Thoughts on Street Harassment / by Shaun Fauntleroy

On February 7, 2015 a stranger attacked me on a subway platform. Initially, he just came up to me and told me he thought I was beautiful, but there was something about him—the thinly veiled hostility in his eyes or the closeness of his proximity—that made me uncomfortable, and instead of responding verbally I just backed away from him. He responded with an angry, “Wow!” and to that I turned on my heels and walked about 10 feet up the platform. He followed me, verbalizing his displeasure at my response. I turned to him and said firmly and loudly, “Leave me alone.” He was undeterred, so I repeated even more loudly, “Leave me alone!” He blinked, looked at me stunned for a few seconds, then ran towards me, fists raised. I raised my arms to block his repeated blows and he then grabbed me, pushing me backwards towards the subway tracks. At some point he abruptly stopped hitting me and ran down the platform towards the exit.

One of the things that bothered me the most about this experience was how it changed me almost immediately. A woman who was nearby came over to me afterwards and asked if I was alright. I tried to speak to her and found that I couldn’t without crying, so I nodded, “yes.” She reassured me that she saw him run up the stairs and out of sight, and we briefly chatted about what happened until the train came. She was very kind to check on me and I told her so, but despite my gratitude and my desire to connect with her I could only think, ”please get away from me.” She hadn’t done or said anything to make me uncomfortable, I just wanted her to not stand so close to me and to leave me alone...the same thing I'd wanted from this man who had just hit me for rejecting him. The train came and I entered a different car than the one she was headed towards. I hoped that she would understand. I hoped that she knew that my obvious discomfort had nothing to do with her.

On the way to work, several other men commented on my looks and each comment (even the tame, complimentary ones) made my throat tighten and I felt my face harden. I had to reassure myself that they were just commenting and would not follow me—they wouldn’t hurt me. Despite this self-reassurance, every movement in my periphery garnered my immediate attention (It still does. Less so, but still.) There were so many thoughts churning in my head afterwards that I stopped for a moment and typed them into my iPhone’s notepad. Then I thought that I should post it to Facebook so that people could have a personal example of street harassment. The comments I received brought several things to mind.

This man was obviously mentally disturbed and that is the reason he assaulted you. It has nothing to do with societal misogyny or rape culture.

This is an interesting argument and I understand the desire to make it. Violence is horrifying, especially when it happens to your friend and in your city. Also horrifying is the thought that there is an underlying theme of disrespect towards women in American culture that causes some women to feel unsafe while simply walking down the street. "There must be another reason, right? I live in a good world, right?" I agree with the notion that this man was most likely mentally disturbed. However, there are also a good many women in this city who are mentally disturbed and desperately in need of medication, and I hear very few stories of men who feel unsafe because of deranged women who flirt with them and then threaten or hit them after having their advances rejected. As a matter of fact, in a national study on street harassment only 20% of men who reported being harassed say it was done by a woman versus 70% of women who reported being harassed by a man. Are we to assume that this man who attacked me was a staunch feminist who understood perfectly that women have the right to reject his advances without repercussion until he ran out of lithium?

Elliot Rodger and George Sodini were both psychologically and mentally disturbed men who publicly expressed their feelings of loneliness, rejection, misogyny, and sexual entitlement. They also went on separate killing sprees before turning their guns on themselves, Rodger murdering six people in 2014 and Sodini murdering three in 2009. In a 2009 article for Jezebel, Anna North points out that even though "we don't know if Sodini visited misogynist websites during the long period in which he was planning his crime, we do know that he lived in a society where some people view hatred and even murder as a normal response to dating difficulties."

We cannot chalk these acts of violence up to a mere mental disturbance. Their already disturbed thoughts were fueled by a societal belief that if a man wants a woman’s attention, he should have it, and any woman who doesn’t get on board is a bitch/whore and undeserving of respect, agency, and ultimately, safety. A quick glance at the discussion boards under Rodger’s You Tube videos where many men (and some women) have voiced their support of his world views can tell you that this misogynist mentality is prevalent and firm in the minds of many Americans. There are numerous cases throughout the country of men both with and without histories of mental illness hurting, stalking, and terrorizing women for spurning their advances. We cannot easily write this behavior off by focusing on the leaves of psychological disturbance when a root of entitlement and misogyny is the greater problem here.

Granted, not all men share these views, and not all men who share these views act them out in violent and aggressive ways, but it's very likely that a large number of street harassers are coming from a place of sexual entitlement. We may not be able to change the minds of every man who thinks he has the right to treat women however he feels (even if he thinks he’s not being harmful), but perhaps legislation and social mores can be affected towards progress. Outlawing lynching didn't eradicate racism, but it did make the nation a little safer for some and it certainly created an understanding of how a person with racist thoughts was able to legally treat people of color. 

Street harassment...it’s a cultural thing.

This delicate, oft-heard comment is a polite way of saying, “A white guy would never speak to a woman the way Black and Hispanic men do. White guys don’t street harass.” Well, to be honest I have never had a White man stand really close to me and say, “Damn baby, can I walk with you?” or “You got a fat ass, girl. Can I get your number? No? Fu&# you, b*@&%!” What I have had happen, however, is older, suited White men walk up to me on the street and ask me if I’m a prostitute, or just flat out offer me money in exchange for sex. To be honest, that happened more often when I was younger and carried an air of Midwestern naïveté, but it happened often enough. 

