by Alexis Wilkinson
I spent this past summer in one of my favorite places on Earth: New York City. To say I love New York would not only be a cliché, but an understatement. I do much more than love New York in some glib sense. I understand New York. I celebrate its joys and empathize with its plight. Working three jobs was a small price to pay for the privilege of running through the filthy, beautiful streets of NYC all day and all night for three months.
If my beloved New York has one fatal flaw, it is that the city has the most persistent, crass, and often truly frightening brand of street harassers I have ever encountered.
I have spent time in other cities. I have been whistled at, shouted at, and even grabbed by the shoulders. But never have these affronts to my personhood been so constant and so seemingly unstoppable as when I am in New York City. I once told a male friend about how often I feel unsafe taking the subway or even walking in broad daylight. “Why don’t you just tell them off?” he asked. He knows I am not the type to silently be offended. I am highly opinionated and also nearly 6ft tall. When I told him that I usually don’t speak up because I am scared, he laughed. “You? Scared of what?”
Inspired by the online anti-street harassment movements like ihollaback.com and stopstreetharassment.org, this is a condensed log of one week of my life as a woman, harassed, in NYC.
This is me trying to answer that question.
Day 1 – “Bitch”
Temperature: Mid 80s
Outfit: Military Boots, High Waisted Skirt, Cotton Crop Top, Door Knocker Earrings
I’ve decided that, to be scientific, I will try to adopt different strategies of dealing with street harassers all day for the next seven days. Today is Bitch Day. I’m excited, but fearful too. Today, I will respond to every man who hollers, whistles, or otherwise accosts me with a few choice words. I mull over my favorite epithets. Should a whistler get “shithead” or “bastard”? What about a well-timed middle finger? I practice my bitch face in the mirror, perfecting the combination eye roll and scowl that will be my signature expression today. My dark red nail polish gleams. My lace-up leather military boots match my jet black skirt.
They are also strategic. In case I have to run.
Over the course of the day, I verbally tell off four men. The most notable of these is the middle-aged man who tells me he likes my boots and winks as I am walking home. I stop and turn around.
“Thank you. I use them to crush dicks.”
He’s shocked, but manages to mumble something about me not being able to take a compliment as I start walking away. I stop again.
“Did I ask you what you thought about my boots?”
He pretends not to hear me. I get louder. People on the street are paying attention now. We’re trading insults. He gets a little too close to me, but I don’t flinch. I catch myself glancing around to see who’s paying attention, in case I need a witness. Before I walk away, he makes one last power play.
“One day, somebody’s gonna teach you a lesson. You’re damn lucky it’s not me.”
I am utterly drained when I get home. I take my boots off as soon as I get in the door of my tiny rented room, glad that Bitch Day is over.
Day 2 – “They Wouldn’t Say That to a White Girl”
Temperature: High 80s
Outfit: Tank Top, Athletic Shorts, Sneakers
I’ve decided that today I will smile without saying a word to every street hollerer. They wink. I smile. They whistle. I smile. They tell me what they would like to do to my butthole. I smile like an angsty chimpanzee, all teeth, no lip.
After a group of Italian men that live on my block try yet again to strike up a conversation with me, I am reminded of my friend who saw the same behavior from them earlier that month. She shrugged. “They wouldn’t say that to a white girl.”
As I go through my day, I realize the truth to her statement. I notice more and more white women arguably far prettier than me, wearing far less, getting no comment whatsoever from the same men who can’t wait to tell me what they think of me today. I can’t help but feel cheapened. The feeling that my own body, despite any of my efforts to the contrary, sends a message that I would enjoy being told I have nice tits by a stranger is absolutely infuriating. My smile becomes a pained grimace as the day goes on and on.
Day 5 – “That’s All Yours”
Temperature: Mid 90s
Outfit: Pink and Black Cocktail Dress, Wedge Heels
Today, I confront every man who says or does something with polite but pointed responses. I use phrases like “I feel that was really inappropriate,” “Sorry I’m not interested,” or sometimes simply “No thank you.” I still get called a bitch a lot. I hear no apologies.
It’s Friday and I’m working tonight as a hostess at a restaurant in Brooklyn. On my way to work, I pass by a group of young men. One of them says to another, “That’s all yours bro.” He points at me. I had never been called a “that” before. I think about approaching them, but I am already running late. The group is muttering in agreement as I round the corner, head down.
The same male friend who asks me what I was afraid of hears this story. He makes an analogy about two cars at an intersection. Yes, occasionally one of them honks, or worse yet hits another, but that’s the price you pay for driving. I sneer. “Except I’m not in a car. I’m in a body. I’m on foot and they’re, sometimes literally, in a truck,” I say. “Besides, you can choose not to drive. I can’t choose not to exist.”
Day 7 – “I’m Done”
Temperature: Low 80s
Outfit: Long Chiffon Dress, Sandals
I spend all day not responding to any man who tries to get my attention, as is my usual custom. I put my headphones on and stare glassy-eyed on every subway car, train, and street corner. Despite this, a drunken man on the G train starts masturbating through his pants in front of me. It is disheartening to say the least.
Through my experiment, I have come to several conclusions. Responding to street harassers is a waste of time, emotionally exhausting, and potentially dangerous. In addition, rationalizing these incidents as compliments ignores the race and class-based motivations that make it more likely that women of color or otherwise sexually “available” women will be harassed.
Catcalls are rude, dehumanizing, and serve as reminder to women that we are bags of meat up for appraisal by any and all bidders at any given time. It cannot and should not be the sole responsibility of women to deal with this problem. I have neither the time nor the patience to suffer fools every day all day for the rest of my feminine life. And, perhaps most startling, I am not nearly as brave as I think I am.