No, Street Harassment Is Not Flattering

I don’t feel delight being noticed. I feel on display. I feel fear.

When a strange man leers at me, or worse, goes so far as to speak to me, to “compliment” me, to comment on my body, my clothing, my hair, my shape, my “attractiveness,” I don’t get a little surge of delight, or feeling of being special. I don’t smile to myself and think, “Damn, I am hot.”

I get a surge of dread.

I feel on display. I feel like I’ve done something wrong just for being a woman and having a body and walking on the street. I feel enormously self-conscious. I have to overcompensate drastically, by trying to hold my head higher, walk faster, and narrow my eyes.

It’s not flattery. It’s sexism. It’s sexual harassment.

Whenever this sort of thing happens to me (and fortunately, it does not happen that often), I try to imagine the circumstances under which I might do the same to another human being, male or female. I try to get into the headspace of the person who does this and, each time, I am unable. I just can’t imagine the circumstances that would ever prompt me to stop a man on the street and say:

“You’re hot. I haven’t seen you around here before. Look at you. Whoa. You’re some good looking.”

It has never occurred to me to say these things. I don’t say them in my head and I definitely don’t say them out loud. And even if I did; even if I did stop a random man on the street and start accosting him about his appearance, we can’t ignore the fact that gendered power relations and sexism constitute different experiences of this phenomenon. That doesn’t excuse women’s harassment of men, not at all. But the reality is that a man might be less likely to feel threatened by the potential of sexual assault and rape.

I was trying to do my job, actually, when I was recently street harassed. And it was probably the most overt example of street harassment I’ve ever experienced. There was nothing subtle about two men teaming up to leer and talk at me.

Yes, men, plural. They teamed up to make it more exciting for them, I guess. Maybe there is strength in numbers when you’re harassing women, I don’t know.

As a broadcast reporter and web journalist, I was trying to cover a fire in my neighborhood. I was called out to go to it from home so I was not in a station vehicle, I didn’t have a station microphone or anything else to identify me as a reporter. All I needed was my smartphone to take photos, tweet, and text updates to the station.

When my phone battery died, I ran back to my house to charge it up again so I could go back and continue live tweeting.

There were men are gawking at the fire, having a few beers in the street.

As I walked by, they stopped me, started talking to me, and followed me down the street. Then they walked in front of me and around me. They told me how “hot” I was and badgered me with plenty of other observations about my physical appearance.

If it hadn’t still been daylight, if there hadn’t been so many people out and about in the neighborhood, if there hadn’t been police and emergency services within my shouting range, I would have been terrified.

Had I been walking alone at night, I would have run.

Sometimes the harassers just want to deliver their meaningless one-way commentary and talk at you, but this was different. They wanted to engage with me, they wanted me to react. They weren’t content just leering and murmuring comments.

Choosing how to react in a situation like that is never easy. Although a part of me wants to punish them, to glare at them and be cold and silent, another part of me feels like that’s what they expect, and that makes me angry.

So after initially ignoring them, I did something completely out of the ordinary: I stopped, spun around, stood up straight, looked them in the eyes and aggressively exclaimed:

“Oh, hi! Are you talking to me? I’m Zaren. Who are you?”

I stuck out my hand and offered to shake theirs. Because I’m a person, and if you want to introduce yourself to me, that’s what you fucking do.

It’s not a perfect solution, but at least it surprised them. We had a brief conversation and then I walked on.

It’s not my responsibility to stop and deal with street harassers, but I enjoyed throwing them for a loop. Once I became a person, with a name and a voice, catcalling me seemed to lose its appeal.

Zaren Healey White is a St. John’s, Newfoundland based journalist, web editor, and blogger. She is completing her Master of Gender Studies degree at Memorial University in St. John’s, having already completed a Master of Arts in English at McGill University in Montreal. Zaren blogs at Of Sugar-Baited Words.

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