Saturday, March 11, 2006

 

Looking Pretty

Walking down the street with my Mets cap on (Yankee-fans, don't hate, it was a gift) and a man says, "A pretty girl shouldn't cover herself up with a hat! Why don't you want to look pretty?"

"None of your beeswax," I say, because saying something like that back sometimes make me feel better. I make myself smile a little bit.

Other things like this I get regularly are comments on how pretty girls should "smile" and also how, as a pretty girl, I shouldn't have short hair, and I've even been told that, as a pretty girl with tiny feet, I ought to "show them off" with sandals.

I am asked "Why don't you want to look pretty?" I have said, on several occasions: "Because being pretty means I get harassed by people like you." But I want to locate myself outside of the cause- meaning, I am not harassed because I'm pretty.

We say a lot, when talking about street harassment, that it doesn't matter what you wear or how you look. While I have been, a few times, harassed while almost completely invisible (hat, coat, scarf, only my eyes uncovered), it has been my experience that I, personally, get harassed more when I wear makeup or am "dressed up". I also found that having short hair drastically decreased the amount of harassment I got on a daily basis. When I had long hair, I could hardly go more than a block or two without being harassed. When I first cut my hair, I walked back from the salon to my apartment and didn't get one comment: I thought I was free! (If only.) When I was blonde, on the other hand, I was harassed more than I ever thought possible.

I loved the way I looked blonde, but the "attention from men", as my mother put it, was more than I could deal with. I am growing my hair out, but sometimes I get little panicky feelings about returning to that level of harassment, even though I'd much prefer to be able to put my hair back again. I don't want to make decisions about the way I look based on the amount of harassment I might get, but I also get very tired of standing up to it and making my decisions in defiance of it, then dealing with the irritating, degrading, and sometimes scary, consequences.

When I have tried to de-pretty myself to the fullest extent (sports bra, no makeup, sweats), I am sure to get the kind of harassment with which this post began: "be pretty for me" comments.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

 

Waiting For Someone To Come Out of Somewhere?

I had a particularly strange bit of harassment today. I was standing at a stoplight, waiting to cross. A man tapped me on the shoulder. I said, "Can I help you?" And he said, "Yes, you are a beautiful woman and I need to talk to you." I made a sound of disgust. He said, "Just wait here one second, I need to buy a pack of Newports. Then we'll talk." And he ran into a deli.

Reader, I left.

 

Manhattan afternoon

Yesterday when I left work, I walked all the way from my Murray Hill office to meet my friend at Film Forum in SoHo. As any woman can tell you, the more time you are on the street, the more harassment you are likely to experience, so, when I made the choice to walk, I also recognized Id have lots to tell you all about later.

I heard a couple of "Hey shorty," "Hello beautiful," to which I responded with well-rehearsed scowls. I reserve these scowls for such comments that I don't want to hold up my day to respond to. I am perfectly willing to turn my head behind me to continue the scowl, if warranted, but sometimes I am exhausted by the idea of confronting each and every man who says a lame line.

By the time I got to the West Village, I was feeling rather good about things and was pleased by the low-intensity of the harassment I'd gotten over what was such a long walk. I felt so comfortable in fact that, having broken a bit of a sweat with my usual gait through the city, I stopped to remove my heavy winter coat.

Beneath my winter coat, I wore a tweed blazer and black long-sleeved sweater. However, as I began my removal, I heard behind me muted whistles. Turning around, I saw that, standing as I was before the window of a restaurant, a table of four guys were acting as though I were performing a striptease for their enjoyment. As I turned, one guy began rapping on the window near me. The others were smirking, laughing, and one was even waving. I did what I always do when someone harasses me from behind glass. I hit it really, really hard with my hand a few times and left.

