Street harassment forces women to contend with unwanted male attention, and the orchestration of this attention is significant in women’s daily lives.
ast Flanders is laced with lovely paths for biking and walking. Through farms and along the canals they connect tiny towns and larger roadways. Sometimes I am alone on the path, flanked only by cows and goats, sheep and geese. On Sunday afternoons the bike and foot traffic is persistent. One Wednesday afternoon, I walked silently, noticing the slight greening of a field that was turned just a few days back. Geese flew up from the canal as a barge went by. And then a man on a bicycle approached from behind and slowed to speak to me. I smiled, shook my head, and told him in English that I didn’t speak Flemish.
In an instant, I knew it. He wasn’t pausing to ask directions or tell me something about the town or bridge ahead or that I’d dropped my notebook from my bag. He was giving me the look, chin jutting slightly, eyes taking in too much of me, considering I didn’t know him. If these looks, comments, stops, and demands for attention weren’t so persistent across time and geography, it might be possible to argue that the poor guy meant nothing by it. I imagined the ill intent. But does every woman imagine the leers, the tone of voice? No. We could write books, compose symphonies, paint masterpieces showing the nuances and persistence of men’s subjugating behavior toward all who are not men.
I am nearly fifty years old. How many times in my life has this scene occurred? No way to count, because we learn early to dismiss these moments as part of the landscape, nothing worth noting, but for noting silently what we are wearing, who is around, how we could’ve put ourselves in danger and what we might’ve done or been to invoke such attention. These are the moments when the mind reviews that familiar landscape of self-blame. The body tightens slightly, ready for the kind of intrusion, maybe harm, which feels inevitable, if not deserved.
This is how the story goes, a foreign film without subtitles, yet meaning remains clear.
He spoke to me and I smiled, nodded. And then he spoke again, riding slow, just ahead of my walking, then crossing back and forth ahead of me to slow his ride, but also to block my path. I kept my pace and smiled. Then his face grew irritated at my lack of verbal response. Middle aged white man, bad teeth, wearing farmer’s clothes. These details made him merely Flemish on a country road, no more. He could’ve been a man of any appearance. And so I spoke, to re-route his irritation. I said I don’t speak Flemish and perhaps he asked me where I’m from. I said that I speak English and German, smiled and shrugged at his further talking. Perhaps to him this seemed that I was inviting conversation in one of those languages, which I really didn’t mean to do, but this is a bind. No way to avoid hostility without seeming to invite something. More.“We learn early to dismiss these moments as part of the landscape.” Click To Tweet
He spoke again; he slowed and seemed to ask me to slow down too, but I did not. And maybe he was speaking German, but with such a strong accent, I couldn’t understand. Or maybe my mind could not multi-task the understanding of an accented foreign language with the other task it had just been given — it’s that thing we do — of assessing the surroundings. Instead of seeing greening fields, fluffy sheep, I considered the landscape for exits (field, canal, path), for human company (none visible in either direction, perhaps a kilometer all around), for his stature (could I take him? I’m big, but never sure, especially as I age).
He was speaking still, and louder, coaxing me to stop and move off the path with him. He rolled ahead and motioned again for me to stop, which I did not. Still smiling, I gestured toward the town as destination, never slowed down. He rode on beside me, and there it was. I saw the turning moment, as I have so often before, where my management of our interaction was vital: his irritation, small twitch, set jaw. He re-asserted his desire that I stop my transit and though I’d been shaking my head already, I added the words in English, then in German, and as I was speaking, firmly through my smile, I thought to add in French as well. “J’ai dit que non.” I had said no. In three languages now I said it. Still smiling, walking, looking toward the town ahead which could not be seen, but best we both imagine it. He rode beside me, spoke some more and then, disgusted, shook his head, gestured me off and rode away.
• • •
A few years ago, I was invited to offer storytelling as a keynote for an obesity research conference in Canada. My storytelling performances about bodies in culture — gender, race, sexuality, size — are invited at conferences as a way to explore a theme in a different format, as a way to connect participants’ thinking and feeling selves. The invitation itself was not unusual but the audience was. So when I had the organizer on the phone, I said, “Thanks so much for inviting me. But I’m curious. How did the committee choose me? I’m not usually invited to events that use the term ‘obesity.’ I find that language pathologizing to fat bodies. Usually my views aren’t welcome at conferences like this.”
I prefer to use “fat” as a neutral descriptive adjective (in defiance of its cultural non-neutrality), much as one might use blonde, tall, or deaf to describe a person. Though I expressed curiosity about my inclusion, I was indeed pleased to reach a group of people who’d likely never considered my views and perspective before.
