Don’t Tell Me to Smile.

Street harassment is honestly a pain in the ass and often mildly terrifying (at the very least) to experience. It’s terrifying, makes you feel like prey to rape culture. I have experienced street harassment before, although some of my own experiences come from being fat, and it’s a really creepy and violating experience. And street harassment is unfortunately widespread one study says.

I’m definitely not the only one who has gone through street harassment – the organization Stop Street Harassment did an informal and an additional national study about this issue, including that at least 65% of women have experienced street harassment in various ways. Kat Callahan shared her experiences of harassment as a trans woman, highlighting that along with misogyny, for her there were elements of transphobia and transmisogyny intermingled. And it’s also important to include women of color in this conversation.

Women aren’t the only ones to experience harassment – there have been men who’ve experienced it as well, although much of the harassment seem to have come in a transphobic or homophobic fashion rather than a sexual one. Derrick Clifton wrote about his own experiences with harassment as a queer man and how this is a side of the conversation that’s often overlooked. And LGBTQ+ people also experience street harassment – something that Kat Lazo discussed in the below video:

The comments, compliments, “flirting” in street harassment aren’t some harmless things – it objectifies people and takes away the agency from the people being harassed. It makes so many feel unsafe, even just walking down the street. As Shannon Deep articulates in writing about how street harassment isn’t a compliment:

But street harassers co-opt the woman’s choice in the matter. You don’t get to choose to engage. You don’t have the potential to interact on any level other than unreciprocated sexual desire. You just get a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) erection shoved in your face with the message being, “Here. I don’t care if this is what you want. You’re welcome.”

There’s this sense of entitlement that comes with harassing others but there are so many consequences and examples of people (many of them men) acting out in exceptionally aggressive ways after being shot down in response to the harassment. It’s not always the case that aggression is the response because many people just ignore it but there are so many cases of anger and violence. Soraya Chemaly wrote the negative consequences of street harassment and about some of these examples (and how they are definitely in the same category as street harassment):

  • In San Francisco last year, a man stabbed a woman in the face and arm after she didn’t respond positively to his sexually harassing her on the street.
  • In Bradenton, Fla., a man shot a high school senior to death after she and her friends refused to perform oral sex at his request.
  • In Chicago, a scared 15-year-old was hit by a car and died after she tried escaping from harassers on a bus.
  • Again, in Chicago, a man grabbed a 19-year-old walking on a public thoroughfare, pulled her onto a gangway and assaulted her.
  • In Savannah, Georgia, a woman was walking alone at night and three men approached her.  She ignored them, but they pushed her to the ground and sexually assaulted her
  • In Manhattan, a 29-year-old pregnant woman was killed when men catcalling from a van drove onto the sidewalk and hit her and her friend.
  • … a runner in California — a woman — was stopped and asked, by a strange man in a car, if she wanted a ride. When she declined he ran her over twice.

Street harassment is violent and more than the “compliments” that are thrown at people. People who’ve been on the receiving end of the harassment change their behavior to avoid areas and potential harassment by wearing headphones while out, altering modes of transportation, taking different routes because we feel unsafe and threatened. Street harassment makes many worry about whether we might be assaulted or killed – for me, it never feels like a compliment regardless of how people mean it.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Tell Me to Smile.

  1. I honestly can’t fathom why the “it’s just a compliment” narrative persists. I live in NYC and in the city, you don’t even look people in the eye on the train let alone yell at someone you don’t know. All conversation with strangers needs specific and semi-familiar context in order for people to not deem it strange and unnecessary, yet, people feel perfectly comfortable giving “compliments” to people that they don’t know as they’re walking down the street? No way. It’s aggressive and relative to, by all accounts, other normal interactions, it’s strange and unwarranted. But because some people still believe that the highest form of achievement or the daily goal of dressing up for women is to get approval from men, they feel like catcallers are performing a public service. Thanks for including the intersections of street harrassers as well. A friend and I were once called “fat ugly bitches” by a man immediately upon walking into a Checkers near our dorm, nevermind on the actual street. And my gay and trans friends experience a lot of hate speech especially when going out at night. The need to dispel unwarranted comments onto passersby is violence and it shouldn’t be tolerated, let alone the norm.

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