I Don’t Owe You A Smile, part II: The Curious Failure of Sweatpants

I was hurrying to an assignment downtown on a chilly day last week, and a man passing me on the sidewalk stopped as I approached, looked me up and down and said, “Mmm!” as if he’d just bitten into a fantastic piece of pie. His head swiveled theatrically to check out the rest of me as I went by.

What was it about me that made him look? The fuzzy old hat that a teenage friend crocheted for me twelve years ago? My comfortable jeans and brown Timberland boots? The oversized canvas bag? The faux-fleece-line purple hoodie that my partner last month referred to as “a bit bulky, don’t you think”?

Last week’s post on street harassment got an interesting discussion going, and as I read some similar material from other authors and looked at the comment and social media responses to my blog, I realized that while my post did a pretty good job of announcing that street harassment stinks, it doesn’t say much about why it happens in the first place.

The man who admired me so much last week made me wonder. Do I just radiate so much sex appeal that even when I’m bundled up from head to toe and am rushing to work, I stop men in their tracks?

Some women say they have tried to avoid harassment by hunching down inside a big, baggy pair of sweatpants or similar attire. But many who have done this add in a bewildered tone that it didn’t stop men from calling out at them.

Some men who responded to comment threads about my post chimed in with their disgust at males who think that sexually harassing comments are going to make women like them.

“Why do people do that shit? Do they really think it’s going to win any ladies over?” asked one man on Facebook.

“A lot of the hollerers just want to have sex, essentially,” Lane, one of my female friends, also a local journalist, wrote in an e-mail to me last week, explaining that these outbursts have nothing to do with sincere romance. “They’ll do it to every half-decent-looking girl…and, of course, the super-hot ones.”

According to her, there are a couple main reasons for street harassment:

First, guys don’t know the right way to approach women: they think aggressive advances are good. Secondly, “they can’t control their hormones.” Lane also feels that she experiences harassment often because she looks “young and helpless”. Finally, she suggests there may be cultural factors at work among the hollerers.

But the bottom line is that the intrusive advances she experiences every week, often while on the job as a journalist, are not acceptable. As Lane puts it, “I’m not going to tear off my panties and be like LET’S FUCK, RANDOM GUY ON THE STREET!”

My partner also weighed in, pointing out insight from acquaintances who are inveterate street hollerers. He says people who do this are indeed trying to attract women sexually, because some people are always desperate for any sort of attention. Men know that most women are annoyed by their shouts and whistles, but the hollering men aren’t bothered, because these more stable women “aren’t the target market anyway”. Annoying 98% of the women who pass is an occupational hazard of snagging someone more insecure.

Another writer to hit my radar on this topic, while also criticizing the male tendency to publicly harass women, has a completely different theory for why it happens, especially when the men are in groups.

In his piece for Ebony Magazine, Interrupt Street Harassment, Dr. L’Heureux Lewis recalls being a nervous member of gangs of boys who harassed girls. He calls the collective habit of whistling, catcalling or “bark[ing] compliments” at women a “rite of passage” that made him silently uncomfortable.

He draws telling connections between street harassment and physical violence against women, and gives his perspective on why the harassment persists: in his case, he didn’t want be perceived as “uncool” or “less of a man” for speaking up against the behavior, but more than that, he says men fear that others in the group will question their sexuality, and then ostracize them, if they don’t harass women.

“This is what sociologist Michael Kimmel identifies as a deep form of homophobia,” Dr. Lewis writes.  The problem was “the fear that other men would challenge me, question my manhood, or even call me gay.”

So men harass women because men are deeply homophobic?

I don’t know.

I think the key to understanding why street harassment happens is to pay attention to the reactions some men have when the harassed women surprise everyone by standing up to them or verbally rebuffing the “compliments”.

It seems like every girl has at least one chilling story about what happened when she responded assertively to a man who accosted or propositioned her. Part of the reason so many women avoid responding to harassment are the curses or threats that are often unleashed when they don’t remain passive under this public “flattery”.

“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,” said one of last week’s commenters.

I’m no sociologist. But to me, that “well, fuck you, bitch!” or similar comments that often fly as soon as a woman rebuffs certain advances is the biggest clue about the real cause of street harassment. The men don’t lash out because of disappointment or embarrassment over having their sexual advances rejected. They’re angry because they just tried to put someone in her place, and that person refused to go there.

To me, believing that harassment is a factor of a man’s attraction to a woman is as unrealistic as believing that my chunky, long-sleeved purple zip-up is the sexiest thing in my wardrobe. People who think the harassment is about sexual allure or misguided attempts at romance and compliments have completely missed the point.

While I’m not necessarily onboard with the idea that harassment is a factor of male homophobia, Dr. Lewis still gets closer to the heart of the issue than anyone else when he writes about male fears of being ridiculed. The harassment is not about sex. It’s about status and power.

Take the incident a twenty-something friend shared on Facebook after she read my earlier post.

“Not long ago my mom was dropping me off at the train station, and two dudes starting making gross/sexual comments about her. I just turned to them and said, ‘THAT’S MY MOM.’ They stopped and apologized profusely, but after a few minutes they turned their harassment on ME…Fortunately the train soon arrived and I escaped.”

