Being harassed on the street has motivated me to make a lot of changes in my behavior. Here’s a short but by no means exhaustive list of the things I have been motivated to do by being harassed on the street:
- Wore baggier clothes, starting when I was about eleven years old and a truck full of men whistled at me as I walked to junior high.
- Listened to headphones while walking around or running (and now, while cycling*), the idea being that if I can’t hear the harassment, it’s not happening.
- Flipped off a car full of teenage boys, then invited them to perform acts of fornication on themselves after they told me they would like to “fuck that ass.” (When I told my ex-husband about this, he chided me for being “unladylike,” which tells you all you need to know about his perspective on gender relations.)
- Stared straight ahead and pretended I did not hear the noises coming from the cars that drove past.
- Learned to play it off when it happens while I am walking with the men in my life (my now-husband, and once even my father).
I’ve also been motivated to develop near heroic levels of self-control. Most recently, when I went for a run in downtown Miami and ran past a group of elderly men, one of whom made weird leering kissy noises at me, I had to restrain myself from turning around, running back, grabbing the handles of his wheelchair and dumping him onto the ground. I did not do this because, unlike the old man in the wheelchair, I am not a dick. But man, how I wanted to.
But in my two-plus decades of life as a harassable person, I have to say that not once did I ever feel inspired to:
- Lose weight.
Yet according to a recent article the Daily Mail, more than one-quarter of the people surveyed in a recent poll about weight loss said a “wolf whistle” would be enough to keep them on track in terms of their diet and exercise. The article starts off with this sentence:
We may tut and scowl and whisper obscenities under our breath when men wolf-whistle in our direction – but secretly we love it.
More than half of women say they would like to be on the receiving end of one, and almost a third of female dieters say being complimented in that most garish of ways is one of the single biggest motivators to losing more weight.
To which I can only say: Really? Who are these women? Most of the women I know are mortified when random men on the street comment on their bodies and appearances. I personally vacillate between murderous rage and embarrassment when it happens to me. It’s not a matter of not appreciating compliments, which defenders of the wolf whistle will try to say. On the contrary – I’ve been on the receiving end of compliments paid by strangers before and I genuinely appreciated them. Rather it’s the sense that I’ve been reminded that, no matter what I’m doing at the time, what matters most to the random guys around me is that I have been deemed sexually appealing, and that I should be grateful for this knowledge.
Ultimately, though, I question the idea that men who make random statements to women on the street about their fuckability are necessarily doing it to show appreciation for the woman’s beauty. Check out this comment from the Daily Mail:
If a woman wears suggestive or otherwise provocative clothing, I find it difficult not to let her know she is stimulating. My suggestion: if a woman does not want suggestive advances for men, dress modestly. Don’t let it all hang out.
The commenter doesn’t care how it makes the woman feel. What matters most is that his junk stirred a bit and he needed to make sure she knew it, because the status of his junk is the most important thing in the world! (And also that he puts responsibility on the woman for his own behavior. Way to show your power as the so-called stronger sex there, bro.)
The idea of “street harassment as compliment” is a pervasive one that doesn’t actually hold true in reality. An adult man telling an 11-year-old girl that she has a nice ass is not a compliment. Neither is a group of teenage boys who engage in homosocial bonding by telling a woman on the street that they want to do her in the butt. And what about those of us who have reacted with anger to so-called “compliments,” only to hear what frigid bitches and sluts we are? Or those of us who don’t even get the compliments, but who instead get harassed for being fat, for being visibly queer, for not adhering to the proper guidelines of femininity? Are they being complimented too?
And what about the fact that it’s hard to discern when a comment is just a comment or when it’s actually a threat? How are we supposed to square a culture that puts a huge amount of responsibility for preventing rape and assault upon our shoulders with this idea that we are supposed to be totally down with a random man on the street indicating that he wants to fuck us? If we react with anger, we are bitches. If we do nothing, we must like it. And if the random man assaults us, then it’s our fault for not running away.
And just what does any of this have to do with weight loss? If this was really the surefire means to successful dieting that these women felt it would be, wouldn’t they be successful at their goals by now? Every study I’ve looked at has put the percentage of women who have reported being harassed on the street at between 80-99%. Are women in the United Kingdom the outliers in this regard, particularly women in the United Kingdom who are on diets?
Or maybe – just maybe – we should consider that settling one’s self-esteem upon your worth as a fucktoy in the eyes of others is a fraught game with only the most ephemeral of rewards, and that one might be better suited to seek out self-esteem in a way that is based on one’s inherent worth as a human being and not on their ability to inspire boorish behavior in strangers? Just a thought.
Men who harass women on the street are not showing their appreciation for a fine female form. What they are doing is reminding us of what they think as our proper role in life: as decorations, as sex toys, as entertainment. Street harassment is not a compliment, no matter how much these guys might insist it is. It is harassment. Let’s not forget that.
*Edited to add that I am aware of the safety issues that can result from this, and I keep the volume low (and don’t use them while I’m on busy streets). I know I should probably not do this though.