To All Perpetrators of Street Harassment: Fuck You

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I know I gave my official notice and said BRB and all, but this felt so pertinent, and it is all such fucking bullshit, that I had to write a thing. Even if I am on blog vacation. Even if this isn’t about sex.
Because, it is the season.
Finally, the sun has shone for a full 24 hours in this city on the edge of the world, and pale, pimpled legs are poking out. Our layers are shed. Our knees are exposed. And it feels so fucking good. Striding down the street, sun on shoulders, strappy summer clothes exposing soft skin, and for a minute you feel beautiful and alive and safe. And then it happens. Again and again and again.

“Slut!”
“Girl, you’d look good on me.”
“Your ass is so fat!”

Etc., etc., etc. Cat calls from cars. Verbal harassement from stoops. The intrusive, hurtful, and damaging hollers. They are commonplace, status quo, predictable, and expected. They do not vary much in their intention, nor their intonation. The intent seems to  always be to objectify your body. The tone seems to always imply shame. It happens every time I leave the house, and it has worn me so far down that I want to write about it, scream about it, kick about it and cry about it.

When I leave my house, I am usually wearing whatever I want. My little yellow house full of rad women is a magic safety zone. It is easy to feel safe & supported & in love with my body when I am in between those old, crumbling walls with my roommates. So I walk out the door fearlessly, in dresses and lipstick, and I hop on my tricycle to bike to work.
I ride a tricycle because I am a person with a disability (PWD, for short). My tricycle is BEAUTIFUL. It is red and worn. It has two “normal” wheels, and then two smaller wheels affixed on the back to keep me balanced. It was built for me a few years ago by a friend. It was built out of a place of love, and it was built just for me, just for my body. It is my prized possession, my point of access to the city, the thing that gets me going and keeps me moving. I ride it because it feels so good. I ride it because it gets me to where I need to go and it gets me there fast. I ride it because I am not ashamed of being different.

However, based on the reactions that I get, I presume that many people believe I ride this red tricycle because I want to be taunted, harassed and verbally assaulted. I guess people think that because I look so different that I am asking for it. I guess people think I should be more shameful and less brazen. It feels like they are always trying to back me into a corner and out of sight with their words.

“Those are the biggest training wheels I’ve ever seen.”
“Gotta get rid of your training wheels some time, girl.”
“You look like a big baby!”

I hear this all the time, every day. I never know what to say. Should I stop and explain to every person I bike by that yes, I know I have “training wheels”, yes they are big, no I will not get rid of them, and by having them I am not soliciting your commentary?

I don’t have the time for this kind of dialogue. If I tried to explain to every single person who I am, why I am different, why they do not have the right to comment on my body, then I would never get anywhere on time. And on top of that, I would be exhausted and probably broken, because facing ignorance and engaging it in conversation takes a whole lot of energy.

So I just smile and keep biking. If it feels safe, I flick them off or tell them to eat my asshole. Most often, I just try to let it slide off of my thick skin and not hurt me. This is easy enough for me to do. I have been a PWD since I was 9, and so have had to develop a pretty serious hide. It envelopes the softer me and protects me from ableism. It lets me love myself even though I am not like anyone else, allows me to know I am sexy and smart and valuable even if I don’t conform to a hegemonic, able-bodied standard of being. And it lets me get yelled at without getting hurt, most of the time.

But not everyone has this luxury. Not everyone has a skin as thick as mine, nor a support system as broad and strong as the one I have. So, when I was yelled at by three men a couple of weeks ago, I decided to yell back. Not for myself, necessarily, but for all of the people who want to walk past their house without getting assaulted. I yelled back because I am strong and it was safe and it felt so good. It happened like this:

I biked up the empty street to a breakfast date. I saw the three men huffing smokes and crushing cans on their stoop up ahead. I had a pang of concern, as I often do when I see groups of men and I am alone, but what could I do? I kept going. And as I approached them it began. Taunts about my “training wheels”, pointing and jeering. I paused and considered saying something, defending myself. But the facts were this: they were three men who were all big and broad. I am one woman who is small and (dis)abled. I can not fight or kick, nor even bike away quickly. My body keeps me slow. So I paused but said nothing, and as I passed them their words got louder and as I biked away, vulnerable with my back to them, I looked behind me to see them mocking me, imitating the way my body moves.

It stung, of course. But I could shrug it off, right? I always do.

But then it hit me – this time I did not want to fucking shrug it off. Every time I shrug it off, I allow it to keep happening. It can feel like when I say nothing what I really say is “It’s ok, you can say what you want”. But I did not want these assholes to be allowed to say whatever they want. I did not want them to hurt people. I did not want my body to be policied or mocked and I did not want that to happen to anyone else either.

So, I got to my breakfast date and then I gathered a Girl Squad. Within an hour, I was on my way back to the men’s stoop with three tough-as-fuck female friends who fully support me by my side. It was daytime, and the streets were busy, and due to a marathon happening nearby there was plenty of cops around. (Normally I do not trust the police, but in this instance it felt sort of o.k to know they were nearby.) When we arrived, the stoop was empty but we knocked on the door. The men came downstairs and I told them I wanted to speak with them about the way in which they had verbally assaulted me earlier that morning. At first, they denied the incident, as though I would really have made that up. At first they slammed the door in our faces and told us that they didn’t have time for our shit. But, we did not want to give up. We banged on their door and called them cowards and would not leave until they faced us.