If we assume that men harass women because they’re after sex, we’d have to assume that in this situation, the men found a middle-aged woman accompanying her adult daughter an irresistible sexual prospect. Then, shortly after apologizing to the younger woman for their gross behavior, they realized that she, too, was really hot and decided to let her know it.

I think one of the comments from last week’s blog also proves my point. One woman replied that her attempted solution to the harassment she got as a teenager was to “wear baggy clothes, walk fast, make a glum face, and don’t look anyone in the eyes.”

The image of a person huddled in ill-fitting clothes, hurrying along with a gloomy demeanor, afraid to look anyone in the face, is the epitome of an individual who has been robbed of respect.  All of the tips this woman gives for avoiding harassment are also the hallmarks of a person on the bottom rung of society.

And that’s why street harassment happens.

The man who seemed to admire me in my purple hoodie wasn’t trying to give my self-image a boost. He was, perhaps out of habit and not malicious personal intent, reminding me that I’m not a person on her way to work: instead, no matter what I wear or how I act, I’m an object for his appraisal.

One commenter on last week’s blog took Lane to task, for describing an incident in the comments in which she rolled her eyes and then resorted to rudeness after a group of guys began calling at her on the street at night. To make her willingness to defend herself clear to blog readers, she wrote that she would take her knee to someone who refused to leave her alone.

“You weren’t harassed,” one man responded to her story. “Your willingness to resort to physical violence makes you seem like the deadbeat.”

I replied that Lane was in the right to be rude to protect herself, and that women willing to defend themselves when threatened, physically if necessary, aren’t deadbeats.

“Shame on you,” he answered. He implied that Lane, by her behavior, was responsible for the guys’ negative attention.

“Rolling eyes is a provocative reaction that invites a response,” he said.

In this man’s view, there’s nothing wrong with a group of guys making unwanted advances on a young woman alone on a dark street. But for her to respond by rolling her eyes at them is unnecessarily “provocative” behavior. In this version of what is acceptable behavior for men and women, we can see the underlying power dynamics at play, and how they’re stacked decidedly against Lane.

Street harassment is more about perpetuating dominance than anything else. I see this not only in the men who harass women, but in the men I know who don’t.

Do non-harassing men have a weak appreciation for the female form or have no sexual temptations? No. They don’t harass women because they have an abiding respect for other people. Where there is no need to put other people in their place, there is no harassment, sexual or otherwise.

But what do you think?

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15 Comments

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  1. Hey Alaina, thanks for these posts about street harassment. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, since I live in Buenos Aires, and in this city harassment, etc., or “piropos” are especially integral to male culture. It’s totally a power thing. If a group of girls, scantily clad or otherwise clad, walk down the street and they have one guy accompanying them, nobody will holler anything out of respect for the guy. Groups of men are much more likely to harass than a single man. I think it’s about keeping women in their place.

    I’ve spoken to some South American girls in Philadelphia who have been shocked at how little they get harassed on the street. I’m sure it’s bad there too, but they just have very low expectations.

    It bugs me for a myriad of obvious reasons. Mostly on behalf of women but also on behalf of all men. Like the guys in that video said, it makes us all look bad! *Nobody* wins with street harassment. Women naturally put up stronger barriers and defenses against men and it probably makes it a lot harder for them to trust men, making life worse for us too. I’m not saying we have it worse than women, but it sucks for both sides.

    I’ve had friends from here do it here who I perceive to be really good guys, but it would never occur to them NOT to yell at girls. Guuuhhhh.

    When I get more confident with my Spanish maybe I’ll write a song about stopping piropos (which would be my first attempt at social change through music).

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Bron. It’s certainly true in my experience that the only thing that reliably stops harassment is to walk with a dude.

      I think it’s probably true that the harassment leads to more barriers across the board, so that even men who don’t engage in that behavior get at least a bit of the general fall-out as women get more wary of everyone.

      Can’t wait to hear the song!

    • Bron – that would songwriting task would take some serious sublety as well as boldness. Muy buena suerte, and I also can’t wait to hear it.

  2. I think DC just came out with a new anti-harassment policy on public transportaion. I don’t know the details, but a policy usually means there is a big problem to address. No one should be subjected to harassment.

  3. I would have to say it may be about self esteem mostly… Or lack there of. This is coupled with being a little bit socially awkward. I often notice a commonality of possibly not being the most educated of men. This seems to be a common thread. Low self esteem, but socially dense and lack of high education= 3 elements that are just about always present. I also personally think that any time anyone makes random shouts in public, it is literally a call for attention because it usually is.

    • Interesting. I see your point, but can you always tell at a glance someone’s self-esteem and education level? It may be true that most men who do this don’t look like the classiest human beings. But then again I’ve seen perfectly gross behavior from affluent college boys, and a lot of the men who have harassed me over the years look like perfect gentlemen on vacation in their expensive leisure outfits.

      If it’s really about the men having a screw loose socially, then there are a huge number of socially inept men in the world.

      Thanks for weighing in!

