Gender/queerness and street harassment

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?

(Cross-posted at Feministe – check out and consider taking part in the comments conversation there!)

19 Responses to “Gender/queerness and street harassment”

  1. 1 bj

    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.

    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.

    i assume guys will think i’m off limits, too, and i’ve begun thinking about it partly in terms of this misconception i have that because i understand these arcane theoretical things about sexual harassment that it can’t happen to me. it doesn’t make any sense when i say it out loud, but in my head i exist in this queer feminist bubble. because i know the dangers, because i have studied the fucked up things patriarchy does to women, because i am on guard against it all the time, i should be safe from street harassment. of course, i’m not, even as an obviously queer, butch woman. as you said, queer or not, butch or not, i’m still a woman, and so i’m still an object to be intimidated and controlled. what i find really upsetting is that it’s very easy to start thinking fucked up things like, “i’m not like other women. i’m not feminine, so i won’t be perceived as weak.” this is bullshit, of course, but there it is.

    i feel like the harassment i get from random guys on the street is different from what they throw at more feminine women because it’s like getting dragged into that masculinity pissing contest. they’re calling me a girl, putting me in my place, because obviously i think i can play on their turf. it’s still rooted in the same sexist mindset, but i’ve experienced it almost more as fag bashing than cat calling, even though i’m obviously female.

    as far as how i deal with it, i deal with it very badly. it knocks me for a loop, every time. i feel nauseous and furious, and it generally ruins my entire day.

  2. 2 MilbyDaniel

    Jack, right on. Thanks so much for bringing light to this. It totally shifts the conversation in a much more positive, less he said she said realm into the real heart of the power dynamic, I think. I was just in Turkey for a week or so, where I was constantly harrassed as a single woman everywhere I went – they laughed at me, followed me, screamed at me, all kinds of craziness. Finally I kind of snapped and said, “LEAVE ME ALONE,” which I didn’t feel safe doing on my own before. And he said “Why are you so unfriendly?” “BECAUSE IM SICK OF MEN FOLLOWING ME EVERYWHERE I GO – LEAVE ME ALONE!” and he said, predictably, “Ok, you can’t find a man in your own country?” And I felt so annoyed and invaded, like, he totally missed the point – I just didn’t want to be followed, period. Besides the fact taht I”m fucking queer and I dno’t want male attention in the first place. It was just doubly offensive.

    Anyway, that’s my rant for today.

  3. 3 saltyfemme

    Thanks for the great post. The discussion at Feministe is interesting, though I kind of wish more commenters had picked up on your questions around queer experiences of street harassment.

    I wanted to make sure you saw this piece at HollaBack Talk, written by one of the editors of HollaBack Boston. You mentioned in one of your comments at Feministe that you are working on a post about race and class re: street harassment.

  4. 4 sokari

    I wanted to note that street harassment can also be directed at older women through direct intimidation (standing the path of the person) or as in one case I know of, using verbal abuse – in this case saying in a loud voice “old people smell” as the woman walked passed a group of teenage lads. The woman was completely distraught, felt humiliated and devastated.

  5. 5 lady brett

    I’ve never been very sensitive to this stuff. Me and my girlfriend got a whole lot of “‘ey, youse lesbians?!” back in Belfast, often followed by very personal questions about our sex life. I never felt unsafe, so, frankly, i don’t give a crap (but hearing it every time you go outside gets old), but she was always rather prickly about it. I’m not sure if that’s because she’s just got a shorter fuse than me, or if it has something to do with the dynamics of her being the butch one.

    Talking about cat-calls always makes me think of college. In that city, every time you stepped off campus people would honk or yell. Me and my female friends always just rolled our eyes or laughed about it, but my guy friends would get so MAD about it if they were with us. I think partly it’s an affront to their masculinity; as if (though none of us were “together”) the cat-caller was moving in on their “territory”. I think, less cynically, that they were genuinely upset that people were being so rude to us, whereas we had gotten so used to that kind of shit we had given up being mad. Maybe it was just something they didn’t have to deal with, and they thought we shouldn’t either.

  6. 6 Helen

    ABB, when I wrote this post

    I left out the very salient detail that my friend is gay (and her lover was standing a couple feet away looking daggers at the clueless idiot.)

    Some men just are sexually tone deaf.

  7. 7 Helen

    (Oh, forgot to explain, because that might have identified her to some of the people who read my blog, and I didn’t think she’d want that.)

  8. 8 Kate

    As a bisexual (and very feminine) woman, I generally take street harassment as an opportunity to educate [[grin]]. Whenever I’m whistled at or receive an insensitive “compliment” from a man, I turn calmly to him and ask him why he thinks it is appropriate to speak to me in such a way. I generally get a laugh or a, “Hey – lighten up!”, but sometimes I actually get an explanation.

    Several men have apologetically expressed that they meant no disrespect and didn’t realize that it offended me. Not that the apology excuses their behavior, but I feel that my level-headed reaction actually led them to examine their actions and might have contributed to their use of a less misogynistic pick-up tactic.

