Too many times in my life, I have had to suffer through street harassment alone. I'll be walking by myself, minding my own beeswax, more often than not holding in a burp and wearing yesterday's laundry, and some jabroni on the sidewalk thinks I will feel so much safer in my neighbourhood if he makes it blatantly obvious he's staring at my sweater-meat. Or better yet, hiss into my ear, "Hello mamacita, looking good, why don't you come sit with us, why are you ignoring me, you bitch, I'm paying you a compliment." It's usually one or the other—the kind that is silent but deadly, or the kind that slides into my mind-DMs so only I can hear it.
The deeply worrying thing about street harassment is that they're not trying to date me.
They're trying to humiliate me, and reinforce their dominance over me, on the off chance that I've forgotten, I'm emancipated, or I'm a *gasp* lesbian. It's an exercise in male power. It's a way of communicating, "I can say whatever I want to you, no matter how inappropriate, or how uncomfortable it makes you feel, and you can't do shit about it." As the great Lindy West once wrote, "The sexualisation of women is only appealing if it's non-consensual. Otherwise, it's 'sluttiness'…"
On top of the dehumanizing nature of street harassment, the experience is also extremely isolating. Not because it isn't happening to other women—because it's happening to all of us—but because the chances of someone coming to my defence, aid, or joining forces with me in taking a stand are slim to none.
Good men, the proverbial "nice guys," this is where you come in.
I know there are lots of men out there who are listening when we tell them about all the things that have happened to us on the streets, and it's making you angry. You wish you could do something, but you don't know what. Here's the do's and don'ts of being an ally to women.
First of all, don't ignore it. I was once walking in a clubbing district with a man I was dating, and a car full of men drove up alongside me and said some sexually obscene things. My date just continued walking, ignored them, and basically left me to deal with it. Pretending street harassment isn't happening or pretending like you can't hear it is extremely damaging. Not just because it is happening, and we can't pretend we live in another dimension or a vacuum, but also because ignoring it doesn't stop it. They will just yell louder, follow me for longer, and threaten me even stronger.
My date told me later he was afraid to react for fear of getting his ass kicked. He said if he had said something, they wouldn't come kick my ass. He'd be pushed to the front of that line. There are so many things wrong with that statement, not the least of which being the idea that a man wouldn't dare kick a woman's ass. I would love to live in a world where men didn't assault women on the street, and if he lives in that world, I wanna join. But in this world, men beat women in public, in broad daylight, all the livelong day. I have to deal with the threat of assault 24/7, so you guys better sack-up and sport a modicum of the bravery that women have to have every day if you want to be an ally.
Do say something. You don't have to be vulgar or crass, you don't have to get all up in his grill, you don't have to raise your voice. In fact, women would prefer if our allies toned down the male violence rather than amp it up. But if you say nothing, you are normalizing the perpetrator's behaviour. If another man isn't saying to him, "Not cool, not funny, you're a jerk for doing this," he will think the silence is agreement. Wouldn't people protest if they disagreed? Silence means they must all be thinking the same thing. It doesn't really matter in what form you say something. You can do everything from a few tut-tuts and tsk-tsks to mocking him to full-on rage-ahol. Your words may have an affect on him—maybe he'll think twice next time…. Or maybe he won't. There's no way of knowing. But that doesn't matter because calling out bullshit is always worthwhile.
Don't tell us to take it like a compliment. What am I, Mindfreak Criss Angel? I can't magically transmute sexual obscenities into some kind of positive personal attribute. It's not flattering, it's a threat to my safety. And all you guys who think we should just "relax already" about unwanted advances are the same guys who got all butt-hurt when that U2 album appeared on your iPhone without your consent. I've said this before and I'll say it again—it's amazing to me how often "you should learn to take a compliment" is said by fully-grown men who still haven't learned how to take rejection.
Do ask us if we're okay and speak to us. It's OK if you're new to this and don't know exactly what to say to all the Yoko Bronos out there. So instead, say something to her. Go up to her, ask her if she's OK. It's a small but incredibly significant gesture. Trust me, it will mean the world to her. If the dudebro is still hanging about and things are going from zero to a hundred really quick, walk with her. Ask her if she would like to join you momentarily. Put yourself physically between the two, face her, and ask her what she would like to do. Hell, pretend you're her husband. If there's one thing I've learned, men don't respect when a woman says no, but they do respect when she says she's got a man. Why? Because male privilege, aka "bro code," dictates that he must respect a potentially non-existent man more than the very-real woman right in front of him, declining his offer of dick.
Do speak to your man-friends in their man-caves about their bad man-itudes, or whatever it is you mysterious creatures call it when you're together. If you're with your buddies, and one of them is being shitty to the waitress, or the flight attendant, or the bank teller, or just any woman he passes on the street, call him out on it. Be his friend, but let him know you're not cool with him treating women like that, and you will take a step back from your man-hangs if he doesn't get his shit together. If you're quiet when your homie makes a rape joke, then you better keep your fucking mouth shut when we say all men are trash. Because you've never helped us. Men listen to other men. They really do. They take their social cues from the men they respect and admire. Sure you can teach your sons how to behave, but leading by example will also teach your peers how to behave.
Case in point: earlier this week, I was walking to my local café in the morning to get a cup of the strong black stuff, and a cyclist rode up on the sidewalk, and stopped right next to me, invaded my personal space, just to ogle me as I passed. It was done to belittle me and threaten my safety and comfort. I gave him the finger, kept walking, earbuds in, and that was it. He's not going to own real-estate in my head, I said to myself, so tried to shrug it off after it happened.
Mere moments later, a man and woman pushing a stroller with a young toddler inside came up to me. They said they had seen the entire thing. "He just tried to ogle you!" the man exclaimed. "Yeah, that's why I gave him the finger, he made me feel uncomfortable."
"I told him he was a shitty person for doing that," he said.
Immediately, a surge of solidarity and happiness coursed through me. Much kindness! Very progress! So wow! WOW! All the hand-hearts. Heart-emoji ALL THE THINGS!
"Aw, bless your kind soul! What did he say?"
"He ignored us."
"Thank you so much for speaking up," I shook their hands with so much gratitude, I couldn't believe they went to bat for me in a world where almost no one ever has.
"I apologize on behalf of my gender," he then added.
I stopped and looked at him, his wife, and their beautiful child who will grow up understanding the importance of treating women with respect.
That's how to be an ally. We don't need much. Just say something if you see something, and make sure the woman is OK. That's all we ask.
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