      • wow. There goes my theory out the window. In all fairness, I was mainly thinking about here in the States. Once you get to foreign lands, it can be no holds barred. I found it the (worst) most acceptable in Italy and Greece. I have however never been to Mexico and I could only imagine! I think it is really interesting how Mexican culture is a matriarchal society yet have such pervasive verbal sexual harassment built into their culture. Kinda confusing how that works out.

    • Remembering my experience in Mexico years ago with escalated street harassment well beyond anything I had been used to, the comments, whistles, etc., came from all sectors of the male population: young, old, middle-aged, well-to-do businessmen, schoolboys, bohemian types masquerading as feminists, shopkeepers, indigents.

      According to “The People’s Guide to Mexico,” Mexican women adopt an attitude of “practical invisibility” to cope with the barrage of harassment they experience on a daily basis. And if that isn’t evidence of the power-play (rather than sexual) nature of the harassment, I don’t know what is: “Hi. You don’t see me. I don’t exist.”

  4. I remember learning in a high school girls’ self-defense class what I believe is acknowledged as true in the world of psychology: that rape is not about sex; it’s about power. Street harassment is to me clearly an offshoot of that and is clearly about “keeping women in their place.”

    I’m bummed that one of your commenters is a proponent of “it’s the woman’s fault.” That is such an unconscious, hurtful, belittling perspective.

    Thanks again for writing, Laina.

    • I agree that street harassment is a milder, more pervasive form of “sexual” violence, and has as much to do with asking a woman out as rape has to do consensual sex.

      Thanks as always for your thoughts.

  5. I have two anecdotes and no solid assessments on either, but one is a very positive street harassment and one is the opposite.

    In my neighborhood I have been stopped multiple times by a little old Italian man who smiles as he sees me approach and stops me in my path and says, “I love your walk, you have a beautiful walk. You are very beautiful and the men, we must always tell the women they are beautiful when we see them because they have the babies and so we must always show them respect.” He has done this in various forms and prevents me from moving on until he is done talking (usually when I am hustling to the train). It’s kind of annoying to be forced to engage in a conversation that you don’t have time for or interest in, on the other hand, it does always make me smile after. I have to say though, this is the epitome of the exception to the rule.

    In another instance I was walking to work and saw a man down at the end of the street who appeared to be drunk or unbalanced making some commotion–so I crossed to the other side of the street to avoid walking right next to him. When I re-crossed to turn the corner and head into work he noticed what I had done and started yelling at me and following me. I started hurrying when I noticed that he had jumped on a bike to catch up to me. I ran as fast as I could into work and was terrified that the lock wouldn’t open before he got to me–fortunately it did. I have to say I totally agree that your commenter Lane should have no qualms to be prepared to “take a knee to someone.” She rolled her eyes in her case, in my case I provoked him by very obviously avoiding going near him. You really can’t win and you never have any idea about how quickly or drastically something will escalate.

    • Glad it turned out ok. It is sobering how easy it is to attract unwanted and possibly dangerous attention, when the action of simply avoiding someone is seen as a provocation.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience.

  6. Hi, Alaina…I came across your blog by accident. But I’m also interested in the stories of other women who frequently experience sexual harassment, whether on the street or at work or school, etc.

    I have not only been harassed by men…sometimes women have done it, too. I still remember a woman who slapped me on the butt while her two male companions commented on my body. I didn’t know these people and I was with my father when it happened. He didn’t come to my defense.

    I hate it when strangers tell me to smile. And I hate it when they call me names and verbally abuse me because I didn’t stop to talk to them or whatever.

    There was an incident when I was in college where a guy became very angry because I didn’t flirt and make eye contact with him on my way to class. I said hello, I acknowledged him when he talked to me first, but I didn’t look him in the eye and I didn’t stop to chit chat.

    So he shouted at me: “Damn, bitch, what is your problem?! You could at least look at me when I’m talking to you!”

    This was several years ago and I’m still upset about it. My issue is (like the title of this post) that people feel like they deserve more from me than basic courtesy and politeness.

    I mean it really pisses me off. I didn’t owe this guy anything. I didn’t know him. I’m not sure where this sense of entitlement comes from.

    My body is not public property for other people’s amusement or entertainment. I am a person with feelings. I will not smile because somebody else thinks I should.

    As a very light-skinned woman of mixed race (black/white), the harassment is also compounded by racism. People seem to think that they can disrespect me and treat me like a prostitute…and even prostitutes deserve respect too, because they are human beings.

    Sometimes men will stare at me without saying anything. They stare me down while I either avoid eye contact or stare back if I’m feeling bold enough. They clearly want me to respond with flirty behavior or a smile.

    Nope, not this girl. I do not owe these creeps anything. Thanks for this wonderful post!

    • Thanks for stopping by, and your comment is much appreciated. It’s great you’re able to share these experiences. The entitlement that makes some men think they should curse me out for walking past them (without stopping to do what? fawn all over them? offer to have sex? give them my phone number because they leered at me in public? bow down and worship them?) still baffles me. But of course I really do think I know the problem: as I say in this post, the reason people are offended if you walk on by is that they tried to put you in a degraded, objectified place, and you refused to go there. Keep refusing! I hope you stop by again – your thoughts are welcome.

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