Written by Camille Michelle Gray
Summer is upon us. The atmosphere is warming, the sun is out for longer, and the humidity is ruining everyone’s hair. Along with the change in weather comes the change in wardrobe. I love summer clothes. I love shorts and skirts, and showing off the arms that tennis hath made. Summer dressing is effortless. The way a brightly colored chiffon maxi skirt flows with your legs as the sun shines down on you is one of life’s small yet potent pleasures, like a cup of tea at the end of a long day or a giant lick of love from your pet.
So there you are, walking down a golden-lit city street like a Grecian goddess, certain that your confidence is parting the clouds and curing someone’s cancer, beaming like the sun, settling at the apex of self-assuredness, patting yourself on the back for enduring a long winter (for surely this is the reward after months of parkas and shoveling), firmly rooted in the joy of the summer season…and then you hear it:
Aye girl, I’m tryna see what’s under that skirt! *snicker*
Mood=ruined. Smile=gone. Confidence=eviscerated. Sudden need to run away and hide in corner=maximized.
‘Tis the season for street harassers! They mostly hibernate during the cooler months, hiding just below perception like cicadas under your lawn, unable to be bothered with trying to sexualize a woman in a floor length coat and a balaclava. But distress not, ladies! They are back in full force to make sure you feel slightly disgusted in yourself, in them, and in the world at large. Yes, as legs, arms, and abs start making their annual appearance, this certain breed of man will emerge, giddy and restless from a skinless winter. They are ready, able and enthusiastic about making sure you think twice about wearing your favorite skirt to work, less they mistake you wanting keep cool and look cute in the sun for an invitation to have a one-sided and explosive conversation about your sexual validity.
This bout inappropriateness is so predictable that it almost doubles as a summer solstice. It’s not summer in Washington D.C. until you’ve been leered at a little too long or catcalled on your morning run. Like the first snow of the season christening winter, the first Aye girl, Hey baby, or Mmm girl lets you know that, surely, summer has arrived.
I could go on and on about the vastly creative harassment I endure on a daily basis during these summer months. I could wax poetic about how this patriarchal merry-go-round called America creates and tolerates this behavior. I could even devolve into a righteous rage about how what to men may be intended as an innocuous compliment could be easily misconstrued as a violation of self on the behalf of the woman. But all these blogs have been written already.
I want to talk about something else—something much more insidious, something that is equally as disturbing. I want to talk about the female enablers and apologists of street harassment. Yes, they exist. You may even be one of them. If you’re already reading this with a meh, it’s not really THAT bad type of disposition, then you are part of the problem sister girl.
Female apologists of street harassment frequently hide behind the same versions of arguments over and over:
1) You should be grateful! When you become old like me and all the catcalls dry up, you’ll wish you cherished them while you were young!
2) I don’t get street harassed. And because it’s not happening to me, it ain’t important to me and you’re just complaining.
3) Where’s the harm if they’re just looking? Gosh, let them look. It’s not like they can touch.
4) Blargh, beautiful women complaining about how HARD is it to be beautiful again. Wow, I’m so sorry that you’re so pretty and men yearn to let you know. Stop the complaining!
Personally, I have been issued the you’re beautiful, get over it, I wish men fawned at me like they do you, you’re young, it’s harmless, it should give you confidence card over and over and over and over again. Certainly at one point in my life I didn’t mind street harassment. I did think it was kind of like an affirmation of self, an affirmation that, Hey, maybe I AM pretty! YAY! But as I grew older, the “compliments” grew overtly sexual and perverted in nature, physical boundaries were absolutely crossed (STRANGER DANGER!), and the novelty of it all wore off gradually and then very suddenly as I shed my naivety and realized my powerlessness in it all.
Allow me to debunk all this bullsh*t:
1) No. I won’t be grateful for some guy 35 years my senior calling me babydoll (condescending much?) and inquiring about what’s happening under my skirt. Won’t be grateful for a young male stranger grabbing onto my arm, threatening not to let go until he has my phone number. Won’t be grateful for a group of men publicly objectifying me in a Subway Sandwich shop, leaving me with palpable embarrassment and weakened pride. None of these things are to be cherished. None of these things uplift me as a woman, make me feel valued or beautiful. The attitude that I should sit back and take it because one day it will all be gone is nonsense if not only because I WANT IT TO ALL BE GONE NOW. No woman should derive self-esteem from outward validation anyway, especially if it’s as crude and disgusting as the brand of street harassment I know all too well. It bothers me that this simple Self Esteem 101 introductory lesson is lost on some older generations of women. Moreover, the idea that what is young is more beautiful than what is old, and the blindness in which some older women act as accomplices in their own devaluing, so much as to wish that they could be a victim of vile street communication if only to feel beautiful again is a web of f*ckery that only years of school and a doctorate degree can explain. Next!
