After Twenty-Eight Years, I Am Finally Saying It: I Don’t Owe You A Smile.

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 partner at home.

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.” Whether or not you’re actually married is beside the point.

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, partner or brother.

None of these men – all respectable, 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



Add yours →

  1. I was just harassed on the street last night while doing a story. After leaving a family’s house, I got to my car and realized I had another question. So I started walking back and these boys saw me. I was carrying a backpack, as I always do when I work because of all the things I carry, and I partially attribute people bugging me to them thinking I’m young and won’t do anything about it.

    They said something to the effect of “Hey, beautiful.”

    I rolled my eyes at them.

    They asked, “why don’t you smile?”

    I replied as rude as possible, “don’t talk to me.”

    Just then a neighbor who recognized me stopped–with her pitbull–to chat with me. And she’s like “I heard them bugging you a little.”

    I’m a sassypants when I get harassed by dudes. But yes, sometimes I feel like that cues the notion that I “obviously” want to be pursued more.

    If guys bug me enough, it’s a straight shot between the legs for them. I’m not kidding.

    • I usually err on the side of smart-ass in most arenas of my life, but for some reason I hold off on these dudes who harass me. I guess it’s sort of like a minor version of doing whatever an armed robber says – I worry that the attention will escalate into something dangerous when I’m alone at night, so I don’t do anything that might provoke the harassers.

      I’ve taken some self-defense classes though. I think I’d probably do the same as you if someone threatened me. Thanks for your comment.

    • Your story is nothing like what the post describes, with the exception of the use of the phrase “why don’t you smile?” You weren’t harrassed, and your willingness to resort to physical violence makes you seem like the deadbeat. Maybe you’re just intent on proving you’re not as beautiful as they think?

      • Thanks for reading and weighing in, but I disagree. Yes, all harassment is on a scale from minor to nasty/scary, and this incident certainly may not seem as bad to a bystander as, for example, the train-station run-in, but there are key similarities and it DOES qualify as harassment: a young woman alone in public at night is accosted with unwanted and intrusive comments. Harassment takes a lot of forms and not every incident is the same. This commenter’s story is quite relevant to the post. And I don’t think a girl is a “deadbeat” because she has the means to defend herself if she is threatened by someone who refuses to keep out of her personal space. At the risk of making sexist over-generalizations, I’ll say that between men and women, I don’t think it’s the women who are usually at higher risk for resorting to inappropriate violence.

      • Shame on you. A single comment is not the same as being “accosted.” Rolling eyes is a provocative reaction that invites a response. Risk of violence is not the issue when someone freely admits they will attack someone physically who doesn’t respond well to their attempts to be “as rude as possible.”

        You’re not helping.

      • According to her story, the commenter didn’t randomly approach someone, determined to be rude. The men initiated contact with her in a way that made her uncomfortable, and she responded in a way that she hoped would deter them. The stakes can seem pretty high when you’re one girl out in the dark and a group of strange men is hollering at you.

        We obviously don’t agree, and that’s not the end of the world, but I maintain that it is fair to say she was “accosted” (definition of accost: “to confront boldly”). When a young woman is out on her own at night and the world is full of people who think that rolling her eyes when a group of strange men yell unwanted comments at her is too much of a “provocative reaction” on her part, I think it should be obvious why so many women are so nervous – or so quick to defend themselves when necessary.

      • Kevin —

        No matter what, you can’t understand the situation. And it’s not really your fault. You were lucky enough to be born a man.

        These guys, mind you, were walking in front of me and bothered themselves to turn around to talk to me. They then started to walk near me on either side. How is that not threatening? People get jumped like that all the time.

        Not only that, if you’ve ever seen The Vagina Monologues, the skit “my short skirt” explains that a short skirt is not an invitation to be inappropriate. Just like my good looks are not an invitation to bother me. If any man wants to talk to, sleep with, or date a girl because they see them on the street and like what they see, an approach such as that doesn’t work. I’ve never understood that. What do people think women are going to do? Say, here’s my number. Also, let me pull down my pants right now because lines like that totally make me like you/want to have sex with you.