Eventually, they came back down stairs and opened their door. Eventually, they looked at me, in all my difference and all my anger, and apologized. They stood their silently while I told them why yelling at me is a fucked up thing to do, why yelling at anyone is a fucked up thing to do, and why feeling the entitlement to take up so much space that you think you are allowed to comment on how someone else looks is a fucked up symptom of some seriously patriarchal bullshit and they should work on their shit and not be such cowardly assholes. And then they said they were sorry. And we left.

That situation was incredible. I have never before faced the people who yell at me . I have never before confronted someone and forced an apology. I have never before felt so victorious. The conditions were perfect – I had a crew of strong women with me who did the perfect job of having my back but letting me have the verbal space. It was daytime and their were lots of people around, so we felt more safe. The cops were nearby, limiting what kind of serious violence or trouble could arise. Situations like this are rare, and though it was terrifying and difficult I am glad that we did it.

However, this does not mean that things are forever changed. My body will keep getting yelled at because it looks different. And this is ableism, without a doubt, but street harassment has all sorts of roots. It draws on all the “isms” and “phobias”- sexism, racism, and homophobia, to name a few. My roommate has slammin’ curves and tight clothes. She can’t get two feet from our door without getting called out. She looks how she looks because it makes her feel good, not because she wants the general public to ask her for a blow job or ¬†tell her she looks fat. But she has to endure this kind of commentary either way, as if she asked for it. She, like myself, and like so many women and LGBQT folks, has to have her sense of safety compromised because she looks how she looks and walks where she walks. Our mobility is limited, our routes are changed, and our outfits are reconsidered if only so we don’t have to deal with other people’s words. Street harassment is a form of gender-based violence that affects so many of us that it is almost normalized.

But I do not want it to be normal. I do not want to let it keep happening. I do not want to shrug it off. I do not want to have words hurled at me, or to feel as though I should change my clothes or be ashamed of my beautiful bike.

I want to yell back. I want to scream a big fuck you at all perpetrators of street harassment. I want to school all of them, so that they take up less space and stop using their words with such cruelty.
Of course, this is not realistic. I can not go around hollering back at everyone, and neither can you. It would be tiring, redundant and most of all dangerous. However, there are some things we can all do:

1) If you are currently someone who yells at people on the street: STOP. It is not a compliment. It does not feel good. It is a fear-inducing reminder of all of our collective vulnerability and it makes us feel ashamed and angry and unsafe on our streets.

2) If you can be an ally, be one. If you are a big, strong, intimidating person (or if you are with a group, because there is often power in numbers) and you see someone getting harassed on the street, stand by them. Ask them if they need help, or just be nearby in case they may need help, and so that they feel less alone.

3) If you are harassed on the street, you can Hollback on this website. Remember that though it may feel good to scream back in person, throw eggs, or do whatever, this may limit your safety, especially if you are alone. Yelling back is fucking great, and if it feels right go for it, but if it doesn’t, share your story online.

4) Read more about street harassment and how we can work together to make it intolerable. Check out this and this.

11 thoughts on “To All Perpetrators of Street Harassment: Fuck You

  1. Ocean

    Thank you so much for writing this, it’s something I really needed to hear this summer. I’ve been hiding for the last 10 years or so… the first time someone noticed that I had boobs and yelled at me down the hallway, I ducked into my shell of baggy jeans and t-shirts and stayed there until I met my husband… but even with him making me feel safer, I still stuck to my jeans and t-shirts, nothing that would make me stand out in a crowd, just clothes that actually fit me properly.

    This summer, walking through the mall, I saw a million things I wanted, but kept telling myself they weren’t “me” because they weren’t what I’ve been wearing for the past 10 years… and then I suddenly realized what I had been doing to myself, decided that if I like something then it is “me” and spent a ridiculous amount of money on clothing.

    Finally wearing stuff that I want to wear has been amazingly liberating – and to be honest, the guys that sometimes yell out their car windows when I’m on my way to work don’t really bother me… unless it’s at night, and I do still watch what I wear if I know I’ll be walking home in the dark. I’m not saying it’s ok, just that those guys don’t bug me as much now as they did when I was 13.

    The thing that almost sent me back into my shell was actually another woman at the mall, and I wish I had gotten up the nerve to say something to her. She was walking behind me with an older woman who I assume was her mother as I took off my jacket and I heard her whisper something along the lines of “wow, I would never wear anything like that”, to which the other woman responded with a sigh “that’s just what kids wear these days”

    Now, I wasn’t wearing anything revealing – a knee length skirt with an off-the shoulder shirt. I assume the comments were caused by the lacy blue butterfly on my bra that was visible from the back.

    They probably thought I couldn’t hear, and I don’t think they meant any harm, but like those guys who were yelling at you and every guy who yells at women on the street every day (who also probably don’t actually mean any harm), they didn’t know me.

