Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My First Street Harrasment

I developed in seventh grade. At 12, I had a C cup and full hips. This did not make me happy. Most of the time I just felt different but sometimes I really hated the way I was forced to look. I remember walking down to the corner store and having men at the bus stop shout-out, “Hey Baby,” while making kissing noises at me. At 12 I felt closer to being a baby than being a woman, and I did not know how to deal with this kind of attention.

As I grew older I learned to feign ignorance and put on my “bus face.” This is something women know how to do. When on the Metro I see women of all ages doing the same thing - trying to be invisible. Eyes forward, no smiling, and no conversations with strangers. Try to sit next to another woman, bring a book, or an iPod, or a phone to focus your attention on. This is your “bus face”,  depending on geography also known as “BART face”.

These are tricks that any woman who has dealt with public transportation masters. Women are taught how to avoid unwanted attention. Apparently this is our responsibility for having the audacity to develop breasts and hips at any age. If we then choose to show these breasts and hips to the public by walking in the open we must learn to draw as little attention as possible.

Street Harassment is one obvious way women are punished for participating in the public sphere. It doesn’t matter what you may be wearing or where you may be going. Anthropologist Marcaela di Leonardo describes street harassment:
Street Harassment occurs when one or more strange men accosts one or more women … in a public place which is not the woman’s/women’s work site. Thorough looks words, or gesture the man asserts his right to intrude on the woman’s attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him.
For me street harassment has become common, it’s something I honestly expect to happen. It’s something I am prepared for and am never surprised by. Although it is commonplace it is by no means trivial. Because I walk in public I should not have to accept sexual harassment from strangers. Street harassers are not arrested or charged with crimes if they are caught. I have never once even thought of calling the police to report an incident of my own street harassment.  I have never had a bystander interfere and ask a them to stop.

Street harassment should not be an "inconvenience" that women just have to learn to deal with. When strange men catcall a woman in public, they reinforce their ability to insert themselves in that woman’s sexuality. For that woman it reinforces a fear of rape and her responsibility to make herself smaller so as not to attract that kind of attention.

The first time a man yelled out “baby” to me I was only twelve. The first thing I did when I went home was look myself in the mirror and check what I was wearing. Then I thought about how I was walking. Then I learned not to walk by that bus stop again.


Pali said...
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KSergent said...

I also experienced street harassment from a young age. What is troubling is that it affected the way I viewed myself. My self worth was based on my sexuality. If a guy "cat-called" me from a car or hit on me while I was waiting at the bus stop, I felt good about myself (even though I thought the person was annoying and often did not know what to say back). On days when guys would ignore me, I figured I looked ugly.

This was clearly unhealthy, but I think that this type of constant objectification causes many young women to subconsciously value themselves through men's inappropriate conduct.

Mo said...

You are so right to point out that Street Harassment – which has always seemed to me to enjoy a remarkably high degree of social acceptance -- is but one of the many ways women feel a “responsibility to make [themselves] smaller so as not to attract that kind of attention.” It is also, I think, one of the most overt and public manifestations of male sexual dominance in our society. Can you imagine a group of women throwing sexually charged remarks as male passersby? Maybe. But is it sufficiently commonplace to be the subject of parody (http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/2012/10/snlskit/)? No. Definitely not.

KSergent’s comment, I think, illustrates one of the difficulties associated with addressing street harassment: the harassers are often complimenting the listener (albeit in usually crude terms). Sometimes, it’s nice to feel pretty. It’s nice to feel like others find you attractive. And when you’re accustomed to the catcalls, and find them lacking, you might wonder what went wrong. (So to speak.) In addition, for many people, it’s harder to verbally object to the language – and to create a public conflict – than it is to walk away and put on your “bus face.”

Perhaps one solution here is to make Street Harassment criminal. That is, Street Harassment could be outlawed as a public nuisance in the same way many jurisdictions ban public urination, public intoxication, etc. If the harassee knows the behavior is illegal, might it be easier for her to assume the harasser has refrained in order to comply with the law (rather than attribute his silence to her “ugliness”)? I wonder -- and pose the question to any interested readers -- do some jurisdictions outlaw Street Harassment? If so, I imagine enforcement issues (not to mention potential constitutional problems) abound…

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

One of my favorite "early" (relatively speaking--it was 1993) feminist legal theory law review articles was (and is) "Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women" by Cynthia Grant Bowman in the Harvard Law Review. You can read about it here:


A link to the full article is here:


CET said...

I can't remember the first time I was "cat-called," but do know, at some point, I figured out what my response would be: picking my nose. As a pre-teen who also developed relatively early, picking my nose was the least sexual gesture I could think of. I figured I would remind them that I'm human and try to de-sexualize myself. The best part is that it works. I feel more confident now to shoot someone a dirty look when this happens, but on occasion, if I'm feeling particularly vulnerable, I will start picking my nose and the harassment stops. Try it sometime. The reactions are pretty funny.

Pali said...



MC said...
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Patricija said...

Cat calls are always uncomfortable and unsettling. Getting catcall when you're with your friends or in the day time makes you feel terrible, violated, and self-conscious. However, there are certain times when this act is particularly frightening and threatening. I think of all the times that I have walked home in the evening hours or at night, and often alone. Cat calling in these situations makes me feel particularly vulnerable and afraid of attack. It is in these situations that I feel most like the prey being stalked by a predator as analogized by Sarah in a more recent post.

Pali said...

I've definitely been in the same boat; boobs by 6th grade led to a really strange experience of being cat called as a child. I don't think it was even recognized as harassment that many years ago, and I definitely didn't understand the implications of it.

Maybe there's hope!

MC said...

I have had years to perfect my LA bus face. Throughout college, and for years afterward, I commuted to school and work on LA metro. For up to two hours I sat on the bus while strange men got on and off and gawked at me shamelessly, sometimes slinging inappropriate comments my way. Often I observed other women’s bus face to pick up tips and learn what was most effective. For me, it was keeping my headphones plugged in, and eyes fixed on buildings and billboards outside.

Metro officials in Washington D.C. are taking steps to reduce occurrences of sexual harassment for commuters. http://www.wjla.com/articles/2012/03/metro-sexual-harassment-wmata-upping-efforts-to-combat-incidents-74090.html. In April 2012, the agency launched an online portal for customers to report incidents of harassment to Metro Transit Police. http://washington.cbslocal.com/2012/04/02/metro-goes-digital-to-crack-down-on-sexual-harassment/. Additionally, employees on trains and buses are receiving better training on how to deal with harassment when it happens. I think these are definitely steps that all transportation agencies need to consider.