” a city-wide summit this past May; and Maggie Hadleigh-West, maker of the anti-street-harassment film War Zone.
The three women talked about their extensive experiences with street harassment directed at them from men of all ages. Ashley Lewis described how she feels like her new way of responding to street harassers is better than staying silent:
The approach I’m taking now, I feel like it’s better ’cause I’ll ask a man something, “Do you really think it’s appropriate to come at me in the street?” And they’re so taken aback by the question that they’re stunned, they don’t know what to say. So instead of answering it, they kind of walk away from me, so it kind of helps.
Hearing that, I couldn’t help worry that the girls would encounter some men who would do far more and far worse than run away. Maggie Hadleigh-West described some of those more violent responses when discussing how she came to make her film:
… I realized that I actually had a weapon that I could turn on the men exactly in the same way that they were harassing me… I would turn the camera on the men, and I would ask them, ‘Why are you looking at my breasts? Why did you just say what you said to me?’… I got an abundance of responses. Sometimes men were angry, a number of times men tried to hit me, sometimes they ran away from me, sometimes – very, very rarely, in fact twice out of about a thousand interviews, they were apologetic.
Brian Lehrer commented on Maggie’s turning the camera on the men, saying “It’s really funny because they were invading your space, and what you did was turn around and invade their space.” Maggie responded by making an important point: “Right – but they’re accustomed to the privilege of being able to do that without there being any consequences whatsoever.”
The phone lines were opened to callers, both women who experience street harassment and men who perpetrate it. The caller was Shane from Queens, who attempted to justify his cat-calling: “Just acknowledging a woman that, how do I say this, she wore something that she was obviously looking for attention for, so I said, ‘Ok, you look nice.’ What’s wrong with that?” Comments like that make it clear that this sort of street harassment is just another point on the continuum of violence against women; this guy’s b.s. sounds a lot like the “she was dressed like a slut, she was asking for it” type of justification that’s so often given for rape and sexual assault. Even if it’s admitted that the rapist’s actions were wrong, blame can also be directed towards the victim if she was wearing or acting in any way that could be labeled as “provocative” or “sexual” in the least.
Of course, the women were well-prepared for that sort of garbage rationale, probably having heard it before. Latosha put it quite well when she said, “The main flag that flew up in my mind was when he said she’s obviously looking for attention. We are not mind readers, nor are we psychics. You have no idea whether or not she was looking for the attention, or maybe it’s just a hot day, and I feel comfortable in shorts. It isn’t up to you to decide whether or not she wants you to talk to you.”
Shane was still on the line, so Brian asked him if he felt differently after hearing the women’s comments. The unrepentant jerk’s response? “No, not at all.” Clearly, I overestimate the ability of some guys to understand what sexist assholes they are, because I was flabbergasted that he was so convinced utterly of his correctness. Brian then asked Shane,”So if you see a beautiful woman walking down the street, an unbelievably hot, sexy woman walking down the street, but not in what you would call provocative clothes, then you won’t do it?” Shane replied, “No, not at all. She’s not looking for that kind of attention.” This comment makes evident the fact that Shane’s not just a well-meaning but misguided appreciator of female beauty; he’s only “complimenting” women who he decides are “asking for it,” who are easiest for him to sexually objectify. His stupidity continued: “You can go into certain neighborhoods and see high shorts or lots of cleavage, and that’s a sign of, okay, that person wants to be complimented.” Well, damn. “Certain neighborhoods?” How much do you want to bet that there was a whole lot of racism and classism going on there?
After that guy got off the line, Maggie responded to some more to what he’d said. She talked about how about how she thinks that all people want to be acknowledged for their attractiveness but that “that does not mean that we want our space to be invaded at all, or that we are dressing for that particular man.”
That part got me thinking about the strongly heterosexual framing of this and many other conversations about street harassment. Maybe some women aren’t dressing for any man at all? Maybe some women are dressing for other women, or – gasp – just for themselves? These discussions rarely include queer voices or even the possibility that some women aren’t looking for any sexual attention from men, be it respectful or not.
Since I’ve started to present as a genderqueer butch – keeping my hair cut quite short, dressing only in “men’s” clothing, that sort of thing – I’ve still gotten some street harassment. Not nearly as much as my more femininely-presenting queer friends and lovers, but some. I’m always a little bit baffled by it, to tell the truth. I always assume that guys will look at me and assume that I’m off limits because I’m fairly easy to read as queer. (Since, you know, some people can’t fathom that a masculine, queer, female-bodied person could possibly be into guys.) Some guys will try to talk to me specifically about my gender presentation; I’ve gotten a whole lot of “I like short hair! I like women with short hair! I don’t mind!” Oh yeah, thanks, random-ass dude, I was really worried that you might mind!
Really, though, I think that cat-calling isn’t just about thinking a woman looks good or being sexually attracted to her. I think a possibly larger motivation is simply to assert control and dominance over women, to display a man’s sense of privilege to do whatever the hell he wants to a woman that Maggie spoke of in her interview. Yeah, sometimes maybe it’s genuine and very mis-expressed attraction, but I don’t think that most guys really expect to attract a woman with their cat-calling. It’s about the power trip, the ability to say some fucked-up thing to a woman and get a response, any response, be it positive or negative. Sometimes, when I’m getting harassed in that way, I think that the guys definitely assume that I’m queer and not interested in them, but they do it anyway just to demonstrate that, however I dress, however I define and express my gender and my sexuality, I’m still just a woman to them; I’m still below them; they can still fuck with me and, ultimately, they think they could still fuck me, if they wanted to. That knowledge is probably what makes me feel so disrespected, sickened and violated on those rare occasions that I do attract street harassment. It doesn’t really matter if I just stay quiet, speed away, or yell back – I always feel pretty shitty and enraged afterwards.
And then I always think – how do visually feminine women, who get way more of this than me, deal? How do femmes and other feminine queer women handle that on the daily?
I’d like to hear from all folks on this topic, but I’d especially like to hear what other queer, genderqueer, and trans folks who experience this sort of street harassment think. How do you deal?