        Lastly, I don’t really appreciate being bothered while I’m working.This happens in the form of whistles, people I’m interviewing asking me out, people asking about my dating life (the slightly more subtle approach), or people even trying to touch me (like one man did when I was an intern at a TV news station. The station actually dropped the story purely because he was inappropriate with me and they wanted to prove a point that it’s not OK.) I don’t like being bothered a couple times on a weekly basis while trying to make a living. So no, I will not be polite and entertain the idea.

        And yes, if someone refuses to leave me alone when I obviously don’t want them talking to me, I will pull out my pepper spray or kick them in the crotch.

        I spoke with a lesbian friend today, who asked her girlfriend if she would do something similar to a girl she thought was cute. She replied, “no, because I have social skills.”

  2. joyfullyoutlandish March 28, 2012 — 12:52 pm

    Thank you for this post and for linking to the “Stop Street Harassment” site. I’m happy to say that where I currently reside, Eugene, Oregon, I am rarely subject to the kind of harassment you describe, but I grew up in Miami and I remember the rage and frustration I would feel when approached on the bus or street.
    One thing that always struck me is that they start harassing people at a young age. Some of the people who would bother me would be around 14 or 15!

    It has always been hard for me to know how to react as well- even to the unwelcome gazing that happens. Internally I feel rage (depending upon the severity of the attention) but the external manifestation maybe as mild as just ignoring the person. Harassment and unwanted attention have an immediately dis-empowering effect- the victim feels somewhat confused and bewildered. I also struggle with the fear that if I were to react how I would like, as in yelling, “Back off, motherf**ker” people in the vicinity would see me as the one in the wrong. The website you linked to has some really helpful tips on how to respond.

    It is sad but true that being “owned” or pretending to be “owned” by another man seems to be one of the only ways to keep these predators at bay.

    You’re right that empathy helps. I had a talk with my boyfriend about a similar issue- the concern about sexual predation that lingers in the back of most women’s minds anytime they are out alone- and it was very helpful to hear him understand. He even explained that men are often threatened by people they see, too, but our culture teaches them not to evince fears like that.

    • Thanks so much for all these great thoughts. It is disheartening to see how young some men begin harassing their female peers – at my old jobsite, giving tours to schoolkids, I used to hear boys as young as seventh or eighth grade making sexual comments to their female classmates, while teachers stood silently by.

      I would love to hear more perspectives from men – I’m sure there are ways they get threatened as well in the daily world, without having an outlet to talk about it.

  3. Yuck… I remember a couple of different times where a man has asked me for a hug or some other contact, and I’ve said no – and not rudely, either – and been subjected to a litany of why me not wanting to have that contact with him is *my* problem.

    None of the situations have been ones where I feared escalation (lots of safe people nearby), but that off-kilter, confused feeling definitely had a grip on me enough to keep me from unleashing the anger and outrage I felt on them.

    Next time, though, I envision myself having no hesitation in raising my voice and getting as belligerent as I want to (assuming I’m not alone with them).

    Thanks for writing about this too-little-discussed topic.

  4. BairbreSine (Barbara Gavin-Lewellyn) March 28, 2012 — 6:22 pm

    Reblogged this on The Crone's Daily Groan and commented:
    What a powerful post. I am reblogging this and sending it to my daughter and all the young women I know as well as the young men in my life. The one good thing about getting older is this pretty much stops happening to you when you get past child bearing age.

  5. BairbreSine (Barbara Gavin-Lewellyn) March 28, 2012 — 6:23 pm

    What a powerful post. I’ve taken the liberty of reblogging it.

  6. Living in Victoria, I’ve rarely experienced this kind of harassment. Perhaps it’s less prevalent in smaller cities. What I found most disturbing about your story was that nobody intervened at the train station. Presumably there were others around who witnessed this man’s vile behaviour. We need to speak up on one another’s behalf.

    • There weren’t too many people around at the train station, but I certainly wasn’t totally alone. In all the times I’ve been harassed in public, I don’t think a single person has ever stepped in or spoken up. It makes me think that next time I see another woman being bothered, I should speak up for her and see what happens.

