I went to a discussion this week on street harassment. While the event was well run, it turned out to be pretty difficult for me, and I wanted to write a little about why.
I showed up expecting a group that was well versed in the issue of street harassment. I thought many people there would have a lot of experience on the receiving end. Instead, I found that I was initially the only person who experienced frequent street harassment (later, one other person showed up who had similar experiences). Despite having a careful and thoughtful facilitator, this placed me and that other person in a weird position. It felt like I needed to frequently step in to explain what my experiences of street harassment are really like. It also felt like many of the people present had a lot of trouble having empathy for me and that other person. Instead, they seemed to center their own difficulties (i.e. "But how do I approach people on the street if people might think I'm a harasser?").
There are a few things that I wish were taken for granted in discussions of street harassment:
1) Strangers don't have a right to my attention.
Saying that someone is just flirting or just wants to get to know me doesn't explain why they feel free to force me to participate in that. I don't want to flirt. I don't want to get to know you on the street. I'm very bothered that other people's desire to have my attention is placed above my need to make choices about how I use my own limited resources.
2) Obscene comments and threatening gestures are really not a way to "get to know" someone.
The "he was just trying to get to know you" idea seems very weak when I think about the actual stories involved. Despite the fact that this idea comes up very persistently, I can't believe that someone who follows me down the street in his car is "just trying to get to know me." I can't believe that anyone thinks that screaming, "Oooh, titties!" at the sight of me is a good opening to "getting to know" me. I am flabbergasted that this defense is brought up frequently (including in this week's discussion).
3) Interactions that may not seem threatening to a member of a privileged group can be very threatening to a member of a minority group.
A man may not mind having a woman scream that she likes his ass (or maybe he would, that's fine, too). But that screaming woman is unlikely to present the type of threat to his safety that a man screaming the same thing could present to a woman's. A white person may feel perfectly safe while interacting with police. That doesn't mean a black person will feel the same way in that interaction. A straight person might find questions about his girlfriend innocuous. A queer person might find the same questions threatening. A cis person might not feel anything in particular about being misgendered (though often cis people seem to have a lot of feelings about this!). That doesn't mean it's okay to do that to a trans or nonbinary person. This is a really important principle that people need to understand in order to have effective conversations with people from groups they don't belong to.
So with that in mind, I'll tell a story of the interaction that disturbed me most in the discussion. I was explaining why I've grown wary of people on the street, no matter how they approach me. I described the way that many interactions start out seeming innocent and escalate into harassment. I gave an example:
A guy came up to me once and asked for directions to the nearest department store. We were close to one, so this didn't seem strange and I told him how to get there.
Him: Do they sell women's clothing there?
Him: Do they sell bras?
Me: (getting uneasy) Yes.
Him: What size bra do you wear?
(I hurry away.)
I didn't get into this at the discussion, but this really had a lingering effect on me. There was something about the look on the guy's face when he asked me what size bra I wear that shook me deep down. He had this gross and victorious smile. It made me feel like the whole point of the interaction was that he wanted to ask me a question about my breasts. I felt like he'd gotten what he wanted from me and there was nothing I could do to stop him. I felt stupid for letting him talk to me in the first place. I felt afraid that he would follow me.
Someone at the discussion later brought up the idea that this guy was "just trying to flirt" with me. Maybe not well ("well" defined as, in a way I liked). The clear implication, to my mind, was that there was no real harm in this behavior. It's hard for me to remember the precise moment of this interaction, because my face went hot and I sort of froze up. This person was looking at me, and I found I couldn't look them in the eye anymore. I remember the person saying something like, "He was just flirting, don't you think?" And I couldn't return the gaze, and this person pursued me. "No? You don't think so?"
I felt stuck because I didn't want to lash out in a way that would get me further dismissed. I said something like, "If you think asking someone's bra size within four seconds of meeting them is flirting, then I don't..." And I trailed off because I don't know how to help you if you think that.
More importantly, being questioned like that hurts me. I didn't know how to defend myself for a long time because I was very caught up in worrying about the other person's intentions. I'd sit frozen through an entire horrible interaction because I just wasn't sure when I was allowed to call it. It's very important for my own well being to reject that sort of questioning. No. You don't have a right to my attention, strange man. No, there is no excuse for asking my bra size on the street. There just isn't.
I also hadn't described the man when I told the story. At the time this happened, I was in my mid-20s. The man who approached me was easily several decades older than me. That situation is predatory. It's not innocent or fun. But the age doesn't matter that much, because the point is that when I'm walking down the street, I want to be left alone.
I said as much to the group. There are places where you can talk to me, where I go because I'm open to social interaction. For example, discussion groups, or mixer type events. I want people to come up to me if and only if there's a social setting inviting such a thing. I don't feel a lot of sympathy for you if you complain that this makes it hard for you to get a date on the street. I'm not on the street looking for dates. I'm there to go to the store or to meet a friend or to go to work or get exercise or whatever.
I'm interested (and disturbed) by how ready people are to assume good faith on the part of the harasser, and, in combination with that, to assume that I'm just confused when I report my feelings of hurt and fear.
Over and over, I kept hearing people talk about the situation of the harasser who's maybe socially inept but really just wants to form connections. The thing that bothered me when I woke up the next day is that this narrative persisted despite the fact that me and the other frequently harassed person told no stories of this nature. We talked about being followed, cursed at, having dirty words whispered to us. How do you hear that and then lament how people are "just trying to connect"?
I'm chilled by this. Really chilled. And sort of in despair about it.
Why is it so easy for people to empathize with harassers and so difficult for them to empathize with those who are harassed? Why does no one seem to know any harassers personally, but on the other hand they seem so quick to defend them?
Things I wish I'd done better in retrospect:
1) Asked for ground rules about cross talk
The discussion facilitator was very careful about trying to create a safe space. I wished I'd asked for ground rules in the opening about having my experiences questioned in certain ways. I wasn't sure how to frame that, and I kept silent when I shouldn't have.
2) Discussed race
My experiences of harassment are closely tied to race. I hinted around this, but I was much too delicate about it. In particular, I should have mentioned that I was harassed very frequently while out with a dark-skinned Colombian girlfriend, and almost never while dating a tall white woman. My skin tone can change a lot due to all sorts of factors, but I definitely get harassed more when I am browner.
Conversely, I have been harassed by men of all ethnicities. However, at one point someone suggested a street harassment law. I said that idea worried me because it might be applied unfairly. I should have come out and said that I was worried it would be applied only to dark-skinned men.
3) Challenged hurtful narratives more directly and pointed out contradictions more clearly
I wish I'd been able to describe more clearly some of the things I've said in this post. I wish I'd asked people why they were so invested in defending harassers and minimizing my experience. I wish I'd been a bit sharper with what I said.
One of the things that's still bothering me about this, though, is how much work this winds up being for me. I woke up early this morning, on edge, going over everything I'd said, processing my experiences all over again, critiquing the ways I'd expressed myself or hadn't. I might feel better if I knew a lot of people stayed in the discussion that way, but I have a sinking suspicion that this labor was loaded more onto me and the other person who'd experienced a lot of harassment.
I'm upset when I think about all the work that can come with receiving a certain sort of hurt. Not only do I have to deal with the hurt, I have to deal with all these repercussions of it, other people's feelings about it, and on and on forever. I'm angry about other people's ability to walk away from it, and the casual way they can knock me over (metaphorically) and then put it behind them while I'm still trying to get back up.