Real Talk: Street Harassment

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Summer is the undisputed best season of the year. Everything is bright and lush and you can bike everywhere, spend hours in the park or on the beach, drink alfresco on patios and balconies, go out dancing, and walk home in the middle of the hot summer night. The next morning you can roll out of bed and right out the door to get iced coffee and bagels and do it all over again… and in potentially every one of those situations you can almost guarantee you’ll get accosted by the lowliest of summer characters – the street harasser.

One of the shittiest downsides of the sublimity of summer is the staggeringly high rate at which individuals, especially women and members of sexually diverse communities, get unrelentingly harassed in the street for absolutely no reason. Of course this isn’t an issue that’s only present in summer, but it sure as hell feels like it erupts into a frenzy as soon as the trees begin to bud.

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Being that we’re in the business of talking about fashion here at The Pack, you might think that we’re priming you for a handy listicle on how to avoid all the uninvited commentary hurled at you in public spaces, but, nope.  Street harassment has no taste and doesn’t care about what you’re wearing (duh). Also, it’s not your job to prevent abuse. You keep doing you. What we are interested in is contributing to a constructive dialogue that’s been happening in URL and IRL communities about the very real threat to safety that street harassment poses, how it makes us feel, and how we can address it through our responses.

In 2010 Holly Kearl wrote the book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women based on her blogging on the subject and later founded the non-profit, Washington DC-based, but globally-oriented organization Stop Street Harassment. On the organization’s website they note an academic study of street harassment conducted in Canada in 2000 which found that “over 80 percent of the women surveyed had experienced male stranger harassment in public and that those experiences had a large and detrimental impact on their perceived safety in public.”

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It’s sadly not surprising. Living in downtown Toronto, we at The Pack are no strangers to getting unsolicited commentary that runs the gamut from despicable to uninspired (“nice ankles”?) and of course, always being reminded to SMILE (omg die). It’s a regular topic of conversation at The Pack meet-ups and one of our biggest debates has been about how to best confront the situation in the moment. Stop Street Harassment’s website has an array of supportive tips and resources that we’ve thought about adding to our arsenal of approaches, but we’re interested in starting an exchange of ideas here and hearing from you.

Read and join our comment thread below for a conversation about what we’ve all experienced, how we’ve confronted situations (for better or worse), and what we’d love to start doing when idiots try to waste our time and energy in the streets.

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(Illustrated Pastes by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh / Photos via: sthlmaftereight big bowl of ideasthe art blogstreets deptfab sugar; the locals; the wire; tokyo fashion)

19 thoughts on “Real Talk: Street Harassment

  1. i think one of the hardest things is to know how to respond in these types of situations to ensure ones own safety. like, i am a loud opinionated and smart women with no qualms about defending myself verbally but…you never know how crazy someone is/if they have a weapon/if they were just waiting to be baited so that they could react physically.

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  2. funny timing. this very morning i was walking around yorkville feeling fly in my new outfit and inspired about the day to come. i crossed the street and could hear some guy behind me begin to harass me. naturally i did my best to ignore him, though immediately felt uncomfortable and wondered if my outfit was too revealing (my shoulders were exposed, god forbid). he continued and then tossed out a classic—”you’re a bitch”—when i failed to communicate. my only escape was to duck into a store, which was fortunately also my destination. really put a damper on my morning.

    why is is that his words made me feel like my choice of outfit was somehow partially responsible for this, and had i chosen differently i wouldn’t have been subjected to harassment?

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  3. honestly it’s hard for me to even remember all the times i’ve been catcalled in the summer. the most memorable was definitely the time when some creepy shorty at the corner of bloor and bathurst whispered in my ears as I strolled by him “i want to fuck you in the ass”. i was so shocked i honestly had no idea what to say. it’s likely he was mentally ill so responding was probably futile.

    the other day when i was riding my bike, some dude yelled out “you’re wearing a skirt”. thanks, man, cos I really didn’t know that when I dressed myself that morning. I’m not the best at thinking on my feet so when dudes say really fucked up or unexpectedly dull things, i get kinda confused and just glare at them really hard, and then kick myself later for not coming back with something better.

    the only times i come up with anything good are when dudes yell a sexual AND racial comment at me, because they’ve happened so often and are always the same that I’ve had time to think of a satisfactory response. dudes in T.O. love to yell “Ni Hao” + baby/sexy or “me love you long time”. If you didn’t know, nihao means “hello” in mandarin. usually they’re in a pack with their other dumbass boys and they all laugh and high five each other after saying it. I’m quite hostile and aggressive to dudes, so usually I just cuss them out or ignore them, which usually results in a “smile girl”, which angers me even more.

    i guess my responses aren’t actually good at all. just a lot of profanity and/or stink eye. would love some wittier options but maybe it’s not even worth our time thinking about these assholes.