    They didn’t know that this was the first day I had ever had my bra straps showing or that the smile plastered on my face until that moment was a direct result of that bit of lace and all the compliments my friends had given me for starting to break out of my shell. They also didn’t know, and would never have known, that if I chose to wear my regular jeans and unisex t-shirts the next day it would have been a direct result of that comment.

    The worst part is, I catch myself doing this all the time – mentioning that a girl’s short shorts are a little too short or joking that if a large-chested woman moves the wrong way they might fall out of their shirt… but that’s my other goal for the summer. If I’m going to start wearing what I want to wear, I’m going to stop judging other people for doing the same thing.

  2. But what if it *IS* a compliment? What if they are are objectifying your body because you appear to them as a beautiful and strange object which they admire? What if they are simply hollering at you because they are excited to see something different? What if people are not sinister douche-bags but instead just really hyper morons who don’t know how to stay quiet?

    • Hey Martha,
      That’s a valid point. Perhaps some people do yell at me on the street because they think I am a strange and beautiful object to admire. But for me, it really doesn’t matter. If someone yells at me ” You are strange and beautiful!” or “Suck my dick”, the results are still the same. I still feel like someone who I do not know has taken the liberty to comment on my body, even though they do not know anything about me. And I am still reminded that someone may look at my body and want to hurt it, which for me as a woman with a disability, is pretty easy to do. I am very vulnerable when I walk on the streets alone, and cat calls, no matter the intent, serve to remind me of this. Annnnd, I am still made to feel like an object, which does not work for me because I am a woman, not an object, with a whole lot of dimensions beyond what one can see when they walk past me on the street.
      If someone is truly excited about me and the way that I look, I would much prefer it if they chose to harness that excitement and talk to me rather than drive past me and yell at me. Or better yet, get to know me and see if I am really worth being excited about, rather than yell.

      • Ariel

        Yes. Yes. Yes. Normal people do NOT yell at you because they “admire” you.
        I am 53 years old. I have been harassed like every other woman since I developed curves. I developed more curves than some, so this invited extra harassment. IT IS NEVER NORMAL to yell at a stranger, UNLESS THEY ARE ON FIRE OR ABOUT TO WALK INTO A GAPING HOLE IN THE GROUND. Period.
        I still fantasize about what I *could have said* to the three business men who stopped me on the street to ask “what’s your bra size?!” 30 years ago when I had the gall to wear a tank top.
        Thank you for going back and facing them down. I salute you.

  3. Tori

    Hi!

    I’ve been pretty frequently street harassed since puberty. I have huge breasts. I love my body, but I’ve been told to stop dressing ‘like a slut’ in a sweater.

    I walk to work everyday because it is the most economical and easiest way for me. 6 days out of 7 I get yelled at at least once, and every once and awhile I get followed home. This feels like punishment for not smiling and saying thank you or whatever I am expected to do in that situation. I had a particularly hard week for harassment this week, and choose to mention this to a man I knew. He looked me up and down and said to me “Girls like you are they only one’s who get treated like that, because you know you deserve it. We know you like it.”

    There was no way to explain to this guy that no, I don’t like calling my roommates to say “I don’t feel safe – can you meet me along the way.” I was on the edge of my rope today when I went to the safest place I could think of to chill out – Venus envy. I really needed to hear a voice telling me something other then “you should be thankful”.

    An employee there pointed me towards this. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Thank you for saying out loud that its ok to be angry.

  4. Kiran

    Kaleigh, As a reader from India and owing to the fact that in the recent past, India has become such an unsafe place for women, i commend you on your spirit. I think it was really courageous and it was the right thing to do.

    Well, I believe that you can never be a good man if you don’t know how to respect women and treat them right. Cat calling, Howling and Wolf-whistling are pretty obvious symptoms of a serious social disease.

    I am one of those big, intimidating types of individuals and i always ensure that no one messes with any women, be it friends or strangers when im around. Kudos to you milady. We guys are all not that bad and its the guys who do such cheap shit who give us a bad name.

    Once again, Kudos…

  5. It started when I was 17 and left the country for the city college. Gaining lots of weight helped a little. Long skirts and sleeves don’t stop x-ray vision. I thought turning 40 might make a difference (nope, still too good looking) Now I’m 62 and I can finally walk down the street without whistles and comments unless I’m seen from the back (my hair is still dark and my hips still swish). Now it’s kinda funny when the young men turn back to take another look and say “Oh! Sorry, Abuela!” Finally, I’m decrepit enough to get some respect…

  6. esme

    Thanks VERY MUCH for writing this article and articulating a very real problem. I feel inspired to stop internalizing my responses to latent (and not so latent) violence I witness from strangers in Halifax. Exciting to hear a successful story about opening up a dialogue!

  7. Hi there. I too am a slightly less than abled person, have been my whole life. The weird thing is that when people comment on my disability, it’s usually with concern. “Is your leg okay?”, “what’s wrong with your foot?”, “do you need some help walking?”. I mostly laugh it off and say I’m fine, thanks, been this way forever. I guess some people just can’t help but comment, you know? At least it’s not malicious. Well, except when it is.

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