Dear man on the street who harassed me today,
I can imagine your response to my plea to be left alone. “Haven’t we all gotten a little too sensitive? Can’t a man pay a woman a compliment anymore?!”*
The answer is yes. Men can pay women compliments. People can appreciate things about others and let them know. This kind of interaction does not come from moving vehicles, isn’t shouted, and doesn’t make anyone feel unsafe.
There are a series of questions that I roll through in my head on a regular basis. They begin when I feel eyes on me. You see it’s not just you I encountered today. Interactions like today have been a regular part of my life since I got breasts, around 12. It’s different than being looked at. It’s being sized up as though an item on the buffet they are considering with great interest. It’s unsettling.
Even if that experience isn’t something you relate to, you know what it’s like to be looked at differently than simply noticed in passing. The glare of someone angry at you. The look of suspicion if you are being accused of something. Big sad eyes asking you for something. My visible frustration you may have missed today as you weren’t looking at my face.
I would go so far as to say the experience of being sized up is dehumanizing. Your gaze is often anywhere but my face. In that moment I am being considered a sum of sexual parts, none of which consider my desires or that your actions make me wildly uncomfortable. It’s blatant disrespect.
The moment I feel this discomfort I begin my assessment, the list of questions.
- Will you look me in the eye?
- How alone am I?
- Are there people around I could expect to help me if I needed?
- Are you alone?
- Is there any possibility I’m in danger?
- Can I run in these shoes?
- Am I carrying anything that could be used as a weapon?
- Are you moving on yet or still fixated on me?
- If I keep walking will you follow me?
Not a sexy list. For myself and 25% of women (a statistic I believe is wildly lower than reality) who have been subject to sexual abuse or assault, the perceived threat is not a theory but a lived experience. Some days I find myself having to quickly rebound from my body’s “fight or flight” response in these scenarios. A quick change I’ve mastered, unfortunately. How quickly a dehumanizing gaze and some shouted “what I would do to you” kind of words can escalate. And for me, I know that my awareness is heightened. PTSD will do that. I know you couldn’t look at me and know my history. But when you harass a woman on the street you can expect that at least 1 in 4 of us may struggle in that way as well.
Your one sided communication feels so disempowering.
For me that’s the worst part. I still don’t know exactly what to do. Specifically, I don’t know what to teach my daughter to do. Silence feels like acceptance but taking any stance feels like a possible and unnecessary higher risk. Again, I don’t know who you are. I don’t know if you’re a nice guy with an ignorant though relatively innocent sense of entitlement to my person, or if furthering any interactions with you could cause me harm.
I usually walk on in these interactions which leaves me feeling powerless but relieved it’s over. Still unsettled and unsure of what to teach my daughter about men like you. I never want her to feel as small as I do now. I also want her to be safe more than anything in the world. If she develops like her mother, I only have five years to figure that out.
What I’d like to offer today is the benefit of the doubt and some advice. In case you were, in fact, interacting with me in the only way you knew how.
If you want to talk to a woman, look for consent to do so. It’s not hard to obtain. Have you ever needed to ask someone to help you choose a ripe fruit at the grocery store? I bet you found someone who seemed not in a hurry and then looked for eye contact, followed by that eyebrows raised facial expression that asks what you might need. You probably avoided the person who looked distressed or in a hurry. It’s not different. Those are basic courtesies we learn about interacting with strangers that seem to go out the window for women walking in public.
If a woman is walking like she is on a mission, laser focused eyes and clutching her keys; she’s not interested in talking to you. In fact, if all of those things are present you are likely bearing witness to a woman who has just given herself a pep talk about getting to her car unscathed. She is specifically avoiding you right now. Headphones, head down, looking away instead of at you, these tactics are like armor. It’s purposeful. It says “no.”
Once you have established eye contact and consent to converse, looking at her face as though she’s a person who deserves respect, you might proceed to pay her a compliment. She will probably be kind about your words. And then if you are not invited to more conversation, move on. Don’t block her from moving forward or take back the compliment if she doesn’t share your interest. “You weren’t that hot anyway,” may knock her down a bit (though we’re used to this tactic too), but mostly makes you look bad. Speaking to women you don’t know with respect does not entitle you to more of their time either.
It may seem like such a small thing to you. Staring at a nice pair of tits, yelling something crass from your moving vehicle. You might even believe you are doing something we welcome. I assure you that silence is an effort to remain safe, not an indication that we are excited. I for one am worn out. I guess twenty years is long enough to endure regular harassment. I read a statistic the other day that said street harassment drops off for women around the age of 37. I have a birthday coming up. I welcome the notion of walking peacefully. But while I’m moving toward the relative end of my long career of being a young woman walking, my daughter is also speeding toward her tenure. And I won’t be one of those women who suddenly loses empathy for what that feels like because it’s no longer happening to me.
I’m also getting more brazen as I age. And I’m a mother bear. I may not know what to teach her yet but today marks the end of my own silence. I will not be complacent in your entitlement: to my time, to stare at my body or to verbally assess me in any way. I know how to take a compliment, but I will no longer suffer silently your disrespect.