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  4. yeah i love how if you don’t engage in their supposed banter, you’re just an angry bitch. like something is wrong with US for not taking the time to speak to them after we’re demeaned.

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  5. Last summer one of my dearest buddies and I were walking down bloor, all glowy from a night of karaoke, feeling a little drunk, super happy. A dude parked in an SUV at a traffic light leaned out and yelled at us: “I’d fuck the fat one.” I immediately saw red and (probably ill-advisedly) walked up to the window and told him to say that to my face (I think I probably also called him a limp dick or something, I dunno) and he laughed and drove off. I think the thing that made me angriest was that it pretty much ruined my night and I couldn’t move past it. When men yell pejoratively at women and female-identified folks from cars, they take all the power in the exchange and deal with none of the consequences because they disappear, like cowards. Thinking about carrying some rocks in my purse this summer. We’ll see.

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  6. I feel that I’ve gone through so many different phases while growing up in how to deal with street harassment. When I was younger I would get really rattled and shaken by it. My hands would shake. I would be outraged. Then it slowly progressed to ignoring/trying not to care/realize the person is an idiot. Now it goes a few ways. If a man compliments me in a genuine way on the street I always smile and say thank you. If it’s a specific body part compliment typically will be met with stink eye or giving the finger. ( cause I’m super mature ) Gross boob/ass stares are met with direct eye contact and “EW!” I guess…I realized that the best way to deal with those guys is to put them in their place by insulting their egos. Maybe not the best approach but if I’m going to get harassed bet your ass I’ll hit back harder and your dick will shrink inside you once you realize what a piece of shit you are. Typically wit and a joke work for me in dealing with it or just straight up ignore and walk away. There are a lot of questionable people out there, and just because some idiot can’t control themselves ( or realistically has a mental illness) all I can do is take pity and not let it get to me. Their life sucks not mine. (Also, mind you I have never been physically harassed so cannot really say what I would do in that situation as it has never came up) Walk with composure, keep your head high and don’t let yourself be a victim, ooze confidence and the flies around you will drop dead.

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  7. I wear a lot of titty dresses (for me), I love my boobs and I feel I should get to show them off. But I am sick of the stares. I feel as though I am entered in to this social contract where I am just supposed to ignore it or laugh it off. The harassment is so insidious now that I do not know how to change it unless I change my clothes.

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  8. I hate the fact that the omnipresent, socially acceptable malignancy of street harassment completely takes away my (our) ability to EVER just be in the moment – always being so very hyper-aware is exhausting – taking a toll on behest of assholery everywhere. And lately, it weighs on me even more thinking what is onerous for most women is actually life – threatening for trans women, esp. trans women of color. You can get curb-stomped to death just for the crime of walking down the street. I don’t see this getting better by just women becoming equipped with strategies or comebacks. I do think it can start to shift if we hold the men in our lives accountable for calling other men out on this shit. This isn’t ours alone to “manage”

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    1. glad you brought up how this issue affects trans women. i’m all for people calling out these men for their despicable behaviour….but I know many women don’t really want a man to fight her battles for her, even if their intentions are pure and sometimes that’s what it takes for these creeps to really listen. how do you feel about this power hierarchy?

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  9. One thing that’s really frustrating is not feeling like I have my shit together enough ~in the moment~ to deliver satisfying comebacks. It’s so frustrating to be reduced to feeling not-witty-enough, not-smart-enough, or feeling like we should second-guess our outfit choices in these situations. ughh I really feel you, @lfromage and @jtapes.

    The most effective comeback I’ve ever had after being viciously verbally harassed while walking down the sidewalk was to stop, look the guy directly in the eye (he was on a bike, riding slowly behind me), and tell him “don’t you ever talk to women that way. ever.” plus some expletives. But the “guy” on the bike was probably like 15, so I felt really capable of confronting him. I have a harder time being so direct when men are in their 20s or older, in groups, or when the harassment happens at night. Gotta work on that whenever I feel safe enough to snap. Also wholeheartedly agree, @saadiam that this is systemic and only a portion of the spectrum of violence that women, w.o.c., trans women, trans w.o.c. face daily. It will definitely take more than just comebacks and witticisms..