The organizer confirmed that, indeed, not everyone was happy to have me as keynote, but that a small group of qualitative researchers on the organizing committee felt it was important to include me. A few of the medical professionals already intended to boycott my presentation. The organizer said part of the reason they invited me in particular was that they wanted to gently persuade their colleagues that they should care about fat stigma. They should care about the perspectives of the people with whom they work.
“I don’t know how to say this,” she said, “but, you’re… nice. You’re likeable.” I nodded as she spoke, understanding immediately. Her committee found my themes valuable, my analysis solid, and still, I am funny, entertaining and know how to handle an audience. Nice.
Being nice is a performative choice. There’s an art to smiling and subtly engaging bullies without agreeing with them. (Though there’s always a danger that kindness will be read as capitulation.) Being nice doesn’t mean I’m not angry or frightened or sad or anxious. It means I’m calling upon a demeanor that works in a certain situation. It can be an unconscious response, no doubt a habituated response to specific people or stimuli. Some women, once they shake off the learned response of niceness toward bullies can’t reclaim it again as choice. Fair enough. Yet I am not unconscious, for the most part; being nice is a choice, which does not mean it is an act. Niceness is not merely gendered weakness. Niceness is complex.
• • •
As I was walking recently in downtown Hilo, Hawaii, two brown-skinned men — probably in their 30s, perhaps part Polynesian — stopped in the street to comically “appreciate” me. They didn’t try to lure me off the path, yet they were in my way, performing flattery to bring me pleasure and cause me to appreciate them in return. Their words and actions seemed more an act of bonding between the two of them than a way to manipulate my behavior beyond simple sociability. One leapt dramatically in front of me, legs spread, arms wide and said, “Eh tutu!” while leering at me, head dramatically moving up and down to take in my body. His friend smiled and joined him, saying, “You looking good, ma’am,” similarly leering. I shook my head and chuckled, walking past. The humor in that encounter came in part from their language choice, acknowledging that I am older than they. And their clowning was silly, mid-day, in a well-populated area.
Have you wondered yet what I was wearing in either of these street harassment examples? How I look? More clues are coming. And note that you will already have an opinion on what each clue means. One more example, though, to show that I do not perform only “niceness.” I offer irritation and correction, too.
The farmer’s market is less than half a mile from my home. Though this is my story, different versions of it play out regularly. They’re happening now to someone; they will keep happening all day, around the world, and they will happen again tomorrow.
As I leave the market on foot with my bag of vegetables, a man, perhaps in his late 20s, walks next to me, a few feet away. He seems stoned. He’s giving me “the look” and keeping pace with me. He begins talking, mumbling, gesturing with his chin toward my body and my face as he speaks. It goes something like this: “Mumble mumble, hot sexy, mumble, slurp, like to get a taste, mumble, mumble, slurp.”
I pause and say, “Excuse me? I can’t hear what you’re saying. Are you trying to speak to me?” He nods and leers and walks beside me, yet apart, from the parking lot to the road, and one more time he says, “Mumble mumble, want to let me, slurp, mumble” and he gestures toward his car, opens his arms and smiles to indicate my bountiful size and tastiness. He punctuates with a lewd pelvic twitch. I put up a hand and say, “No. And if you have something to say to someone, speak up and say it.”
I am irritated to be waylaid, wearing sandals and a sundress, uncombed hair, previously unconscious of my appearance as I quickly left the house. And even now, I’d rather be thinking about what I’m making for lunch. I’m not working today and I don’t want to be nice. Wanting to be left alone has come to feel selfish. This is not nothing. I have taken a day off from managing this behavior, but he has not taken a day off from pursuit. I feel pressed into service and the beets bound for juicing are heavy in my bag. Then his car is beside me, riding slow. He persists, mumbling and slurping like a hungry fool. I say, “Please go away.” And he leaves, but circles around and back again. I am about a block from my home.
I think, oh hell no, you’re not following me all the way to my house! We are in my neighborhood, surrounded by people I know within shouting distance. Or is it perhaps the absurdity of his age and approach that raises my ire? I perceive him as a child who requires correction and so I stop, irritated and parental, to speak to him through the open passenger-side window. A few feet from the car, speaking loudly enough for him to hear me clearly, I say, “Okay, look. What you’re doing here is creepy. You’re actually following me home and I’m not having that. I am on foot, and you’re following me in a car. Creepy! If you want to ask someone for sex, ask someone who seems like they want sex, not someone who’s out grocery shopping. Ask in a tone of voice and volume that can be heard. And if a person’s not interested in your advances, then GO AWAY.”“I don’t want to be nice. Wanting to be left alone has come to feel selfish.” Click To Tweet
I am in full oratory now and he’s still leering and gesturing with his chin and then slowly he begins to look more at his lap. “And look,” I say, “someone needs to tell you this because, I don’t know why! Maybe you’re too young to know better and I am old enough to be your mother. In fact, who is your mother? Do you live around here? Does your family live near here? We live in a small community here and what you’re doing is creepy!”
