There’s nothing like a smile to brighten somebody’s day – if the smile is freely given.
But how do you feel when someone else tells you to smile? Especially if that person is bigger than you are, a total stranger, and has interrupted you for no reason while you walk down the street, wait for the train, or stand in line at the store?
Most women can tell you exactly how it feels.
I had a chat on Facebook with a male friend recently. He had posted a frustrated status update because an apparently gay man had winked at him at the gym. He insisted that he wasn’t bothered by the other man’s sexuality: he just prefers personal and emotional space. He wouldn’t hold it against someone who approached him in a bar. But the gym is different: “that’s the one place I can recharge and set my mind right for my day, and I really don’t care much for winks and such from anyone regardless of sexual orientation,” he explained.
I said a wink wasn’t so bad. I shared what happened to me a few weeks ago at the station. While I was sitting on an indoor bench waiting for an evening train out of center city, a man in his forties approached me. He repeatedly asked me my name, where I was going, where I lived, and whether there was someone waiting for me in bed. I said I didn’t want to talk with him about any of that. So he offered to come home with me and began suggesting what he’d like to do once we got to my bed.
He kept moving in closer and closer, leaning over me on the bench. Nothing I said would make him stop. I worried that if I didn’t stay put and wait the rudeness out, he would follow me. What would stop him from boarding the train behind me and noting my stop or even my apartment? Finally I jumped up and hurried to the other side of the station. He didn’t pursue me, but I was still unnerved when I reached my home.
“Ha, yeah, I guess a wink is ok,” my friend said, after saying how sorry he was that that had happened to me. The difference in our reactions to what happened to each of us really struck me. A single wink frustrated my friend so much that he took to the internet when he got home. When I got home after listening to a litany of intrusive filth from a stranger, not only did I neglect to tell anyone online about it: I didn’t even bother to tell my husband.
That’s because, as a woman who walks around by herself in the city every day, incidents like this, while severe in the broad range of unwanted advances, are so common that it hardly occurs to me talk about them. First, if I made mention of it every time I received an unwanted touch, approach or remark from men in public, I would be talking about this several times a week and everyone would be bored of hearing it. Secondly, in my own and many other women’s experience, complaining about these incidents elicits a limited range of responses. Occasionally it’s perfunctory sympathy, but more often it’s a shrug or even the insistence that secretly we like the attention, or that we should appreciate it when any man finds us attractive, and soak it up before we’re too old to catch anyone’s eye.
Though I’m always quietly bothered when strangers touch me, proposition me, holler out their car windows at me or ask me embarrassing questions for no reason other than that I’m a pretty girl and they’re a man who wants to know, it never occurred to me to talk much about it, much less raise my voice or call for help in a situation like the one I described above. The usual message seems to be that while it’s not an ideal state of affairs, it’s normal to be treated this way, so just ignore it and get on with your day.
And I do. And I do. And I do. And I do. Every time it happens.
But another Facebook friend, in honor of Women’s History Month, brought my attention to a website called Stop Street Harassment. I spent a lot of time on it. Before I read the information there, I considered the unwanted yells, advances and touches an annoyance, but didn’t label it “harassment”. But after reading the materials there, I realized they were spot-on in pointing out that I would never tolerate that treatment from a colleague, friend or family member. If they were to leer or whoop or honk at me, finger my waist or thighs, suggest sexual encounters, call me pet names that are reserved for my husband, or ask me questions that made me uncomfortable, I’d react.
So why do I just put my head down and walk a little faster when a stranger does it?
The Stop Street Harassment website emphasizes that street harassment is not a petty complaint but an important human rights issue. Street harassment can make women feel anxious, angry, or frightened just for stepping out in public. Where street harassment is condoned, the underlying message is undeniable: women don’t have the same right to exist safely and comfortably in public spaces as men do.
It really struck me painfully, when I stopped to reflect on this last week, that I consider myself a confident, educated person who is well-informed, articulate and outspoken on women’s issues, and yet I’ve never written anything until now to object to the hundreds of times I’ve been sexually harassed in public.
