“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.

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

  1. I sort of stumbled upon this, and as a Latina woman who likewise feels a powerless sort of rage about this phenomena, I’d like you to know that I really enjoyed your article. Keep it up. Practical, interesting, and accessible. Rock on

    • I think that a woman breaking down in tears over harassment (totally justified as that reaction would be, it’s horrible) would just confirm in their minds the wrong-headed, stereotypical and antiquated ideas about women that cause these men to harass in the first place. And for the significant proportion who aren’t just idiots, but are actively trying to frighten and intimidate, it would be their ideal result.

  2. Well said. I have been called a bitch many times, especially the older I get and the less patience I have for men approaching me. And it always leaves me feeling badly, but then posts like this remind me it’s my right to exist and it’s my right to ignore, turn down or express my disgust for those presumptions that are given so quickly. Thank you. I’m liberated once again.

  3. I love your humor, your honesty. Hate that this is reality, especially that they wouldn’t have said this shit to a white girl. Brilliant writing.

  4. I wonder what would have happened if you’d responded by focusing on their bodies and pointing all the negative stuff about them. If any of them protested or complained, you could say “Oh, I look at all men like pieces of meat. After all, that’s how men look at me.”

  5. I am white and old and still get street harrassment. This has been one of my personal pet peeves since age 12 and has made me so angry at men in general..in fact i am SO opposed to any male even mentioning my appearance before they get to know me.
    I could talk on this issue forever but you get the point: men who approach me based on appearance are immediately disregarded as”people of no interest to me who i instantly loathe”

  6. Wow I’m in shock. I’m from the South and have only heard of this kind of thing. I feel sorry for you that you have to endure that. I did appreciate the analysis of your experiment. I wish you all the best.

  7. I apologize for the behavior of these so-called “men”! The amount of self control it takes to NOT comment out loud, to any woman in a harassing manner, is about zero if a man has any maturity at all.
    At about the age of 21/22, while at work, I said something I thought was “cute”, out loud, to a female co-worker. She was mortally offended and left crying. I was put in my place by both male and female co-workers, and was lucky enough to be able to apologize later to that co-worker, who was also my good friend. I grew up that day, with the help of both male and female “human” beings.

  8. This was a very interesting article thank you.
    I mean mean women will get harassed any way. I am a Muslim and wear the hijab and dress and I once got a man grabbing my arm. It’s a no win situation for us women unfortunately.

  9. Love your article. I feel like more men need to read this kind of thing so they can realize how their behaviour actually makes women feel. I am a white girl but I live in Vancouver and I get hollared at nearly every day, though usually not such rude comments but it still makes me uncomfortable enough to avoid certain areas where those people loiter. A lot of people don’t always think about what they are doing unfortunately.

  10. My favorite was boot day.

    It reminds me of an epiphany I had in the gym. Back in the day, I was a bodybuilder at a hard core weight room. Not one of those female Arnold Schwarzeneggers but really, really strong and cut. The guys lifting around me WERE Schwarzeneggers, just living mountains.

    In the beginning, I minded my Ps and Qs around them but once I became a regular, I was sort of welcomed into the fold and I delivered and received my fair share of ribbing and teasing. Once in a while, a new guy would push me around verbally to see what I would take. Usually, I fended him off with humor.

    One day, I just had no fuse. A 275-pound trash-talker went over the line, planted his feet firmly in front of me, and gave me one of those What Are You Going to Do About It? looks. I locked eyes with him, stepped up, and gave him chest-for-chest. I don’t remember what I said but I felt a thrill when his eyes twitched and he backed away. No kidding: dude was scared.

    I never forgot that day. I still use that look very successfully. You just deaden your eyes into an expression that says, “I’ve killed so many men, it’s getting kind of monotonous.” Fun, fun, fun.

  11. Nice article: I believe you have done an excellent job seeing and developing a first-hand knowledge on some of the issues many women faces today, prior, and will be the same in the future. However, these reactions perhaps would be the same if they were conducted in another city, or country regardless of language. Unfortunately, and I am not a psychologist, nor do I play one on the television, but few guys are wired that way, and everything seem rather sexual when it could be a cry for help.