In an article examining the class/race dynamics of street harassment, Dee Locket (quoting Roxane Gay) points out that, "just because the majority of men who harass you are of a certain race or class, does not make that experience universal” and that many women have been street harassed by men of different races, classes, and backgrounds. So, it's fair to say that sexual harassment, whether it’s on the street or in the boardroom, is an equal opportunity offender that stems from power, status, and a societal belief that men are entitled to the time, attention, and obedience of women (or whomever they desire) and is an attempt to make sure the desired party knows that he or she is definitely not the one in control of the interaction. Sexual harassment at work and harassment on the streets are, again, two leaves with the same toxic root.  

So, if there are so many people decrying this treatment then why is there so much resistance and denial? Because it's incredibly rare that a group who feels oppressed can say to the dominant group, “Hey, we don’t like the way you’re treating us. It feels horrible and we’d like equality” only to have the dominant group immediately say, “I had no idea you felt that way. Please, tell me how I can make you feel more valued and respected in the world that I dominate. I’m so glad you said something!” This is the case with sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance or any other situation where one group wields power over another. There is almost always resistance and a lack of understanding from the dominant side and defensiveness and denial from the dominants and their supporters doesn’t mean that that the side that wants change is “overreacting” or “blowing things out of proportion.” It means that the discussion, no matter how uncomfortable and complex, needs to continue in order to establish balance and mutual respect.

Women who don’t like these comments are just super-sensitive feminists who should take a chill-pill.” “Just wait until you turn 50 and the comments stop happening...you’ll miss them.

No one said this to me, most likely because in my case the guy tried to hurt me and didn’t stop at “you’re beautiful,” but I have seen these sentiments expressed online from the likes of Hoda Kotb who asserts that women secretly love catcalls and Doree Lewak in a New York Post article from last year titled "Hey, ladies — catcalls are flattering! Deal with it."

In her article, Lewak insists that catcalls from random men make her feel sexy, desired, and powerful, but she also tries to make the distinction between a flattering compliment and a crass or obscene comment. She also admits that she realizes "most women with healthy self-confidence don’t court unwanted male attention. In fact, most women seem to hate it."

It’s clear that for some women, catcalling confirms a part of their identity and despite my personal feelings I don’t wish to judge them. However, if we can acknowledge that most people who complain of street harassment are not referring to comments of the flattering variety and that most women hate this unwanted male attention, can we all agree that it doesn't make sense to criticize the anti-street harassment movement for being over-reactive?

Men: Please understand that the majority of women do not enjoy being catcalled or aggressively flirted with by a random stranger. In a lot of cases it actually feels pretty awful to receive this type of attention. Try to consider the following:

  1. You may be the 20th guy to hit on her that day and she’s a bit over it.
  2. She may not be in the mood to receive unwanted advances.  If a woman is just trying to get from A to B she's probably not open to being hit on by strangers, especially when the comments are overtly sexual.
  3. The street is not a speed dating site – context matters.
  4. Nearly one out of every five women is a survivor of sexual assault. ONE out of FIVE. That means that every fifth woman you encounter has had a sexual act forced upon her. Your persistence may be reminiscent of something painful so if she doesn’t seem interested, back off. (I am in no way implying that all women who are uncomfortable with street harassment are abuse survivors, but am simply pointing out one of the many potential harms of aggressive, sexual behavior.)
  5. If you’re a guy and you’re thinking, “Stop preaching to the choir, Shaun. I get it!” be an active ally. Make sure your male friends get it, too. (Click here for male ally resources.)

Women: If you like receiving catcalls, please understand that most of your sisters don’t and please stop trying to discredit or invalidate their experiences. Women are being followed, spat on, cursed at, groped, attacked, and even killed by men who feel entitled to them. Do you really want to risk telling one of those women to “lighten up” or to “learn how to take a compliment” after receiving treatment like this, particularly when one of those women may be a survivor of sexual assault? There’s an attitude we’re addressing. Let us address it. It will benefit you, too.

I’m so sorry this happened to you.

This was said over and over both by my friends and by the wonderful policemen and detectives I spoke to. These simple words are healing, validating, kind, and meant more to me than I can fully express right now.

Even though the street harassment numbers are alarming, I firmly believe we are moving forwards and not backwards. If you are a victim of harassment who speaks out when it's easier to be silent, or if you are man who "gets it" either through personal experience (like the San Francisco native who was stabbed for defending his catcalled girlfriend) or through your own pursuit of kindness I am so grateful for you. 

[I want to acknowledge that this blog post doesn’t address all forms of street harassment. I struggled with that, not wanting to leave anyone out, but the facts are that most perpetrators of street harassment are men, and most recipients of that harassment are women. That said, I encourage you to read more about the ubiquitous and varied forms of street harassment in our country, and to please visit StopStreetHarassment.org to get more information on what street harassment is and how we can put a stop to it. –SBF]