As I was walking away, I considered putting my coat back on, but didn't want to draw any more attention to myself, so I kept it under my arm. I passed by two guys standing in front of a brownstone-type building. One was leaning on one of those half-fences and, as I passed, he looked me up and down and said, "Hello, hello, young lady." And I said, "Do you ever think it scares some women when you do that?" He said, "Did it scare you?" I said, "A little bit, yes." And he said, "Well then why are you talking to us?" His friend laughed. "I just wanted you to know," I said, feeling stupid. As I walked away I heard the friend saying, "You dumbshit." I think he was talking to harasser and not to me.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

 

Reflecting

When I first joined the group, I had a difficult few months. Whereas before I had been able to brush off, to some extent, all but the very worst of the harassment I experienced on the streets, becoming a part of a group devoted to the issue made each and every encounter on the street burn hotter. It made me dread it more in some ways, it made me more angry and frustrated, even as sharing my experiences and organizing soothed and validated me.

Obviously, I joined the group because I was so angry to begin with, which is part of what made my new frustration so, kind of, scary.

I have only been at this blog for a little over 24 hours and I am noticing a similar sensation. I know that every episode of harassment I will be considering more deeply because I will relive it if I choose to blog it. So, when I didn't have to be on the street alone at all this morning, I was relieved more than usual.

But, what does this mean? I've often heard people argue against, for example, teaching Women's Studies in college because young women end up seeing their whole lives with anger for awhile. In other words, knowing about the problem is seen as exacerbating the problem, an over-reaction, rather than an appropriate reaction, to one's personal experiences.

But the problem is not itself exacerbated. In fact, the examination of street harassment, over the course of years in the group and now as a blogger on the subject, has led me to a more nuanced perspective, overall, making me slightly less viscerally GRRR and more thoughtful about it. In a way though, despite my fears and discomfort, there is something amazing about being this angry about it again. It has been making me remember a lot of the first experiences I had with street harassment that made me so humiliated and angry ... now, I am jaded usually and I just live with it. I just shed most of it, the stuff that doesn't scare me too badly, that isn't physical or particularly vulgar, by the time I am home at the end of the day. When it was new, any experience of it stuck.

I remember when I was eleven and first developed breasts and boys at the swimming pool would call me "snowcones" because of the size and shape of them. I wanted both to die and to kill. And I almost vomited when I first heard it. Though, as I said yesterday, I was (often rather brutally) teased a lot as a child, when the teasing became so sexualized and so related to my gender, it brought about whole new feelings of injustice and rage. By the time I was fourteen, it had become part of the overall landscape of my life, something I totally hated, but hardly saw anymore.

It's International Women's Day today, in case you don't know. It's a day of the year that we pay special attention to what's happening to women globally and locally. And we do so even if, maybe even because, it makes it feel worse for awhile.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

 

16 Blocks

I always wear my iPod when I am walking around, or am on my cell phone. These two methods seem to deter harassers, as it's harder for them to get my attention. I think the other part is that it makes me less aware of my environment, which is probably dangerous at night or in an uncrowded area, but is something which, during the day in Manhattan, I prefer. I'd rather listen to music or a podcast and feel as though I'm disappearing from the space around me, rather than feeling so overly visible.

As I was walking, two men unloaded a large slab of wood from the back of a truck. One man gestured with his head that I could walk ahead of them. When I tried to, they played the game of deliberately getting in my way. Every direction I tried to walk around, they placed themselves and the wood in front of me. This kind of thing happens to me all the time and I am enraged by it a lot more than by "cat-calling" because I feel like I am being somehow "tricked" and that my size (I am only 5'1") is being taken advantage of. I was teased a lot as a kid and there is something about this particular "joking" on the street, where I feel physically boxed-in, that really gives me the same feeling. I feel like I am being cornered on the playground. Maybe because of that memory, this kind of harassment makes me most want to lash out. Today, I just stopped moving and said, "Get out of the way." After I stood there, hands on hips for a moment, they moved the wood into the building and I walked after them, once I was sure they were far enough in the right direction.