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  10. Last week I was walking downtown with a big group of only guys. At a red light, a couple guys in a truck shouted “Who’s gonna take the cup?” at us. The guys I was with all kind of stared in stunned silence. They mostly seemed confused, or slightly annoyed at the interruption. It turns out that was one of the first times many of them had been yelled at by a passing car. They were also surprised when I told them that that was by far the least offensive thing anyone had ever yelled at me on the street.
    As for reacting, I still haven’t found a good solution yet. My usual reaction is to pull out my bitchiest expression and to roll my eyes at them. (Like when a man yelled “You’re beautiful and you didn’t even know.” ???) But I still haven’t found anything that works for when the harassment isn’t really even directed at you. What can you even do when someone threatens to follow you home and rape you other than hide?
    Street harrassment can be really scary. I really think it’s more of an aggression than anything. There is no possible way that yelling at me from across the street or your car or as I walk back could have any effect other than making me feel small and uncomfortable.

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  11. Last week I was walking with a group of guys downtown. At a red light, a few guys in a truck shouted out “Who’s gonna win the cup?”. No one I was with answered because they were all kind of annoyed at the interruption to our conversation. They were confused and offended that anyone would yell at them on the street. I was surprised to find out that it was a first for them. And they were even more surprised to hear that that was by far the least offensive thing anyone had yelled at me out of a car.
    As for reacting, I am still struggling with how to react. When it’s your standard, “Hey Baby, i like the way u jiggle” I tend to just put on my bitchiest face and roll my eyes at them. This invariably has a negative reaction. But when, like a couple months ago, a man in a car threatened to follow my roommate and me home so that he could rape us, I don’t know what to do.
    I also don’t understand the result that these people are aiming for. There is no way I, or anyone, could react positively to that.

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  12. Oh my god Cindy, the “I want to fuck you in the ass” story is horrifying…

    Also agree with you @Shhrug, but what CAN we do other than
    A) continue being ourselves without shame
    B) ignore the harrasser
    C) respond with witticisms
    ? I’m not saying that in a defeatist way, I just genuinely don’t know how to foster change in something so deep seeded in the way our society exists.
    —-
    I find my experience in street harassment is very different than when I lived in Paris. I think because it was so intensely racist, like absurd “CHICHONCHONG” “Oh elle est CHINOISE” kind of stuff, that I almost feel oblivious to Toronto situations.. That is not to say that it is any less of an annoyance.

    Something I want to bring up and maybe this is a tangent is that I find it more annoying, maybe because I’m sensitive and as said before oblivious to the male hollers, when women give me dirty looks for my outfits or will say shit like “oh my god….” “what is she wearing??”, etc. I think we should all be supportive of each other and the choices we make as individuals! Why is it the new bonding experience to communally laugh at difference and anyone who is trying to express themselves?

    Thanks for this!
    Amy

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  13. for me one of the most important elements of this discussion lie in the systemic ones brought up by @saadiam and touched on by others. obviously there are serious differences to be noted between catcalling and experiences of violence. i would love to hear some perspectives from trans women and trans w.o.c., as i am in no position to speak to what their experiences are like, nor on the hierarchy @aerialist pointed out.

    my knee-jerk reaction to boys, men, and strangers yelling at me on the street is pure aggression. usually spitting back a “fuck you, motherfucker” and walking more quickly on my way. their responses are either genuine shock and confusion. or like @lfromage mentioned, full throttle anger back at me or the people i’m with. like @shhrug, i always try to think of something to say that might *change* people or their feelings of entitlement to harass strangers on the street. but like all the women here, can only vaguely think of something later when my adrenaline has tapered off. like @internetlauren, lately i’ve been trying to prioritize my safety and the safety of my partner and friends, over talking back to a street harasser. you never know what people are capable of. i got chills reading what you said @Michelle, it’s terrifying when things go from offensive to physically threatening.

