What I Think about Street Harassment
Okay so this post won’t have much of anything to do with the sorts of themes I usually tackle on the blog. It won’t even have anything to do with Christianity, to be honest. It’s just something I’ve been mulling over in my mind for the last few days.
The other day, I read this post on a blog I follow regularly. The writer, Samantha, discusses a YouTube video that recently went viral in which a woman dressed in a fitted t-shirt and jeans walks around New York City with a very passive face, making it clear to passersby that she is not interested in interaction with others. Throughout the course of her experiment, which lasted several hours, she received catcalls, sexually suggestive comments, and was asked for her number multiple times.
Samantha called this street harassment, and she shared her own experiences going through the same sort of thing throughout her life. They are frightening, unnerving stories, and a part of me was quite resentful of reading them, because as I did I felt paranoia rising up inside me.
I have had quite different life experiences from Samantha and the girl in the video. I grew up in a small town, and street harassment was never something I experienced at all, either in high school or college.
Now, though, I work in Wheeling, WV, a town that isn’t exactly big, but it definitely has a bad reputation in the area for violence, drugs, and crime. And I work second shift, so I walk to my car every night around midnight to go home.
And I’ve been cat-called a couple times, and men have said “heeeeeeey, girl” to me in a suggestive manner, and once a man easily twice my age asked for my phone number.
So I have a little more experience with what Samantha is talking about, and I can sympathize with her for defending the girl in the video. A lot of the YouTube commenters were terribly harsh towards her and accused her of just seeking attention, and blowing the men’s greetings out of porportion. But Samantha calls out the ignorance of these commenters very poignantly:
“They don’t understand. They’re screaming about “how can just saying “hi” be harassment?! Feminists are just so stupid and sensitive,” and I want to scream because most of the street harassment I’ve ever experienced in my entire life starts with “hi”– and it never ends well. You say “hi” back and all of sudden you’ve given them permission to follow you. You flip them off, and they get pissed– really pissed. You ignore them and suddenly it’s all about how ugly you are and how they’d never f*** you anyway.”
As I thought about Samantha’s blog post, and the woman’s video, and my own comparatively harmless experiences, I have come to realize that I can’t be that person. I understand the importance of caution when you are cat-called on the street, because it can easily escalate into something dangerous.
Yet…not to sound narcissistic, but one of the qualities I hold most dear about myself is my tenacious insistence in believing the best about people. Sometimes it borders on naivety, and I am hurt when I realize just how flawed some people around me are. But in general, I don’t want to lose that. So when a man says “hello” to me on the street, I will always smile back and return the greeting, even if it makes me a little uncomfortable. I will always give the people around me the benefit of the doubt until something happens and I can’t reasonably do that.
And I understand that this mindset of mine probably exists because I’ve never been assaulted by a man, never been forced by a man, never experienced any sort of sexual harassment beyond the quite mild situations I described above. Because let’s face it, if the worst I can say about my experiences with strange men in public is that a man twice my age asked for my phone number, I think I’m pretty safe in saying I have room for faith in men that other women might not have.
So, I guess, all that is to say I understand the importance of taking to heart what Samantha has said, and I appreciate the importance of the video’s message. I know that ignoring the reality that street harassment can potentially escalate is a dangerous thing to do. And I know it is important not to downplay these situations, because to do so is to ignore the reality of stories like Samantha’s. I just think it is important to find a balance—a balance between being cautious without being paranoid, wise and yet gracious.
Because here is the truth. I am the kind of person who believes the best about people. And I hope I always will be.