“Ay Baby”: A Street Harassment Experiment

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

Mood: Bitchy

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

Mood: Ambivalent

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

Mood: Determined

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

Mood: Exhausted

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.

66 responses to ““Ay Baby”: A Street Harassment Experiment

  1. I realize you posted this almost a year ago, but I had to add my two cents! I usually flip off anyone who yells or honks at me when I’m running (because let’s be honest…who is in a good mood when they’re running?) But most of the time, I employ the silent treatment. Even then, men can react very aggressively. After ignoring one man, he stopped his bike, turned around, and started calling me a bitch, telling me I couldn’t take a compliment, etc. Startled, I popped into the nearest store even though I had no intention of buying fabric or craft materials . . . and I was wearing super seductive jeans and a long trench coat. (Ha.)

  2. Good for you! This is a great example of what people need to be aware of that can lead to domestic violence and more serious sexual harassment. Thanks for shining some light on this topic.

  3. I live in Harlem and am 6’1 and white–so I feel your pain. I’ve made friends with the people on my walk home from the train, who have told people off for me. Every once in a while I get feisty and step away from ignoring them and ask if they would like it if someone said that to their mother…but nothing works. We have to educate people on not objectifying others and treating others like people. Good luck and check out liveclarelesleyblog.com sometime!

  4. Dude. You are pretty kick-ass for trying this. Especially the responding. I, honestly, go into a shell every time I hear stuff like that on the street. I get upset. I won’t talk to anyone for there set of the day. (As you can imagine, I feel that way quite a lot of the time…)
    Though I DO occasionally use the time-tested middle-finger approach, if I’m feeling feisty and in a public and crowded place or with a group of people I know.

  5. Pingback: Safety Not Guaranteed | A Sober Head Full Of Confusion·

  6. I used to flip men off whenever they said anything inappropriate to me, but now I’m afraid that they might have a gun. It hurts to feel so powerless in these situations.

  7. Wow. These things used to happen to me too. All the time. And I’m a white woman. But they stopped. You know why? I got old. And Old Women don’t get catcalled. Which should be good news. Except the reason we don’t get verbally abused anymore is because we are suddenly invisible. Seriously. We do not exist. Which just proves that, to men like these, we are, as you say, ‘thats’. Disposable, despicable, Things.

  8. I am white. And though most of the time they dont react to white women, they stare and say things to/about me. I would guess its my small stature. Its so annoying. I normally only go to Wal-Mart and sometimes Lowe’s. I dont get why guys think its ok to treat women so rude. Thank you for this read.

  9. I remember those days in my twenties when I would go to the City. I never minded the catcalls, and I am white by the way. I used to say things like,
    “You couldn’t handle all this as I point to my body.”
    “One day I might get desperate and take you up on that.” and I’d laugh. Usually they would laugh too. New York is a tuff city. But It’s New York, and here’s the thing with NY cat callers; If you play with them by sayin: “Morning Guys,” “Looking good Carlos,Joe,Mario. I see your wife didn’t give you any last night. Or you kiss your mother with that mouth.” they will play/flirt back.
    Here’s another thing, these guys that see you everyday will come to your rescue if you come across a real asshole on the street.
    They see a lot of pretty women on the street. And I used to feel lucky that they would whistle and tell me I looked good. Sure some are assholes. But most are family guys who are just trying to get through their day. It could be worse: There are women that walk to work each day and have never heard a cat call.

  10. Great work. Thank you so much for posting this. Women and men should speak up when they see this. It is very scary and isolating to be targeted sexually and then be blamed for not reciprocating. Keep it up, you’re awesome!

  11. Great post. There certainly are some creepos out there. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been flashed. I love how you wrote about your moods as some days you can take on anything (snip snip ;) ) and other days it just makes you want to cry! I’m generally ready for anything now though. In Asia there isn’t so much verbal taunting but secret feels in crowded spaces. I now make a big scene and they go running. It’s very empowering and I public ally shame them enough that I hope that person won’t ever do the same thing again. You must always take care and think what would I tell my daughter to do in this situation. Obviously you are very beautiful and whilst it’s wrong to objectify you in any way, sometimes it might just be a compliment, like wow how beautiful is the sunset :)

  12. I compliment you on your extensive wardrobe! Joking aside, I lived in Aberdeen, Scotland for four years, studying for a PhD. I had good times there, I met my husband there, but when I think back to over a decade ago when I lived there, my abiding memories are of being harassed just for being a woman. Walking up Union Street, the crowded main street of the city, one afternoon, a man walked up to me and painfully squeezed my left breast. On a couple of occasions as I walked home from university, I had men walk up to me (in the middle of the day) stand in front of me and yell in my face.I started to hate going out on my own. My husband loved Aberdeen. But he’s 6.2″ and built like a brick shit house. I hated and resented feeling afraid and uncomfortable when I was out on my own.

    Check out http://everydaysexism.com/

    Martina

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