Feminist Reactions to Street Harassment

American Girl in Italy
, Ruth Orkin, 1951

The construction crew building the school across the street from my old apartment stayed all summer. And though the notion that construction workers spend their days ogling and wolf whistling is overplayed—I barely flinch when walking by a site most of the time—this group lived up to the stereotype. Nothing vulgar, nothing over-the-top, just: One day, a sudden silence when I'd walk by, and out of the corner of my eye I'd see heads turning; the next, a chorus of knowing "Hello there, where you going?" would follow me down the gauntlet. It was tame; still, even though there was only one direct route from my apartment to the subway, on days when I just wasn't up to it, I'd walk around the block in order to avoid them.

But one day I'd had enough, and as I walked by and heard the chime of "lookin' good"s, I snapped. "Do you think women like hearing this every day?" I asked. "Do any of you have daughters?" Several of them did, including the foreman. "What would you do if you saw someone talking to your daughter and looking at her the way you do to women?" His face got red; his cheeks puffed out. "I'd teach him a lesson," he said. "I'm somebody's daughter," I replied. A shocked look crossed his face, and another worker said, "My daughter's eight." I told him I was 11 the first time I was hollered at on the street, and by this time a small crowd had gathered and they were nodding and looking at me with respect. They asked my name, I gave it, and from then on every time I walked by the site, a couple of them would say, "Hi, Autumn," and all was well.

At least, that's how it went in my mind. Yesterday I read M. Brenn's questioning, reflective post on a sudden flash of jealousy she felt when she saw a distasteful episode of unwanted attention: "Mostly, I was outraged that he so clearly saw the girls as nothing more than objects," she writes. "But there was also a part of me that was oddly jealous… It's such a hypocritical thing to be outraged by someone's actions, yet be hurt that they weren't toward you." It's a thought-provoking post. (Thanks to Virginia for pointing me toward it.) She solicited readers' experiences, and only when I started to really reflect on the complex reactions that harassment prompts within me did I remember: It wasn't me the construction workers were hollering at when I told them off. It was the woman ahead of me on the street.

Now, these workers had indeed been making me wary for weeks by the time I melted down: Again, nothing lewd, but I'm not so naive as to think that their words to me were strictly neighborly. They were claiming my block—the block I'd called home for years—as their own space. But I dealt with it internally, either by ignoring, or playing neighbor, or taking the long way around. I never confronted them—until the day that another woman was walking maybe 30 feet ahead of me and I heard them get to her first. When they started in on her, I saw her head bow ever so slightly as she shuffled past the site. And in that moment, I snapped. The dialogue I gave above happened as I described it, but it wasn't me they were talking about.

I've told the story a few times—with me as target—as an example of a way to call out street harassers on their actions, because it did have what I consider a happy ending. (Some women may have preferred that they never say hello to her, but that would have made me even more tense; really, all I wanted was to feel at ease in my neighborhood, and for me this did it.) I never consciously rewrote the story in my head to eliminate the actual target of their attention; in fact, telling it in that way was so seamless that I honestly had forgotten it wasn't about me, until I read M. Brenn's post.

I don't know how much of my reaction was about jealousy; I'm loath to admit when that particular emotion strikes me, but I didn't feel that hot flash of jealousy that I'm plenty familiar with. (Though I can't pretend it was simple mama-bear protectiveness on my part either; the truth is probably a little of both, plus a nasty mood and opportunity to at least feel like I was speaking up for someone else instead of myself, which I'm not great at.) But my hunch is that my accidental revision was about embarrassment. I'm pretty sure that instinctively, I feared seeming jealous if I reported that I'd finally told off the workers after seeing someone else get the treatment, not myself—and that if I then tried to make it clear that, Well, no, you see, they'd also done it to me too, it was just this one day, no really!, I'd seem a little thou-doth-protest-too-much. I've often braced myself for walking a stretch of sidewalk that's populated with men I believe will bring me trouble—and heard nothing. And sometimes that feels like a relief or even a victory, but other times I merely feel foolish for having assumed that I would elicit that kind of attention.

I don't want to be harassed—ever. But we're steeped in a culture where objectification is treated as a prize for women, and in New York City, the objectification of street harassment is a fact of day-to-day life. It's a constant reminder that we are being looked at. In a culture that breathes objectification down our necks, being looked at can satisfy an itch that wasn't ours to begin with—even as it annoys us. Objectification is an unnatural state, but even women who fight against objectification—mine, yours, J.Lo's, anyone's—live in a world where it's the norm, and we may sometimes internalize its absence as a remark on our appeal. I think of one of Beauty Redefined's catchphrases: You are capable of so much more than being looked at. It's a powerful, truthful statement, and I believe it.

But fighting that all day, every day, becomes exhausting. We've become programmed to find street objectification the norm, and deprogramming ourselves from that takes constant work. If we had a unilateral way of rejecting street harassment, it might be easier, but it's not a neat trajectory: Sometimes we have interactions with strangers that are pleasant, life-affirming, and joyous, and sometimes those encounters might even make you feel pretty (if objectified). Unlike sexual assault, in which a woman saying no or being unable to consent marks the beginning of the crime zone, the target's feelings are part of what delineates harassment from a simple encounter. I feel harassed when I received unwanted attention on the street (and for the record, most of it is unwanted)—and the person who decides what's unwanted is me. There are plenty of external factors that push an encounter to the harassment end of the spectrum: Is it one man, or a group? Is it daylight, or night? Is he drunk, am I? Does he start to follow me, does he call me a bitch when I don't answer, is there a menace in his voice? Is he saying good morning, or is he commenting on parts of my body? Is he smiling, or is he whispering, or is he making that hideous hissing sound I'd never heard before moving to this city, or does he keep on talking after I've indicated I don't want to engage with him?

But street encounters are complex, and so are our reactions to them. I know I'm not alone in occasionally feeling genuinely pleased at a nice comment from a stranger. Of course this can only happen when the fellow is following common sense; it's daylight, he doesn't linger, he's brief and kind and smiling and not ogling—basically, he's a gentleman about it. Yet at its heart, even an encounter with the hallmarks of pleasance is left up to me to define as an amiable human interaction or as a gnat of a moment I wish hadn't happened. Not that I can—or should—welcome all polite comments on my appearance; it's more that, frankly, my mood has a lot to do with whether I smile back, ignore it, or cast an annoyed look. I try to always to ignore it, but my instincts don't always let me.

Listen: If I could, by decree, rule that nobody would ever comment on a stranger's appearance—both harassment and genuine compliments—I'd do it. Ultimately I want my block to feel like mine, not like I'm on a canvas and the patriarchy holds the paintbrush. But I also feel like with that decree, I'd be losing small, occasional gifts that have entered my life as a result of a stranger saying something nice to me. I have to acknowledge my contradictions as a part of my complex reaction to being looked at.

Jealousy, anger, pride, relief, apprehension, hatred, satisfaction, dread, numbness, fear, stress, thrill, shame: These are all legitimate reactions to these sorts of encounters. But notice that these are all reactions. That may be the greatest loss this particular form of objectification signifies for women. It keeps us in a constant state of passivity and self-examination, whether in the end we applaud our own responses or doubt them. And this examination diverts us from the larger point: It's not our response to actions that needs a thorough questioning. It's the actions themselves.