    One time, after a man decided to greet me with, “Hey there sweetie… you have incredible legs,” my comment on his sexist language turned into a 3 and a half hour conversation. We sat and talked civilly over drinks about feminism and patriarchy. By the time I took my leave, he had come to the conclusion that he was, indeed, wrong and vowed to be more sensitive.

    I think some guys just don’t think before they speak. The more disgusting and offensive street harassment most certainly deserves a good string of expletives, but in some cases, men just need a calm explanation of why their actions are sexist.

  9. 9 Elaine

    I agree that for butch women like yourself men do feel threatned when they see women trying to play on their turf as i beleive a previous post mentioned. It is times like this that we see the very basic and old fashioned degradation of women. Too often do feminists look to the corporate ladder to find the female injustices when it is more evident on our streets where it cant be controlled or monitored to avoid a lawsuit. For anyone who beleives that sexism does not exist except where us ‘feminist bitches’ seek it they should open their eyes

  10. 10 Lane

    I used to walk to the park. I would get hollered at from passing cars at least once a block. It was horrendous! I actually quit walking to the park. It felt awful to have to choose between being harassed for over a mile or just not getting to the park. I’ve moved and now only get hollered at once or twice on my mile or more walks. But it still feels awful. I want to hide in a hoody so they can’t tell I’m female. Totally sucks! I get pretty irritated with it. I think people do enjoy the power of throwing you off step. I completely ignore them. Don’t even look in their direction.

    I’d like to 2nd that some guys feel threatened by women on their turf. I’ve worked in mostly male dominated fields and when I didn’t play the part of the woman some of the men would get very threatened. I think it was the same kind of guy that would cat call at a confident woman on the street. I’m guessing he only feels like a man if he’s holding someone else down. Uggg!

  11. 11 Annie

    I love that you brought up this topic, the mainstream world does not realize that those of us with “alternative” sexualities get street harassment as much, if not more than heterosexuals. As a bisexual, I tend to get it from all angles, being pretty open about my sexuality on the college campus I’m on I get comments ranging from random men wondering if they can watch me with another woman, to homosexuals who don’t like the fact that i date men and women so I must be a slut wanting all that i can get! I get catcalls from random men in grocery stores and wal-mart I’m like, come on can’t i do my shopping with out being harassed? I’ve gotten pretty used to the comments and most of the time attempt to get the person to talk with me about why they made the comments and ‘educate’ them about my lifestyle, but it is still hard to believe that there are some homosexuals who will catcall negative remarks to a bisexual woman…

  12. 12 Nigel

    I am a straight guy, but prefer to dress in bright colours, and probably come across as a bit queer / gay to some viewers. I work in a school, but not as a teacher.
    I am regularly cat called by some students, and as you suggest, it is a way to exert dominance, to influence me and to control my actions. Unfortunately this is a significant part of the student environment, and something to which many mnay students are subjected on a regular basis. The crafty part is that they can often legitimately claim afterwards “I didn’t do anything. I just said I liked your yellow shirt today” There is no ‘crime’ worth reporting, and when you do say something, staff who have not experienced it, cannot understand what I could be offended by. This gives the harassers the license to keep on repeating the harassment, and by repetition making it personal.
    It is not what is said. but the tone and the manner in which it is said which is offensive to me – I recognise the attempt to exert control, and as you again say – no response gives a satisfactory conclusion to the exchange.
    There are responses I would LIKE to make. I cannot respond verbally as i would like to without risking my position, and I certainly can’t push the student’s face into a wall – much as I may want to. I also suspect that nothing less than drawing blood on half a dozen occasions would achieve the result I want – an end to the harassment.
    For anyone who is the target of such harassment, it is humiliating, disempowering and depressing – It can really spoil an otherwise good day.
    If anyone come up with a magic bullet to fire back I want to hear about it – and so does the rest of the world I think.

  13. 13 Miss Green

    my question is,
    do men really think that doing something of that manner is okay?
    when did it become socialy acceptable for men to treat women with utter disrespect? I don’t holler at men that i think are attractive. So why should they holler at us?
    In my opinion the men that behave this way are stupid, insolet pigs, that care about nothing more than their own penis.
    It pisses me off that there is no consiqunce for this kind of behavior. Just because a women is “hot” doesn’t mean she wants anything to do with anyone.
    She is attractive, yeah so what. Everyone is attractive in their own way. But I don’t see men hollering at 85 year old men.
    I’ve tried a little experiment though. I got together with pretty large group of women in my community, and we decided to go to the streets where the harassment is the worst.
    We stood out there for 5 hours, hooting and hollering at the men that usually say things to us.
    Some of them hollered back, with the same derogatory remarks they always make. But the majority didn’t know what to do. They just kind of stared at us. I don’t think men even understand how disrespectful that type of behavior is.
    But, do parents really raise their children to behave this way? Men aren’t any better or worse than women, so maybe instead of ignoring their comments,we should all join together, and give em a taste of their own medicine.
    Now be aware, in serveral situations in which i conducted this project things got a little out of hand.
    When men realized we were hollering at them, they became very intrigued and quiet sexualy aggressive.
    so be careful.