To which he says, chin on chest, “I’m sorry ma’am.” And drives away. I call after his car, “That’s better!” and carry my groceries home.
• • •
In my youth, before I knew better, I accepted my mother’s admonitions that I dressed too provocatively. I accepted friends’ and teachers’ assessments that I was cultivating an outlandish look that would draw weirdos. As a teenager, I’d shake my head and say, “Yeah, I’m a weirdo magnet. Maybe it’s because of how I look.”
The term “weirdos” may be appropriate to describe the men who feel the need to gawk and talk and threaten and compliment and proposition and divert my time and energy. It’s weird, though common. But this language conceals important things: gender, habituated gendered behavior, male bonding rituals, gender socialization. It’s not that I attract weirdos. It’s not even that I attract men. It’s that often — really often — men feel entitled to objectify, belittle, harass, talk to, flirt with, proposition, and bully any women they choose.
I have on occasion attracted mere weirdos. I was once sitting in a café, writing in a notebook, bare feet up on a chair, flowing clothes and multi-colored hair falling around me. A woman walked up and said, “I saw you when I walked in. I’m a witch and you’re a vibrant, sensual being with an important message for humanity.” I looked up at her and thought to myself, now, you’re a weirdo and maybe the way I look attracted you. I said, “Aha. Okay. Thanks. So, I’m sitting here doing some quiet writing. I’m not really interested in conversation, but if you want to pull up a chair, you can share the table.” And she did. We did our own things. When I stood to leave, we exchanged names and pleasantries and she said a few more freaky things. That’s what an exchange with a weirdo looks like.
But the way men treat me when they choose to engage in street harassment — that has nothing to do with me.
“What you’re talking about doesn’t happen to all women.” My girlfriend said this one day as I rehearsed a story for a reading about street harassment. She’s a bit older than I am and could only recall a handful of men who’d ever catcalled her. Her whole life. She said she liked it. It made her feel like part of a group of women to which she didn’t always feel she belonged.
I looked her up and down, trying to put on “the male gaze.”
“You’re scary,” I concluded. She’s 6’2”. She wears men’s clothes and if she’s in a bad humor, or simply walking alone, she looks like she could kick your ass and not be sorry. I love some of those things about her. She doesn’t always read like she’s a woman, or a target. She doesn’t always receive “the behavior.”
Me, I don’t fight. I don’t run. I’ve never been fast or extra-strong and just like my girlfriend, I sometimes enjoyed street harassment as a young person because my culture taught me that fat girls would never get love. Something about street harassment feels like the precursor to love: attention. If you’re invisible, how will you ever get love? This is what we manage, along with social expectations, on the street. How can I keep the attention I think I need and direct it, not get hurt, not be used? It’s up to me to attract it and deflect it and incite men to be wonderfully wild, yet prevent them from being savage. I am the conductor for an entire cultural orchestra of gendered behavior. That’s what I learned. Even at age eleven, when my body turned from child to fireworks, I was supposed to be an expert conductor of male behavior. That’s what we all learned.
If you’re invisible, how will you ever get… anything. Just as fat girls are taught to be grateful for any attention we get, all women are taught that rallying male attention is important to basic survival. This is not an overt lesson, but the message is ubiquitous nonetheless. So we cultivate the “right” kinds of visibility. Men and women live separate lives, after all. Sure, we often live in the same houses, always in the same towns. We make and parent children and most of us came from two-gender households.
Yet many men and women still find cross-gender friendships odd. And traditionally (which means even today), when women are going about their own business, they’re working in jobs, raising children, cooking meals, cleaning, socializing (primarily with other women), teaching, making things, and so on. Traditionally, when men are going about their own business, they’re working in jobs, working in government, in medicine, in city infrastructure, in religion, socializing (primarily with other men), teaching, and watching or playing sports. We are not always involved in the same pursuits. And how dramatically do the impacts of our pursuits differ?“Even at age eleven, I was supposed to be an expert conductor of male behavior.” Click To Tweet
Even if these statements seem like generalizations for which exceptions are easily conjured, they are statistically true. Men still comprise less than five percent of workers in fields like secretarial work and child care, and women represent less than five percent of airline pilots and firefighters. And politics? Just look at a photo of congressmembers — or any group of elected officials. Our eyes are trained to focus on anomalies — the three or four red skirt-suits among the sea of men’s blue suits. We’d like to think equity is near, when it is not. The orchestration of male attention — often, male permission — is not incidental to women’s lives. Not on the street, not anywhere.