  12. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve often thought about the people who have yelled at me on the streets. Who taught them that this was acceptable behavior? Sad…

  13. Hahahaha… i truly enjoyed reading this. You did a great job exposing a day in the life of an attractive woman in the city. As a side note, next time it would be interesting to do the same experiment with an unattractive woman instead. It would be cool to see the results. Oh and have her wear the same outfits you wore. Good job though! Sorry for the bad experience, but unfortunately thats how it is, perhaps until you women start carying guns hahaha…

  14. That was brave to respond to those men. You made a difference. I agree it’s degrading to hear filthy remarks about your body. I never liked that kind of attention. I tend to ignore or give dirty looks back at anyone who stares too long or says degrading remarks. Good for you!

  15. I LOVE this. I’ve been victim to countless cat calls and harassments at my job and normal every day life. Your article was interesting, empowering, and extremely relatable. Thank you!

  16. You’re so brave to try this. I live in a city where catcalling doesn’t happen as often, but I’m also a white girl and maybe I just don’t get catcalled at as much. Thank you so much for this article. Many people I talk to about this say catcalling is just a compliment and that women should enjoy it. They don’t understand the power dynamics involved. It’s especially disturbing when I realize race influences it.

    P.S. I loved the dick-crushing comment.

  17. This really hits home because street harassment is a HUGE problem in Egypt. I have to say it’s even way worse over there. But you’re right. Responding is a waste of time. Sometimes I don’t even think it’s about sex. It’s about embarrassing, humiliating the person. They just want to see you blush, or get angry or hurt.

  18. I am an Indian girl who takes public transport to college , here in India . Once when I was coming back home, two men in the railway station tried to grope me and were constantly talking about my “size”…I still remember their words. ” She is a twenty two..what a sexy size ” they said. I was really scared. And I thought the exact same sentence as your last sentence: I am not as brave as I think. Sometimes, somethings totally break me .

  19. Truly disheartening and sickening. In each situation, there’s an obvious sense of exhaustion at the lack of power over this issue. Every woman has been there. I’m thankful for posts like these that bring attention to the issue rather than conceding defeat and doing what your male friend suggested: just dealing with it.

  20. Reblogged this on HowManyRoses and commented:
    Interesting. I wish I could say ‘shocking’, but as a female who walks around places by herself, unsurprisingly I’ve experienced this too. Nor do I know of a productive way to respond. Does anyone?

  21. I feel your pain and applaud your courage! I could never respond either positively or negatively when harassed in my NYC days of youth and just pretended not to hear or react. Recall the worst hot spots (no pun intended) were construction sites. I recently viewed an online video somewhere, wherein men walk by as two women stand by and take the aggressor role, catcalling, humiliating and degrading. Really drives home how it feels to have to experience and so funny too.

  22. This makes me wonder if any of these guys have mothers, or sisters, or wives. I have experienced this myself, and let me tell you, it is a form of assault. This disrespectful behavior is no longer tolerated on school play grounds, or in the work force, why does society tolerate it on public streets?

  23. Reblogged this on POSIPESI – Take a Peek Into My Mind and commented:
    Being a women brings challenges that no men can ever fully understand. However, men can control themselves. They can urge other men to do the same. The only way any bad, offensive behavior can stop is to take steps to stop it.

    This woman was more brave than I, and I commend her for that.

  24. What a great post, and extremely well written.
    As a male, I feel I should apologise for my fellow man, but hopefully you will realise that not all males are disrespectful, although your recent experiences may prove me wrong on that one.
    Personally, if a man was to walk past you and say ‘nice boots’, notwithstanding that you did not ask him to comment on your boots (well you wouldn’t, would you?) I feel this is not nearly as rude, unacceptable, and downright neanderthal as making personal coments of a sexual or demeaning nature.
    I hope you know what I mean by that.
    I think that standards in the world as a whole are slipping, and that sad view incorporates male and female behaviour.
    I note a redced sense of respect in us humans, and this probably begins with a lowering of that most basic commodity ‘self-respect’. After all, if we cannot respect ourselves, what chance we could respect somebody we don’t know?
    As I said, I think your post was extremely well written, and balanced, and I hope that not all your experiences are bad ones, that the majority are in fact positive, and that the message of what is and is not acceptable is a message that is picked up and improvement is very visible. I sincerely hope so..