    But, under no circumstance should this problem be ignored. We are women. We are strong.
    Men are strong yeah, but hell I’d like to see them have a 9 pound baby come out from inbetween their legs. : D

  14. 14 Kiah

    I am a female identified bisexual woman and tend to hate my attraction to men a little more each time I am jeered or cat called. As for my response, to be quite honest, I seethe. I can never seem to calm my anger long enough to say something like “it’s extremely inappropriate to speak to women that way, and you should stop immediately”. And then I feel like an ass afterward because I regret not saying anything.

  15. 15 Heather

    I think these girls have the right idea- although it is scary that some men have tried to hit them for being called out. I had a problem with one mechanic shop I had to walk by everyday when I lived in Mexico. One day, after receiving whistles and “mamacitas” every time I walked to the bus stop I decided to go into the store. I shamed them. I was calm but I said “Does your mother know that you do this to women? Is she proud of you? What if someone did this to you mother or sister everyday?” The men couldn’t even look at me- they just looked at the floor. It made me feel good. And I never heard a sound from the store again.

  16. 16 Renee

    I am a very large breasted woman and it is not something that I can hide. Recently I got into a cab with my children and the driver preceded to stare at my breasts for the entire ride to our destination. Because I was in the presence of my children I was unable to tell him what I really thought about the situation. When I am on my own and such a think occurs I am quick to make some sarcastic comment meant to shame the ogler. It makes me feel angry and less than. The idea that this kind of attention could be considered complimentary is ridiculous. No one wants to be reduced to their fuckability. I am more than that. Men seem to think that they have this God given right to behave this way and it is assaultive behavior, we have just normalized it. I think that the next time I am out with my children I will release the vitriol on these perves…my kids can learn from example that women should not tolerate this shit and that it is not acceptable.

  17. 17 Shev

    First of all, I just want to say that I think your blog rocks.

    Secondly, I was really interested in this post. Street harassment is something that nearly all of us face or have faced on a regular basis. I’ve discussed it with my partner, and it intrigues me how our experiences of it differ. My lover (a genderqueer butch called Jack – go figure =0) ) experiences it as continual questioning of hir gender, aggressive behaviour (ze’s only wee – about 5’1), and very occasionally, as men trying to assert dominance by very specifically placing hir as being gendered female. This is possibly the most interesting/upsetting response, as it shows that they recognise hir as gender-non-conformant, but that as this is obviously unacceptable, gendering hir female and exerting sexual power is the most efficient way of reinforcing hetero-male dominance.

    I, as a femme, undergo the usual female experience of shouting, hooting, occasional grabbing etc. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary. If I don’t feel physically threatened, I’ll call them on it, every time. I will not let them impose that on me without some attempt at dialogue.

    Once we were walking down the street together (on this occasion, I was all dragged up for a special occasion, but still very recognisably female – equally cursed and blessed with my chest =0) ), and some guys were walking towards us on a narrow pavement. We could see them eyeing us, and it was a question of what they were going to say, rather than if. What they actually did say was intriguing – they were as a group taking up the whole pavement (sidewalk for Americans, I guess), and it was a pretty busy road. One guy puffs out his chest and says really loudly “This is MY space” – basically telling me and Jack to step in the path of traffic. Obviously, I didn’t do this, and just walked straight into him, kinda hard. And he looked *hurt*. Like, hurt feelings hurt. And the whole episode was so telling, because all it really meant was that these guys expect public space to be reserved only for them, that women, gays, queers, ethnic minorities etc, and that we are to stick to the margins, and damnit, accept that and like it. So every time a guy yells at me, I remember that, and remember that this man thinks that the public space is *his* space – and that I am at best tolerated because of my decorative properties. Jack isn’t even accepted on those terms, which puts him in even greater danger, even though he’s so so unconfrontational. It doesn’t seem to make a difference.

    I fully accept that I am probably putting myself in danger from some of these actions – but then I’m putting myself in danger for being who I am and loving who I love. I’m not reckless, but I can’t be anyone else.

  18. 18 Jack

    I haven’t been good at keeping up with comments on older posts like this one, but I just wanted to thank everyone for sharing their opinions and experiences here. Even if I don’t get to respond, I do read them, think on them, and appreciate them.

    @Shev: glad you like the blog!

  19. 19 Meg

    I think this is a great post and it’s refreshing to hear this side of things. I would like to add though that the movie “War Zone” includes a queer woman as one of the 3(?) primary interviews so I’d like to give Hadleigh-West some credit where credit is due.
    I personally have a somewhat androgynous look most of the time, I feel I look queer enough, but I got cat calls all the time over the summer, multiple times a day. My girlfirend at the time had a more butch appearence and although she got catcalls less often, it still happened, and also she had a whole different brand of street harassment that I never really faced (a man threw peanuts at her once, people staring and saying things behind her back, etc.). Once we had a man ask HER if he could fuck ME… talk about heteronormativity and homophobia.

    But as for how I responded? I made copies of Ilana Granite’s feminist road sign that had a silouette of a man pulling back on a leash with a man/dog creature on the other end that said, “Curb your animal instinct” in english and spanish and hung them all around my town. I was actually whistled at WHILE I was putting them up, so I don’t know how much of an impact it made but it made me feel better.

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