Imagine you are a man. Average height, average weight. You work out twice a week. You’re a sharp dresser.
One night, you are walking home from a friend’s house, which is located on the very edge of the iffy part of town. Just as you’re about to round the corner, you hear a voice calling from across the street, a few yards ahead. “Hey, pretty boy! Lookin’ good!”
Ahead of you are two men, one built like a linebacker — over six feet tall, nearly 300 lbs.– the other short and stocky, like a stack of bricks.
You duck your head and pick up your pace, surreptitiously sliding a hand into your pocket, slipping your keys between the fingers of your fist.
“What’s the rush, sweetheart? Stick around! I’ll show you a good time!” The taller one gestures obscenely. His friend emits a laugh like a rusty pipe.
You’ve made it to the corner. They have not crossed the street or move closer to you. They are behind you now, and you are just one brightly-lit street away from civilization. Your heart rate begins to slow, returning to normal. Nothing happened. You’re fine.
And now that you’ve imagined being that man, you know what it’s like to be a woman.
Literally every woman I know has a street harassment story. Or a public transportation harassment story. More often than not these stories are not just about cat-calling, but unwanted touch, as well.
My own story, or one of them at least, happened on a bus in Jerusalem. It was a relatively empty bus, plenty of available seating. I was sitting in an aisle seat, the space beside me occupied only by my purse. A man gets on the bus, and decides to stand right beside me, despite the ample room. The bus begins to move and jostle us passengers about, and the man standing beside me bumps into me with a *ahem* certain part of his anatomy. How awkward! How mortifying! If I were him, I would shift positions, so it wouldn’t happen again. But he doesn’t move. And it happens again. And this time I understand it’s not an accident. My mind starts racing. Should I move to the free seat beside me? Should I get off at the next stop? I’m nowhere near my destination. He’s not even looking at me. There is no indication from his face or stance that he’s focused on me at all. Maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe it wasn’t intentional. He bumps into me again.
I will admit that I am a meek person. Completely non-confrontational. And men like this rely on the meekness of women, their hesitance to make a scene or to appear “hysterical” in public, to get away with this kind of behavior.
But for whatever reason, the thought of staying silent, being cowed by this disgusting person holding me prisoner in my seat while he rubs against me got the rage bubbling in my gut. I mustered every ounce of courage I had, and in a loud, somewhat shaky voice said, in English (because nothing makes me forget my Hebrew like nerves), “You’re in my space, You need to back up.” I gestured with my hand for him to move back to make myself clear. He gave me a confused look, and I immediately went back to worrying that perhaps it really was all just a mistake. But the words were already out. And he moved. And then he got off at the next stop.
Nothing happened. I’m fine.
I saw a post recently that was meant to be lighthearted. It was a comment about honking at women. The poster seemed to be saying that men are simply romantically inept, so doing stupid things like honking at women as they drive by is the best they can come up with to indicate their interest in a woman. (It was later pointed out that this sentiment was lifted rather unskillfully from a Jerry Seinfeld routine.)
I decided to be a buzzkill and (gently) point out that street harassment is no laughing matter. I was met with resistance. “It depends on the situation,” I was told. “Some women like that kind of attention.” And, “Not all men have sinister intentions when they act that way.” They’re just innocuous comments, it was argued. No one’s getting hurt.
But it does hurt. That one comment, wolf-whistle, or request for a smile crosses a line. It is not “just a compliment.” Because it sends the message that you, a woman, have been singled out as the object (“object” being a key word) of this man’s desire, and he has the right to comment on your body.
And I want to stop here and point out that this is different than a man meeting a woman in a social context and giving her a compliment, the purpose of which is to open an interpersonal relationship. The purpose of street harassment is a show of power. A reminder of who’s in charge. It says, “You look good and I can have you if I want.”
The idea that somehow a woman’s body is public property to be ogled, judged, and remarked upon, as if she was an item listed for sale on Amazon, is reinforced when we accept street harassment as a cultural norm. Left unchallenged, that idea leads to the furtive grope on a busy street, the “accidental” rubbing against someone, the unwanted hand of the man seated next to you on the bus resting on your thigh. Or worse.
So let’s stop giving these kinds of men a pass for bad behavior. It’s not because he lacks the skills to woo a woman. It’s not because he’s just trying to give her a compliment. It’s not just fun and games. At best, it’s a minor annoyance that perpetuates a harmful cultural norm. At worst, it can be downright threatening.
Don’t do it. Don’t let other people do it.