My choice to be nice is not merely an act. I choose it sometimes to enhance my chances of safety. But more often — on stage, as a teacher, in my public life, and in my community — I choose it because I understand that many people behave poorly out of habit. Otherwise thoughtful people turn dastardly because they’ve learned role-specific behavior; it’s expected. They don’t know how else to forge relationships, handle urges, manage friendships, deal with rejection and frustration, and it’s painful to be corrected — especially by those whom they believe they should dominate. I’m referring to street harassment by men — directed at women and men. I’m referring to social bullying by women — directed at women and men.
Social science studies (and a vast number of women’s experiences) have shown that men aren’t as often attracted to women who are smarter than them, or even as smart, or who are even good at things they value. Misogyny is deep. These are not conscious choices. The architecture of our daily pursuits remains unconscious, until it’s not.
It isn’t just that I am expected to be nice and a little dull. I want to be nice, when it serves me, and when I can muster it genuinely, because we are all damaged by this cultural malaise and diminishing these experiences doesn’t help. Saying, ‘Well, it’s not that big a deal,’ doesn’t help. We must be clear in our reconstruction of culture and still, others deserve my compassion. I deserve my compassion. And yours, but I’m only in control of what I give and how I receive. As Lucille Clifton said, “What they call you is one thing. What you answer to is another.”
• • •
When I finished my talk at the obesity researcher’s conference, a few of the medical doctors (less so the lab researchers) seemed stunned by my very existence. It was as if they’d never allowed for a fat woman to be interesting and complex, able to discuss matters of importance, able to enjoy her body, consciously name and combat stigma. After all, women, fat people, people of color — all who endure stigma — are supposed to remain silent about it. That’s the value in teaching us to blame ourselves for being bullied. We don’t speak up for fear of shame and potential ridicule.
It was as though I was an apparition, an anomaly, and so with the entitlement you’d expect, one by one this handful of men (they were men) approached me to take a medical history. Well, that’s what they do, isn’t it? They asked me about whether I have diabetes, whether I have high cholesterol. In which BMI category did I reside? They looked me up and down — probably Obesity 3, would that be right? One man, after our talk regarding my health used this language: “Wow, well, you’re valid. I mean, I would judge you valid. You’re a healthy person. Wow.” Mind you, I was not speaking on anything related to medical care, nor had I once mentioned my health or lack thereof, but this seemed to be the only context in which he could render me legible. I was speaking on stigma, on how certain bodies are socially sanctioned and how you can’t separate the effects of fat in the body, from the effects of being fat in the culture. The latter causes pain, lack of opportunity, impedes credibility, and compromises health. He couldn’t hear what I had said, until he’d judged me physically “valid” and he was astonished to be able to make this pronouncement. He’s not alone. Most people don’t interact with others outside of their social stereotypes. That’s why simple conversation and time getting to know one another is the most radical tool for humanizing others we don’t know.
And how often does that happen, casually, between men and women who are not considering romantic involvement?
Standing in a conference hall, next to a table full of coffee and napkins, I responded to the doctor’s questions with patience. I was at work. My body was public. He had something to learn and I was on the job.
The problem is, all women’s bodies are treated as public bodies. Men have something to learn about how to interact respectfully. Those who don’t think they have something to learn should be actively teaching other men the error of their ways, and if they’re not, they still have something to learn about social responsibility.
I’m good at this job. I tap into a well of compassion for others; I’m nice; I turn a phrase that can open dialogue. Not everyone will do that, nor should they. Sometimes I need a day off, but still I choose this work. Those who don’t choose it should be left to their own lives — and able to create lives that don’t require male attention or permission. They need many days off from helping men understand that they are behaving poorly. And they certainly need safety and respect and the credibility of being humans with specific experiences and expertise about the world.“The problem is that all women’s bodies are treated as public bodies.” Click To Tweet
On a canal path in East Flanders, some guy felt entitled to order me to stop what I was doing, get off the path, and interact with him. Consider the vile absurdity of this. At what point would it ever be a good idea for a woman to stop with an unknown and overbearing man — especially one who didn’t speak her language — and follow him off the path into the trees? There is nothing, but nothing, in this charming Flemish countryside to suggest “bad neighborhood” or troubled surroundings, and those who know the man who menaced me would likely call him friend or neighbor, a nice guy, a regular guy. That’s just it. A regular guy.
We’re all somewhere on the road. Either moving toward or away from systemic misogyny. No one is standing still. Through stories and movement and language and how we assert our human dignity, we create culture. I know which way I’m going on that road. And for anyone moving toward more conscious interactions, I’ll do my best to offer kindness along the way.