If you have not read the essay yet, it is posted on the next page.
Thank you for all the responses. For the women who’ve related to or commiserated with my experiences, thank you truly. A sincere thank you also to all the men who’ve taken the time to read and weigh in on this—the discussion can’t move forward without you. Your comments are appreciated.
I’ve read through the comments from those redirected from Andrew Sullivan and Reddit and realize that there are some disagreements with what I’ve said. That’s great—it keeps the discussion going. I’m responding to some common arguments below:
- You’re a coward for not standing up for yourself
- You wouldn’t have minded if the street harassers were more attractive
- You should take it as a compliment
- I’ve never seen street harassment, so you must be exaggerating
- Street harassment is free speech
I structured my essay, which starts with my experiences as a 14-year-old and ends with my experience just before leaving to college, so that it would build from my fear as a young teenage girl to understanding how to handle myself as a maturing woman. The very reason I wrote it was to encourage women to do exactly what you are suggesting—stand up for themselves and call out their harassers in public—and to encourage others to stop accepting this kind of behavior. If you read through to the end, you’d see that.
I’m confused as to how writing an essay to draw attention to the issue of street harassment and encourage young girls to fight back counts as “complaining” or “asking to be saved.” Moving on.
Do I still stay silent when I’m insulted in public? No. Ironically, fending off street harassers for years made me a stronger person. But I’m not embarrassed to admit that I did not know how to deal with these encounters as a young teenage girl, especially when first they started happening. And especially when they “hit and run”—make the comment really quickly, then disappear before you can respond. By all means, teach your daughter to fight back in public; raise her to stand up for herself. But if she’s afraid to yell at a group of much bigger, older men in an isolated area, or nervous about making a scene in public, don’t call her a coward who deserves it.
This argument parallels a similarly cringeworthy comment by Katie Roiphe in the NYTimes on sexual harassment in the workplace:
the majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations. Show me a smart, competent young professional woman who is utterly derailed by a verbal unwanted sexual advance or an inappropriate comment about her appearance, and I will show you a rare spotted owl.
The core of the problem is not teaching women to respond. It is stopping the insults and advances in the first place. This logic simply doesn’t hold up in any other circumstance. I suppose you would also tell a gay teen facing bullying on a regular basis at school to stop being a coward and stand up for himself, and that it’s his fault he doesn’t “take away the power” of his bullies. I suppose you would also tell a black person who hears racial slurs to stop being a wimp and that if he were tougher nobody would disrespect him. If so, you are the one who is sheltered—you have clearly never a) met people who are not deterred by this behavior and b) felt the exhaustion of parrying comments like this over and over when all you wanted to do is pick up some takeout.
I ask for no one’s pity. Originally, I posted this essay on Facebook for my circle of friends and their friends to read. The hardest thing about writing it was admitting that sexual harassment had hit me hard emotionally and psychologically, because I usually don’t let people see that side of me. I had hoped it would help convince my friends who do know my personality by showing how much this issue in particular affected me. But to all the wonderful people who insist on calling my former self a coward and a timid little mouse—congratulations for smearing a 14-year-old, who you don’t know, on the internet.
No. I’ve seen street harassers look like they’re in their 20s or 30s, and I’ve also seen street harassers who at the least did not look unattractive. You are mistaking differences of attractiveness for differences of consent. If a 50-year-old unattractive man tries to make advances on a 15-year-old girl, he should be fairly certain he is not welcome. Especially if he starts touching her and whispering in her ear. If it was an attractive 30-year-old instead, I would have felt less disgusted on a visceral level. But the most upsetting part would have remained—the knowledge that a stranger felt entitled to touch me and insult me.
It may be more likely that a man’s advances will be welcome if he is attractive. But the rudeness of a gesture has nothing to do with who is making it. It has to do with whether it is welcomed.
Once, I was walking home when a man a few feet away from the sidewalk exclaimed, “Wow! You got some style, girl. Keep doing your thing!” Was I upset or offended? No. In fact, it brightened my day. Another time, a guy came up to me in a Starbucks and started a friendly conversation. In the middle, he complimented me on my appearance. His tone was nonsexual, he did not leer at my chest or my legs, and he did not make sexual comments. Again, I was not upset or offended.
Comments which are not meant to be complimentary are made in a setting where they might make the receiver feel intimidated, disgusted, or uncomfortable. That’s the difference between sexual harassment and a compliment.
1. I look forward to the day when no one feels threatened by a discussion on women’s issues because they realize it is not an attack on men as a group. Some of the few people I have felt comfortable talking to about sexual harassment are in fact my father and my boyfriend, both of whom I love dearly and who have made me a better person. I never claimed that all men, or even the majority of men, are evil perverts, as some comments seem to assert. It is the minority which continues to make street harassment a problem.
2. I used to think that sexual harassment in public wasn’t such a widespread phenomenon too. I thought it might just be my own neighborhood. Then I actually looked into it and found out how wrong I was.
Who said anything about legality? Granted, some people want street harassment to be a punishable offense, and that’s certainly a conversation to be had. What I’m talking about, however, is culture and society: why is street harassment considered normal and accepted, even a “compliment” by our society? How can we make it known to young girls that they have the power to stand up for themselves and that they won’t be considered uptight or neurotic for it? I certainly would have appreciated that when I was 14.
To compare something like being subjected to unwanted comments and touches on a regular basis to having to see panhandlers in the subway is absurd, although I guess it’s easy to say from someone who has never had to put up with this sort of “annoyance,” as they describe it. A more accurate comparison is one which captures the element of discrimination, or intense discomfort rather than mere irritation, or frequency over a long period of time. Imagine having to hear epithets on the street when you least expect it, directed to you because you are of a certain race or sexual orientation, all the time, for 5 years. The only difference is that we’re talking about gender and the offender isn’t trying to press his body up to yours.
Again, I’d welcome any negative or positive responses, but I ask that you keep your remarks civil. So try to refrain from calling me a coward ad hominem. I’d like to have a productive discussion.
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