Once I got to my destination, I was standing outside making a call. I was making a telephone balance transfer at my bank, meaning the whole thing was very dial-intensive, lots of touch-tone action. A guy comes up and asks me if I have a light for his cigarette. I said "No, I don't smoke," and continued my call. He says, "Why not?" I said, "Huh?" He said, "Why don't you smoke? It's very relaxing." At that moment, I fucked up my dialing and the operator sent me back to main menu. I was annoyed. I moved a bit away from the guy who wanted a light and looked at him like, "What are you saying, you freak?" but I didn't say anything because I wanted to finish the call and go inside. "Who are you calling?" he says as he sidles over, matches in hand. He had pulled them out of his bag. I was furious, but ignoring him so I could finish the call. He sighed loudly when I didn't respond. I did finish the call, but felt distracted and irritated. I started inside and he said, "Come talk to me when you're in a better mood." I said, "Unlikely."

Following the commands of automated bank tellers is annoying enough without having to dodge real-life randoms in the process.

 

Going to Get Coffee

Left my office to get a cup of coffee across the street at Anonymous NYC Deli. As I was pulling the crank, a man taps my shoulder:

"How old are you?" he asks.

"Um, how old are you?" I replied.

He laughed. "You're cute."

"I don't know you, by the way." I tried to wrangle my way around him to get my coffee to the counter. I did so, he followed.

"Do you always get your coffee here?" He asked.

"I don't know you, sir. What is this?"

He threw up his hands. "Just trying to be friendly."

At that point, thankfully, he left me alone to put my change on the counter and walk across the street back to work.

My midmorning coffee is one of my greatest joys. I wake up looking forward to it. But I can only enjoy it once I am sitting at my desk with it. I know that many days I will have to deal with something like this just to get there.

By the way, sorry I have no picture of my harasser- my phone is utterly old-school.

His comment on being "friendly" is one that really gets my goat. See, I used to think he knew he wasn't being "friendly". I really used to think that men did this to show their power over women and to scare us and make us feel uncomfortable. I also used to think that every incidence of street harassment was basically a manifestation of the exact same thing. But what makes me uncomfortable now is that, the older I get, the more sure I get that this guy has been trained that "friendliness" from a man to a woman looks like that. And it looks like that partly because women are not only trained to be "polite" as people are often pointing out with regard to street harassment (and rape and assault), but also because women are assumed not to have boundaries or levels of intimacy. You see it all the time in the way men relate to each other with such a distance. If a woman does that to anyone, not just a harasser, she seems and feels cold or superior.

I see myself as rather aloof and cold, tough on the outside. I think maybe I see myself this way because I'm a woman. I think, if I were a man, it's entirely possible that I would see myself as friendly. It's not just the prickles I've grown because of street harassment, but also the interpretation of those prickles.

 

About This Blog

Do you remember the Street Harassment Project? Featured in Time Out, the Village Voice, The New York Sun, The Guardian, Alternet, Bitch, Bust and other publications, we took on the rarely-publicly-acknowledged but all-too-common problem of gendered harassment in public spaces. Well ,we're back and better than ever, with a new name to boot: Street Harassment Coalition!

If you visit our old site, you will find stories of harassment from women and girls all over the world and other groups and individuals have taken up the mantle and expanded it: Hollaback NYC takes pictures of harassers with cameraphones and, today, Blank Noise is doing a blog-a-thon on the subject and expects to have TONS of hot bloggers thinking and writing about what women experience everyday. Please visit these awesome gals and support the excellent work they're doing.

We start this blog today because we believe there is one element missing: the everyday-ness of the problem. Sometimes the sharing of stories has made street harassment seem, to those who don't experience it, to be isolated incidents, rather than the cultural and social landscape in which we live our lives, something which impacts our choices, our moods, our participation within and relationship to our communities. That's why the SHC has decided to do a week-blog, focusing on the incidents that take us through our day to day lives, as well as discussion, consideration, analysis, reflection on an issue which, when discussed (rarely) is given short-shrift. Each week will be devoted to one individual's experiences of and thoughts on street harassment. We are really excited to get readers to become bloggers and we welcome experiences from all over the globe. If you are interested in committing a week of harassment to the blogosphere, contact us at aweekinthelife@hotmail.com.

This week we start with me, Erin, a longtime member of the Street Harassment Project, now Street Harassment Coalition. It will be nice to have you with me on the streets, seeing things through my eyes.

Ready?

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