    a month or so ago, i was leaving a bar on College with my partner and two friends. as we were hailing a cab, a car slowed beside us and three men began spewing vulgarity at me. usually i’m prepared to ignore these things but for some reason, we yelled back, and they pulled over. they got out and we took off in the other direction, but they followed us. they treated my boyfriend like something physically stranding between them and me and one attacked him. in hindsight we’re lucky the worst that happened that night was a broken tooth. it scares the shit out of me to think of what ifs. sad postscript to this story was the first first thing i thought when i saw their car break lights was, “i shouldn’t have worn this.” @jtapes i feel your thought process and wish I had answers.

    going to try to ooze like @unit20a + maybe carry some rocks like @alison. nighttime is a different story, but during the day one of my best defenses/distractions is letting my iPod put the wind back in my sails after being yelled at. as @amyjenine recommended, to continue being me without shame. turning it up loud enough so that i actually morph into Diana Ross in my head and am oblivious to my surroundings.

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  14. This is never easy. And I do find myself giving the death glare to losers who are at a safe distance (either in their moving car, behind the construction fence, etc). But to be honest, most of the time I’m frightened. One aspect that I think is particularly sad is the impact street harassment has on my feeling of safety in my city. If I thought it would always end in verbal harassment, I wouldn’t be as frightened. Don’t misunderstand, verbal harassment is painful and degrading and confidence eroding, but if I knew it would stop there, I would let my iPod drown out the sound. If I wasn’t afraid of the repercussions @LOLITAWOOLF described I might even confront the arrogance the way I do when people make racial or sexist jokes. At the very least I’d stop walking with my keys between my fingers when walking alone at night.

    My hope is we can teach our sons to show respect and understand the consequences of their behaviours, violent or not. This makes me think of the episode of Sex in the City where Miranda keeps getting heckled by the construction guy as she returns to Blockbuster and when she finally confronts him it turns out he is married and was just “joking around”. I think most of the time it’s not meant to be violent, but it feels that way to us, and they need to know that.

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  15. great conversation! i think the importance of talking to male friends about this and making sure they don’t engage in this behaviour, that they call out their male friends if they ever do, and that they understand why cannot be emphasized enough. when a guy harasses you on the street, you can be comforted knowing there are guys out there on your side. i try not to engage, like i literally don’t even turn my head. or if i’m grossed out i say “ew”. I like @shhrug‘s idea to shame them by saying “don’t ever talk to a woman like that”. be condescending, from a safe distance.

    i went to confront a guy last summer and got slapped in the face. i was ignoring him no problem til he started screaming at me calling me a cunt as i biked through the ossington and college intersection. i whipped around to tell him off and he slapped me as he biked by! really shocking… i called the cops and a nice guy kept me company til they came. the guy definitely had issues, but why did he choose to pick on me? i’ve been harassed a lot while biking, i think because i take up space and act confident (how dare a woman….) I’ve also been pushed off my bike by someone in a car who pulled up beside me. these interactions had nothing to do with what i was wearing but they were definitely men trying to assert themselves over me.

    biking is easier in short skirts anyway. don’t let those thoughts about “i shouldn’t have worn this…” stick around. demand space to be who you are. but it’s probably best not to engage with anyone drunk or not right, you should just get outta there! have a safe summer everyone!

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  16. this is obviously a conversation that becomes even more important in the summer weather, when sometimes wearing shorts/skirts/dresses is the only viable option if i’m not meant to melt. i have, on more than one occasion, chosen to suffer the heat in jeans rather than expose my legs in a dress to ward off unwanted words or looks. i was walking home one evening, fully clad in denim from head to toe, and had obscenities yelled at me by a passing car full of men, egging each other on. another instance, this occurred at 8:30am in the morning, wearing a dress waiting for my bus. clothing sometimes doesn’t even matter. often a calculated wardrobe doesn’t even make a difference, and this is the scariest part, as we are often targeted simply for identifying with a particular gender or sexuality… regardless of how much or how little skin is showing.

    i feel like i live in a microcosm (kingston) of what is being described here. in conversations with other women i’ve known, a big reason many of them (including myself in the past, now i don’t give a fuck) have chosen not to speak out about this unwanted attention is for fear of being labeled as a “radical, bra-burning feminist”. speaking against verbal harassment in the moment often warrants responses like, “why are you so angry? you should take it as a compliment” or my personal favourite, “are you on your period?”

    @Amy, i totally agree with you. i often find my choice of clothing is met with distain by both men and women, but in different ways. women, rather than being outward about it, will shoot dirty looks and in many cases throw around the word “slut”. women have been raised to live in competition of each other, when really we should be somewhat of a united front together.

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