10 September 2013

Street Harassment Ain’t No Thang (and other lies that I tell myself, in order to avoid having, like, emotions)

“Hey, hey girl. Sit down. I’m givin’ you my seat.”
This from a skinny man on the train who was, apparently, determined to get my attention. I was wearing my biggest shades and my headphones and toting my usual twenty-pound Show Bag*, just like any other day on the red line. Let the record show that I was also looking pretty good, although it might have just been the new dress and unexpectedly good hair day going to my head.
For whatever reason – possibly because I was only four stops from my destination, possibly because I didn’t feel like giving this guy an excuse to keep talking to me – I just didn’t feel like sitting. So I smiled, shook my head, and went back to looking away and out the window.
It would seem that, for some people, this is a huge insult.
Or so you would think, as I spent the rest of my train ride being loudly and insistently asked to take my headphones out, whether I was ‘looking for a man’, whether I was a ‘good and decent woman’ who knew how to treat one, and, finally, loudest of all, whether I was ‘one of those dykes.’

 I spent a lot of time shaking my head and looking away from him, being incredibly thankful for the sunglasses that made it a little easier to pretend I wasn’t there. The other people in the train car, most of them wearing their own headphones, either looked quietly uncomfortable or pointedly ignored us. Honestly, I couldn’t blame them, but I was still hugely relieved when my stop finally came up.
I had to go around him, to get off the train. I had turned up the volume on my iPod by then, but Macklemore and Mary Lambert couldn’t quite drown out the sound of his cussing at my back.
Now, here’s the interesting bit – or at least, I hope it’s the interesting bit; it’s kind of the point of my story – the whole time this was happening, all I could think was Well, this is going to make a great story. Wondering how various of my friends would react to it, and deciding how I would tell it – which details should I include? Should I spin it so as to make myself seem ‘tough’? Should I mention the almost-certainly-queer couple who was sitting four seats down, who got so quiet when he started talking? Will this story make people look at me differently? Will they be impressed? Will they worry? – kept my mind off where I was, and on the far more interesting subject of how other people would feel about it.

Since then, I’ve come to realize that this is how I deal with street harassment in general. Whether it’s that obnoxious guy in broad daylight on the train (loud, but ultimately harmless), or lewd suggestions on the sidewalk (embarrassing, but again – harmless) or actual voiced threats on the late-night bus home (…?), I instantly distance from the situation. The part of myself I think of as ‘personal’ shuts down or goes away, I’m not sure, and I approach what’s happening as an objective, largely uninvested, occasionally amused, observer. It’s like some sleazy little reporter pops up in my brain: Oooh, how gross. How demeaning. My readers’ll love it!
I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad thing. It works for me, but maybe that means I’m giving in to what these people are doing, letting them make me less than the full, complex, much-more-than-the-body-you-find-attractive-and-or-offensive person that I actually am.
I’ve been doing this for so long that I’d honestly stopped noticing, until Bard pointed it out. We were riding the bus home from my theater one night, tired and hungry and indulging in that particular brand of goofy that’s pretty much just a coping mechanism for being too wiped to function properly anymore. I don’t think either of us paid much attention to the big black guy staring at us until he stopped in front of our seats and said, with every sign of disgust, “You two gonna die.” And then he got off of the bus.
It was like he had flipped a switch on our mood – I think we spent the rest of that bus ride in stunned silence. I, of course, spent most of it dissecting and re-packaging the situation: What just happened there? Was it because we got too loud? Was it because Bard is white? Maybe he was mad because he thought we were a biracial couple. Or maybe he was getting mad about a queer biracial couple. Oh, man. This’ll be an exciting one to tell people. Better not tell my parents, though, they’ll freak out...**
On the outside, though, I shrugged it off with something like, “Man, that was random. Lots of haters in the world, huh?” Bard, on the other hand, was uncomfortable and worried for days afterwards. I did a crappy job of being understanding about it, too, because in my mind? It was just another story. And a pretty good one! We didn’t even have to do anything, not like the time we ended up getting off our bus nine blocks early because of the old man glaring at us and muttering angrily. No big.***

Only, I’m now admitting that it is. It’s a big deal to feel unsafe on public transit, and it’s a big deal to have to do the double-vision self-policing that so many people, for a variety of reasons, feel they need to do before leaving the house (am I going to attract too much attention? Is someone going to get angry when they see me here, dressing and acting like myself? Do I need to tone it down? Can I get on this bus/train/whatever, or would it be safer to wait for the next one?).
Unfortunately, I don’t have a neat, cute bow to tie on this situation – it’s an ongoing thing, both in my thoughts and my daily experience. But I’m trying to think about it a little differently; maybe a little harder. Because I still refuse to let streetside harassers make me feel afraid or ashamed of myself. But maybe I can also find a way to deal with them that doesn’t make me turn off my feelings altogether. Do you think that’s possible? Or am I dreaming too big here?

No shame.

*I.e. the bag that I carry when I have rehearsal or a show that night – it’s usually stuffed to the seams with spare pencils, three kinds of tape, a warm/black shirt to change into, sometimes my prompt book, and my dinner. Along with whatever else I might need when I’m out and about that day. This is not to be confused with the kind of Show Bag that’s made out of unicorn hide and costs $800 and whose main function is to be admired. Although that sounds nice.

**Yeah, uh, about that. Sorry, Mom and Dad.

***Sorry, Bard. Again.


  1. Hi, I am Fiona from Hong Kong. That was really interesting to read. I have heard a lot about street harassment in the US…a girl on Jezebel said a man walked up to her one day and said, calmly: "You are an ugly fat cunt" and walked off. And then there was an avalanche of stories. Here in HK, it never happens and the streets are totally safe. At 3 in the morning I walk through subway tunnels and think nothing of it and I'd never do that in Manchester, UK, my home town, so it is like being a man, never needing the female radar. But when I go back to UK I find the radar has gone and I'm scared all the time. I didnt realise how inbuilt it was, how it steered me away from the dangerous men and knew which were harmless. Now they all look aggressive and scary and I can't tell which to cross the road against.
    I am shocked to hear how much this goes on in the US, though. In Britain it's still mostly just builders who call "Get yer knickers off, darling!" and wolf-whistle. It's harmless. It's never followed up.
    Is it really so common, in the US, to be bothered on the street and on trains?

  2. Hi Fiona! Sorry I'm so late - been offline awhile.
    To answer your question, I can't speak for anyone else in the US (I think there's a fair amount of variance between regions, for one), but street harassment in the US is common enough that you can walk into just about any group of women (can't speak for the dudes) and bring up "street harassment", and everyone's got a personal story. Sometimes they don't even think to label it harassment, it's so common. But yeah, it's definitely a thing. I'm a little jealous of you there in Hong Kong, though, that sounds kind of great!


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