  25. I’ve only been to NYC only one time. I enjoyed looking around at the various sites of interests. Had been wanting to check out nyc ever since I was at kid. I have three cousins living in Staten Island. When I was a young teenager they came down south to our home state of Georgia. Talking about two worlds colliding, this was a culture shock for the both of us… Lol. Like most things all turned out well. Hang in there and don’t bow down to the street people, who throw trash comments at you trying to get a response from you. Keep your head held up high as you walk by them and go on about your day knowing it’s not you there upset about… It’s their enjoyment if they can get a comment from you. Don’t forget this either… Ok. Try it and notice what happens!!… Lol Robbie in TN.

  26. I (a man) am just recently seeing reports and stories of females being harrassed like this. That sucks. A tall gorgeous friend told me how much she gets hit on/spoken to/catcalled. It’s pathetic. It gets me angry. .. and yes I don’t think I’ve ever cat called before, but honestly I’m not sure though I’ve never done anything really aggressive. But now I’m sure it won’t happen.

  27. Really interesting read, I too get so fed up with constantly feeling uncomfortable passing men on the street. I’m from NZ and it’s never been a big problem there but I’ve been travelling on my own in Europe since June and I am so sick of the remarks from men in all of the countries I visit. I think because I am on my own most of the time I’m a good target, it’s such a horrible feeling when they say things that are especially crass, and most of the time I’m wearing track pants and sports shoes! I don’t know if they actually believe they are complementing you! It just makes me uncomfortable about being a woman travelling alone and I think that’s a really sad thing. I love that you did your own experiment, fascinating to see that it really doesn’t matter what you wear either, one of the frustrating things of being a female!

  28. This is very interesting. I wonder if age also has something to do with it. This never happens to me, but I do remember it occasionally in my younger days. Regardless, this is an obvious and disgusting example of how women are disrespected, disregarded and made to feel vulnerable when walking along the streets. Was there any reaction at all from others on the streets?

  29. I am an Indian girl who lives in India. I have grown up here and have dealt with street harassment since I probably hit adolescence. Indian girls have learnt how to ‘ignore’ the crude remarks when they walk on streets, the whistling, the staring, the occasional touching! Its exhausting to have to be alert all the time to ward off this unwanted attention. As you rightfully pointed out, you cannot say anything to the eve teasers as they’re usually in groups and then it could put you in a very difficult situation. You’d rather take all the crap and move on than get yourself into a situation that you will regret.
    It is unfortunately a very contradictory situation where on the one hand you want to stand up for yourself and put people in their place, while on the other hand you cannot, or rather decide not to, as you fear the consequences.
    I wish men realize that what they think is fun, is really demeaning to women. Women are not ‘asking for it’ and they sure do not ‘enjoy the attention’.
    Well.. just my two cents.

  30. Reblogged this on MALIBEHIRIBAE and commented:
    “..I practice my bitch face in the mirror, perfecting the combination eye roll and scowl that will be my signature expression today. My lace-up leather military boots match my jet black skirt.” Alexis Wilkinson
    …really sounds interesting but intriguing; like a script pull out of ‘Criminal Minds’. Agreed. Its unbelievable that women should find and spend ‘extra time’ to plan and rehearse on how to counter male chauvinism on public spaces and still hold up together end of business day. Personally I doubt I would build any form of such resilience if roles were to be exchanged for an half a day. I should admit though that I have occasionally witnessed the “eye roll and scowl” combination on display; its so devastating to us male species, its workable, and certainly an absolute killer! And the “lace-up leather military boots…” my, you are a scriptwriter indeed.

  31. Yup!! Thats New York City..i have forgotten about that, this post brought back so many memories…not good ones mind you…rather scary for a 19 walking the street of New York.

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