I’m embarrassed when I look back at a common problem I had at my old jobsite, a museum. For a large part of every day, staffers were placed throughout the site to supervise visitors and answer their questions. We were given high stools to sit on. Sometimes men would walk up to me and put their hand on my knee or thigh when they asked me questions. I hated it, but was afraid a customer would report me for being rude if I objected.
The thing that embarrasses me now is that, at the time, instead of fully admitting to myself that those men shouldn’t have touched me, I considered the main problem to be the chair I was given, because it put my knees into easy reach. Therefore, whenever I encountered a knee-toucher, I never said “please take your hand off.” I just stood up and continued smiling. Then, I’d be on high alert for the next hour or two, watching for the man and making sure to stand up whenever I saw him coming.
The Stop Street Harassment website suggests a wealth of responses from women who have had enough or men who want to help them. Some are pretty darn creative. Responding to street harassment is a scary tightrope – you want to assert your personhood and deter inappropriate behavior, but you also don’t want to provoke something even ruder (or more frightening) from the person who’s bothering you.
Nowadays, I have a few responses that I use on a regular basis, the most common being a simple and firm “I am not your (insert inappropriate term of endearment)” or “none of your business.” But some men interpret these comments as encouragement, as if I’m just playing a game, and some men get visibly annoyed because I didn’t respond the way they wanted me to. Either of these can make the unwanted attention escalate. So lately I’ve been trying a response that I hope doesn’t encourage or insult anyone: I answer unwanted comments by smiling faintly and saying “My husband wouldn’t like that.”
This usually makes harassers back off amiably, and in most ways I consider that a win-win. The man isn’t bothering me anymore and I haven’t made him angry or caused a scene. But ultimately this response still leaves me unhappy, because the implication (and perhaps the reason the harasser remains so comfortable) is not that it’s inappropriate to bother me, but that I’m already the property of another man.
The Stop Street Harassment website urges men to refrain from this behavior by empathizing with women. It suggests asking men “how they would like it if other men who were larger than them regularly interrupted them to tell them to smile, comment on their looks and body parts, ask for their name, touch them, follow them, or start masturbating in front of them.” It also urges men who think it’s ok to grope women or holler at them in the street how they’d like it if someone treated their mother, sister, wife or daughter in that way.
The message is that men need to put themselves in the woman’s mindset and realize how damaging the harassment can be. That’s all well and good, but before I’d ask a habitual harasser to empathize with me, I might consider that he’d be more likely to be able to empathize with my father, husband or brother.
None of these men – all iron-pumping, well-respected, intelligent and handsome individuals – would ever interact with a woman in the ways described above. My grandfather, a WWII vet who has so many Lifetime Achievement Awards that when he moved from a house to an apartment he had to decide which plaques to put into storage, has never leaned into a woman’s face at the train station and said, “baby, let me tell you what I’m gonna do once I’ve got you home with me.” To my harassers: I won’t go so far as to ask you to get inside my head. It’d be enough if you would take a page out of my grandfather’s book.
As the Stop Street Harassment website emphasizes, stopping harassment doesn’t mean criminalizing men for appreciating women’s looks. You can admire in polite silence or offer a sincere compliment without touching her, making sexual innuendos or demands, calling her “sweetheart” or “babygirl” when you don’t even know her, asking her questions she doesn’t want to answer or insisting that she smile at you. Her being out in public is never a reason for you to approach her in these ways, just as you would not want to be propositioned, threatened, coerced or infantilized by strangers as you go about your business. My friend of the unwanted gym-winking takes it for granted that he shouldn’t be subject to romantic or sexual advances in certain environments. For women, there is no such guarantee.
There are reams of well-intentioned lessons for men on how to interact appropriately with women, but for me, it boils down to this. When you see me coming and you like the looks of me, try this:
1) Remember that, like you, I’m an independent human being.
2) Meet my eyes and give me a smile.
If you follow these steps, I don’t care if you’re sipping a $7 latte in your Armani suit or if you’re sweeping the sidewalk in your Cintas pants. I will smile back.
The discussion continues: You Don’t Owe Me a Smile, Part II: The Curious Failure of Sweatpants