  7. Thank you for your post, I really sympathize with you! I had some similar experiences as a teenager, and my eventual solution was something that i could call urban mimicry: wear baggy clothes, walk fast, make a glum face, don’t look anyone in the eyes. An even better strategy was to paint hair acid blue and wear goth make-up: people think you have psychological issues and are afraid to talk to you (that would be urban aposematism, I guess…) 🙂 But the latter doesn’t really work for responsible adults with respectable jobs.
    Plus, it doesn’t solve the problem: the men will still pick someone to harass, it just won’t be me. And I really can’t think of a good solution.

    • A lot of women speaking up on this topic mention wearing baggy clothes – and the fact that it still doesn’t protect them from unwanted comments. I do not think women stepping out of their houses should have to think, “hm, is my outfit baggy enough so that men won’t hoot at me?”

      I never tried the acid-blue hair, thanks for the tip, but I did have a purple streak as a teenager – don’t recall that it helped, though…

  8. Hollie-dee Bailey April 10, 2012 — 4:35 pm

    This article immediatley brought back that ‘sinking’ feeling I often get when walking down the street and theres a guy or group further down and you can see them looking at you but its too late to cross, so you avoid eye contact and walk faster hoping they see you’re not interested but they always say something.
    Going out in London, you’re guaranteed to unwanted attention. I don’t mind a wink or smile- i think its funny. When someone insists on walking with you..its annoying.

    • Yep, nothing wrong with a smile and winks are usually benign. But I can relate to that sinking feeling of wishing you had crossed the street. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your comment.

  9. I’m too old to catch anyones eyes. It’s a big relief.

    • I have heard this from several middle-aged and older women – some have even told me that I should “enjoy the attention” because it will stop when I’m older. Frankly, if men really do stop hollering when you age, I can’t wait.

  10. Thank you for your posts on this topic, Alaina! It is amazing that we’re conditioned to think street harassment is a compliment that we should be grateful for. Your post put me in mind of Denise Levertov’s poem, The Mutes:

    I too am now too old to get much “attention” these days and I’m so glad. Thinking back, I do believe some men were genuinely trying to be pleasant and cheer me up as I strode through the streets of the cities I lived in with my “game face” on when I was younger. But it was the awful, nasty remarks I received on a regular basis that kept me closed off; I wonder how many perfectly nice guys have turned sour because of the pro-actively hostile way the jerks force us women to behave.

    I remember walking back to my apartment one evening when I was approached by a group of six or so young black men (I’m white). I thought about crossing the street but was almost home. I braced myself when one said, “Excuse me, miss” because that was one of the usual tactics–get a girl’s attention as if you’re asking for directions or something and then hit them with a disgusting remark. But all they wanted to know was where the nearest ATM was located, and we had a nice exchange. I was so relieved, not just for the lack of harassment, but that I didn’t act in the way I usually would have in order to protect myself from harassment. I was relieved these pleasant young men didn’t encounter someone that they probably would have perceived as rude or racist, a behavior that had nothing to do with them or the actual situation, but based on past harassment of me by others.

    In addition to silencing, objectifying, and frightening women, I think loss of civility and inability to connect with new people are ripple effects this kind of harassment has caused.

    • What a great perspective on how street harassment hurts everyone. It’s so true that the number of times I’ve been threatened and harrassed make me ignore people or treat them coldly in passing, just to protect myself in case the man does not turn out to be friendly. I try not to have the mindset that I’m always in danger, and respond nicely to people who are polite. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  11. I live in NYC, and we get this kind of shit on a daily basis. One time a guy actually followed me from the train to the front door of my apartment building. Single best defense I’ve found is to out-crazy them. Someone’s being a dick? Won’t stop harassing you? Turn around and let out the Brooklyn. I once intimidated a homeless guy twice my size coming off the train in Manhattan by screaming at him that I was on my motherfucking way to work and if he made me late he’d fucking regret it. Proud to say that I did it all without spilling my coffee or dropping my cigarette. That aside, yeah, it’s bullshit that women have to put up with this sort of crap. It makes me want to walk up to the next obnoxious guy with his pants hanging off his ass and grab his junk. He was asking for it, right?

    • Ah, the out-crazy method. I remember a story about a girl who chased off a group of men who were closing in by barking like a dog.

      Pants hanging off asses or not, I think we should just assume that any man who steps out in public is asking for whatever we women feel like doing. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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