When I first moved to New York and into the converted hallway I was renting in an East Harlem drug den, I went from encountering street harassment maybe once a year to encountering it about six times a day, an increase of 218,900% (really).
On the corner of 3rd and 116th, I was waiting for the light so I could cross when someone behind me said something I then found terrifying, but now find hilarious. He said:
Blanca, you want a taste of chocolate?
And so it began.
(This is a post about one method of shutting down sexual harassers. As always, concern for your own safety should be paramount, so sometimes you should probably just ignore harassment instead of attempting to be clever or improve the world for women at large).
In every neighborhood I’ve lived in in the city, the street harassment has a bit of a different flavor. In East Harlem, it was largely a playful badinage (“blanca” is, of course, the feminine of “whitey”), where a snappy reply would often actually get a laugh and put an end to things rather than provoking further harassment. In Bushwick, where I lived far from the train in a scarily-deserted part of town, men in vans would regularly slow down to my walking speed, driving alongside me and … hissing. Like snakes. Dirty, dirty snakes. In Midtown, the harassment was the meanest I’d ever encountered. Once, I left my apartment after a shower — no makeup, wet hair in a bun, sundress, flip-flops — to go to Starbucks. While waiting to cross the street, a middle-aged man wearing a lot of gadgets on his belt said — with vicious seriousness — “Fucking whore.” I was actually confused and looked all around for whomever he might have meant — clearly, couldn’t anyone see that I wasn’t trying to look good, and that I really needed espresso? By the time I was sure he’d meant me, he was gone.
In contrast, whenever I get a nice compliment — an actual compliment! — from men, I always make a point of saying “thank you” in a deliberate and audible way, so perhaps others can get the message that that’s how interactions with strangers ought to go. (Side note: most actual, non-harassment-like compliments I have received have occurred when I was wearing goody-two-shoes vintage-style dresses, or else super-sharp businesswear). A young man sitting on a milk crate outside his job once shouted, “That’s a very nice dress, ma’am!” and got a “Thank you very much.” (Is it wrong that I look forward to the day when I can add “young man”?)
Once, in Chelsea, I got a “Nice calves!” I was on the fence about that one — I turned around to identify the speaker, and he was a bodybuilder-type dude, possibly gay, so I decided it was a legit compliment, especially since I had, in fact, been lifting over 200 pounds with my calves recently. I said “Hey, thanks,” in a sort of man-to-man kind of way. Grrr!
One can’t write a post about harassment in the city without giving a shout-out to Hollaback, which began in response to a woman’s photographing a man masturbating on the subway, which led to his being identified as the owner of a chain of raw food restaurants, which is why I haven’t eaten at Quintessence in years (the dessert menu involves a lot of “ice crème,” which is really made of nuts: that is, “nut crème”).
The idea with Hollaback is that you photograph your harasser and send his picture in to the site so he can be ridiculed. The site certainly does host a number of photos of men spanking it on the subway (those men are easy to photograph, since they are both sitting and distracted). But taking a photo of a man who tells me my ass is “sweet like bubblegum” might result in, oh, I don’t know, that guy pulling out his camera phone and posting my photo on StupidChicksWhoWon’tDoWhatIWant.com or something. I think maybe the whole photograph-your-perp idea depends on your having better technology than he does. In fact, here is a post on Hollaback in which a woman complains about a creepy guy taking cellphone photos of her. You could see that we might be starting an arms race here, and a sex-technology arms race can only end with upskirt photos, and videos of your boobs jiggling as you complain.
That said, Hollaback is launching an initiative to use smartphones and a dynamic mapping system to track harassment and “communicate its impact to legislators.” So, yes. Let’s all support that.
So, in the meantime, I do have one method I use to shut down harassment of the non-terrifying but merely annoying variety. For instance, you are on a crowded street and someone says “Nice ass.” Your mom might have once told you to “just ignore” that sort of thing; saying “Fuck you” has its pleasures, but also drags you into the dynamic of shouting rude things on the street, which is not how we ideally want to live. So what I do is:
1. Stop walking, if possible and appropriate.
2. Turn to the harasser and make full eye contact.
3. Say these magic words, in your best third-grade teacher voice: “That’s not an appropriate way to talk to a woman you don’t know.”
What’s he going to say to “That’s not an appropriate way to talk to a woman you don’t know”? “Yes, it is”?
There’s something about a dead-serious moral reprimand that just emasculates men, reminds them of some actual elementary school teacher looming over them, saying “Why did you just lie to me, young man?” You know how, as a kid, there was never a good answer to that kind of question? You just kind of stammered? That’s what I usually get in response. Sometimes I follow up with the “I’m disappointed in you, young man” expression. (It might help that I’m 31, not 21, and that I do, in fact, teach for a living. And again, I can’t wait until I can legitimately add “young man.” Maybe I’ll start now anyway, just for kicks!)
If you and the harasser are walking past one another in the opposite direction, you won’t have time to get out the full magic phrase. So, the short version is simply: “That’s inappropriate.” Say it the way you would say it to a child who’s been caught picking his nose at the dinner table for the third time this Thanksgiving: you are annoyed, in command, and wish the kid would just grow up already.
You might want to practice this now, in your mind (or in the mirror!), before summer hits and catcalls multiply exponentially:
Recall a time you have been harassed. Visualize your harasser as a ludicrously overgrown man-boy who has just peed his pants, while also jumping up and down, brandishing a plastic truck he stole from another kid in the sandbox. Pathetic. Now deploy the line: “That’s not an appropriate way to talk to a woman you don’t know.” Maintain eye contact. Develop an expression that means, “You’ll get nowhere with that kind of attitude, young man. Do you want me to send a note home to your parents?”
If you ultimately get to shut down a harasser in this manner in front of others, watch as those others nod in approval!
Always remember: harassment is immature sexual acting-out, which makes him the child, and you the adult. If the harasser is taller and bigger than you, that’s all the more reason for him to be embarrassed at acting like a child. Even if he continues to act out once you’ve told him his behavior is inappropriate, you’ve still removed yourself from the “competition” he was trying to create. Despite the claims of Forever 21, adulthood is awesome, and the person acting like an adult wins.