Several years ago I was sitting outside my best friend’s apartment building in Philadelphia. That summer the city was being held hostage by a heat wave. Restaurants were closing early because kitchen staffs were passing out, camp counselors had to figure out ways to entertain kids without going outside, and news anchors kept reminding us to check on our elderly neighbors.
That night my friend and I were dressed for 102° weather – jean shorts, tank tops that stuck to the sweat on our backs, and sandals. We were nursing sugary mixed drinks made from the Malibu Rum leftover from her housewarming and enjoying our last few days of freedom before college started again. Without our noticing, a man walked up to us. He was wearing a white beater, loose gym shorts that skimmed his calfs, and socks with Adidas sandals. Quintessential Philly.
We continued to talk to each other, hoping that our body language, which screamed LEAVE US ALONE, would turn him away.
"Hey! Hey, you!" He whispered. I looked up and saw him mimicking oral sex with his fingers. "Yeah, you," he continued. "Girl, I would do whatever you wanted if you just let me lick your pussy." My face started to get hot and we slowly stood up, abandoning our drinks. "Wait, girl! Please just let me see some more of that body of yours!"
?He began to walk towards us and we began to freak out. At the last second, my friend opened the front door, pulled me in, and shut the door in the man's face. We ran up the stairs to her place, but I couldn't help it. I looked back and there he stood, flicking his tongue between his pointer and ring finger and winking at me.
?The next day I went to my summer job in Center City where I sold soft pretzels, fake cheese, and an even faker smiler to tourists. Still shaken up, I told my male coworker what happened. "Take it as a compliment though!" He said after I explained how violated I felt. "It just means you're really hot."
I'd venture to say that most women who have talked about street harassment with their brothers, fathers, and male friends have gotten that disappointing "take it as a compliment!" response before. Sadly, that complete lack of understanding from numerous men makes me wonder if they are truly able to act on our behalf to help end this growing problem women deal with on the regular.
As you probably know, Emma Watson gave a rousing rally speech at the UN Women's Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality last week. It commenced the launch of the He For She campaign which strives "to bring together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all." The campaign is inspiring but I wonder if it's enough?
?Check out the comments section on any YouTube video of women speaking out against street harassment. It's filled with defensive, angry, and sexist men who claim we should cover up if we don't want attention.
Why do so many men stiffen when the conversation comes around to street harassment? Despite having girlfriends, sisters, and mothers they appear to not give a shit about what those women endure on their walk to the grocery store. Nope, they either think we are asking too much of men ("What! We can't even tell you have a great smile?!") or that we're "complaining" about a part of life that will never go away so why waste our breaths. The issue probably lies in the fact that men aren't catcalled and verbally violated as much as women. Their bodies aren't sexualized against their will on a frequent basis and they aren't called "slut" or "bitch" if they don't respond to a man's advances in kind.
The truth is that all too often men have disappointed us. Their solution to this problem is to tell us to not respond or not take it so seriously. They laugh it off, never realizing that we change our walking routes to avoid these exchanges and stay silent in the face of verbal assaults. Well, it's not OK anymore. It is, as Emma Watson explained, a serious concern that should be shared by both genders.
If men's dismissal of street harassment as something harmless and easily ignored isn't changed to empathy and action, it will continue to be a constant part of our daily lives. So, like Emma Watson, I'd like to see men join us in our fight against harassment. Please talk about it with the men in your life, explain the difference between flattery and harassment, and let's hope a change will come!
Do you think He For She can help end street harassment? Tweet us @wewomenCA!