2) This argument reminds me of Jon Stewart’s beautifully snarky Global warming isn’t real because right now it’s cold where I am sound bite. Yes, so because no one–thankfully–yells at you on the street or catcalls you, it must not be a thing or, like, a super bona fide systemic failure of patriarchal society. This is called negative denial. It is looking upon an issue and denying its efficacy based on the fact that it’s not impacting you directly. And, hey, if it’s not happening to you, why care? Only boo, that’s a sh*tty argument. All women should care if even ONE woman is harassed because if they don’t, it gives a kind of cosmic permission for more street harassers to feel okay about their behavior. Hey, as long as no one is tattling, it must be condoned right? Whatever happened to this idea of sisterhood, of bonding together? Okay, so YOU aren’t a victim of street harassment, but what about your friend/sister/aunt/niece/daughter/girlfriend/mom/co-worker’s aunt’s sister’s friend that IS? Are their concerns kind of watered down just because you don’t see it as a true issue? As long as we aren’t completely unified in our assertion that street harassment isn’t okay, street harassing men will continually find loopholes to slip through and it will never stop.
3) You can look but don’t touch! This concept makes sense in some contexts like buying expensive jewelry or walking through a museum of delicate artifacts. But it’s a bit more gray when it comes to human looking and touching. First of all, there is a world of difference between a harmless glance and the territorial terror that a salacious leer can invoke. A man staring at me for three seconds because he is walking by me on the street? Fine. Whatever. (Cue the I woke up like dis choir). But him staring at me and then craning his neck to stare some more, or turning his vehicle around to drive back and stare even more (this happened to me) or him slowing down an entire metro train to stare at me jogging around the adjacent lake (also happened to me)? NO BUENO AMIGA! It’s only humorous in retrospect. But in the moment, what’s to stop me from feeling like that staring man may not follow me back to my car or to my house where he will have the physical upper hand? Some women (and men) would be quick to offer that perhaps I am a meek little mouse who is afraid of the big mean world, always looking out for a potential predator even where there is none. But, in all of the aforementioned circumstances my fight-or-flight sequence was initiated. The most primal signifier of danger lit every cell of my body, as if to warn me that even if a salacious stare didn’t lead to assault, that the body language in which it was administered was disturbing and off enough that I need to proceed with caution. So what am I to believe? People who downplay feeling the danger of being stared at a little too long, or my natural biological wiring that has hundreds of thousands of years of finely tuned accuracy on its side? Next!
4) I hate this last argument. It’s so delicate. Feelings get hurt, wires get crossed, self-esteem hangs precariously in the balance. It’s awkward because the perpetrators of this limp, pseudo-compliment laced in obvious jealousy and sarcasm often feel that they are not beautiful themselves. And thus, to pander to their low self-esteem, The Beautifuls of the World must hang their heads in shame and accept that having a symmetrical face and/or well-endowed assets has irrevocably tied them to a fate of being harassed. It’s just how the world works, ahh the pity of the gorgeous. Are tiny violins playing yet? This argument is crock. Women who tragically and incorrectly perceive themselves as average or God-forbid, ugly, who don’t ever get harassed or cat called, may wish to ignore the issue of street harassment all together, seeing it as justified punishment for some dare having won a genetic lottery. It’s a little sick and sadistic, as if any woman truly deserves to be sexually objectified regardless of how they look. It also ties back to my earlier observation that yearning for outward validation is backwards in and of itself. According to this argument, if you’re beautiful, you have it made, so you should shut the f*ck up and go put some lipstick on. You’re not allowed to feel violated or sexualized because you being very good-looking is prize enough. The self-perceived Uglies of the world will not fight on your behalf to feel respected while walking down the street because the world has denied them the privilege of beauty, or so it seems. And so very subtly, these women crying that we all shut up and get over it have joined allegiance with our male street oppressors and they don’t even realize it. They want to silence our voice, they want to categorize the whole thing as a non-issue, they want our complacency and our mollification. Yet another example of how women turn their backs on each other, allowing personal webs of self-identification and esteem to trounce the collective soul and goals of the oppressed woman. They step in and out of the sisterhood when it’s convenient for them.
And so there it is. This is how some women tacitly play into the continuation of street harassment. Is it their fault? No. I am sure street harassment apologist theories wouldn’t even exist if not for the patriarchal conditioning of this society. We are all bred into a system that values women first and foremost on how they look. And as long as you are validated by a man, no matter how or where that validation comes, you’re winning right? You should be grateful, right? You should cherish it, right? You should stop complaining about it, right? Just let them look, right?
WRONG. Unapologetically wrong.
This isn’t intended to make anyone feel bad or riled up. It is, rather, a call to consciousness, to observe the pathologies that silently plague perspective and distort our awareness. Sure, to some, street harassment is far from the civil rights issue of the century, but to deny its existence or its power over the everyday lives of everyday women is to allow injustice, even small injustices, to survive and thrive in an underbelly of American ignorance. And as was once so eloquently stated: injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.