PSA: Dear Street Harassers

Posted: August 3, 2013 in Fly-By-Night
Tags: , , , , , ,

Dear men who like to randomly proposition women on the street, and who get increasingly frustrated when those women ignore, reject or yell at them for their efforts, because you’re only being friendly and can’t understand why they’re all so uptight about it:

Imagine you’re a painter. It doesn’t matter what kind – you could be a visual artist or someone who paints houses, a professional or an amateur: what matters is that you’re walking around in paint-spackled clothes and smelling of turps, so that anyone who sees you will probably think, ‘Hey. That dude’s a painter.’

Imagine you’re on your way home from a hard day at work, when some random guy approaches you.

‘Hey man, hey! You wanna come paint my house? Man, I’ve got a great house, I’ve got awesome paints – you wanna come paint it for me?’

Now: on the surface of things, the request is friendly enough. This person isn’t abusing you, and as far as he knows, he’s not asking you to do anything you don’t do already – assuming you’re the kind of painter who does paint houses, that is, and not a watercolourist. The problem isn’t their tone of voice: it’s how and why they’ve made the request at all. On no greater basis than their ability to identify you as a painter, they’re asking you to stop what you’re doing and come with them, because somehow, they feel, their need entitles them to your time.

You’re tired. It’s been a long day. But you figure you’ll be polite, because the guy’s just being friendly, right?

‘No thanks,’ you say. ‘I’m sure your house is awesome, but I’m not interested.’

And you try to keep walking. But for some reason, the stranger decides to take personal offence at your refusal. He keeps following you, but now, he’s not so friendly. In fact, he’s becoming increasingly hostile.

‘Hey man, don’t be like that! You haven’t even seen my house – you think you’re too good to paint for me? What’s the matter with you? Man, I bet you’re a shit painter – I only asked you ‘coz you looked like you needed the work. You’re a lazy fucking bastard, aren’t you? Fucking layabout painters, man – you’re all the same. You’re all snobs. Why won’t you paint my house?’

How do you react to that? The stranger is bigger than you, stronger, and visibly more aggressive. Worse still, even though you’re in a public place, with lots of other people walking around, nobody is stopping to help you: every single passerby is just looking away, as though the stranger’s demands are perfectly reasonable. You’re pretty angry now, but you don’t want to argue – you just want to get home. But how do you shake the stranger? Your first response was perfectly polite, and all it’s produced in him is rage. How aggressively will he respond to an actual confrontation?

As if to prove this point, he takes this moment to get in your personal space. Maybe he jumps in front of you, physically forcing you to step around him. Maybe he puts an arm around your shoulders. Maybe he grabs your wrist. Maybe all he does is match your pace and walk really, really close to you, as though you’re not strangers at all. But whatever he does, it’s threatening, and the end result is clear: if you stop and talk to this man, if you let him detain you, nothing good will come of it.

So you do the only thing you can: you keep walking. You don’t respond. But the man doesn’t go away. He follows you for a whole block, and all the time, he’s alternately cajoling you (‘Come paint my house! I’ll pay you, I’ll pay you fifty bucks to come paint my house right now!’) and abusing you (‘Someone oughta teach you some manners. Don’t you know it’s rude to ignore people? Someone oughta shove a paintbrush right down your fucking throat, you selfish dick!’).

Understandably, you’re rattled, but mercifully, when you reach the ticket barrier at the station, the man is forced to turn back. He calls a final couple of insults to you, and then he’s gone, swallowed by the crowd.

And you’re furious. You’re physically shaking. How fucking dare he! Should you call the police? Should you have just confronted him? Now that he’s gone, you know just what you wanted to say to him, and derive a deep, momentary satisfaction from imagining his cowed, apologetic reaction when you told him, calmly and firmly, that he was a harassing, abusive jerk who needed to back the hell off, but even as you indulge this fantasy, you know things wouldn’t have have gone that way; that if you’d stayed, he’d likely have attacked you, grabbed you, or otherwise done something violent, because absolutely nothing in his behaviour suggested a willingness to listen or an ability to learn.

So you get on your train. The carriage is largely empty, which is a relief. You sit down, pull out a book, remind yourself that the stranger is gone, and try to calm yourself down.

Two stops later, another guy gets on the train with you. From the corner of your eye, you see him look around your almost empty carriage, full of free seats, and zero in on you. Surely not, you think, but no: the guy makes a beeline for you. Maybe he sits in the spare seat next to you, so that your bodies are physically touching. Maybe he sits in the spare seat behind you, so that when he speaks – and you already know he will – you’ll be forced to contort your body to talk to him. But whatever his choice, it’s already clear that he’s ignoring both your book and your body language, which, after your encounter with the stranger on the street, is practically screaming leave me in peace.

‘Hey, what’re you reading?’ he asks. ‘I really love painters. They always have the best taste.’

This second guy is much calmer than the first one. His tone isn’t exuberant with false friendliness: it’s conversational, casual. But all the same, he has you cornered: it’s another five minutes before the next stop, and you’re not getting off until after that. Depending on where this guy is headed, you could be stuck with him for up to thirty minutes. But maybe he’s more reasonable than street-guy. Maybe he’ll follow your social cues, and let you go back to reading if you’re polite to him.

‘It’s a mystery novel,’ you say. ‘And if it’s OK with you, I’d really like to keep reading it. I’m right at a good bit, and I’ve been looking forward to it all day.’

‘Cool, cool,’ says the guy – and for one brief moment, it looks like he’s going to leave you alone.

But he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t.

‘What’s your favourite colour to paint with? I bet it’s blue. Is it blue? I can always tell when people like blue. Hey, who do you paint for? I bet you’re really talented. What’s your name? I’d love to look up your work some time.’

That last inquiry gives you chills. In a professional setting – or at the very least, in a conversation you’d actively consented to have – it would be complimentary, positive. But this guy, just like the other stranger before him, has just clearly demonstrated the fact that he doesn’t give a shit about you – if he had, he’d have left you to read your book in peace. This conversation isn’t about you, or your skills as a painter, at all: it’s about his need to make you acknowledge him. But once again, what can you do? You’re trapped with the guy, and even though getting up and moving carriages is technically an option, you were here first; and anyway, he might follow you. So you grit your teeth and deal with it.

‘Listen. I’ve had a hard day, and I really just want to read my book. Can you leave me alone, please?’

The guy’s face changes. You can’t tell if he’s angry or baffled or what, but either way, it’s certainly not the face of someone who’s about to apologise for inconveniencing you and leave. Instead, he starts talking again.

‘Yeah, but I’m talking to you. It’s rude to keep reading when someone wants to talk, you know? I just want to have a conversation. What, did you accidentally drink your turps or something, and now you’re all pissy?’ He laughs, as though this is hilarious, and keeps going. ‘Come on. Tell me about yourself. Tell me what kind of stuff you like to paint. Why are you being so uptight? I’m just being friendly.’

This second guy harasses you, non-stop, for twenty minutes. You don’t get to read your book, and the one time you raise your voice to him, the two other people in the carriage – who aren’t paying enough attention to realise you don’t know this man and didn’t want to talk to him in the first place – give you the stink-eye, because your loudness is inappropriate and upsetting to them. The harassment is interspersed with ignorant, stereotypical assessments about painters couched as benign compliments (‘I hate painters who use pastels; they’re all so flighty and high-maintenance. I bet you use oils, don’t you? You look like you use oils.’), and every time you fall silent or try to pull away – because you’ve long since given up on winning – the stranger chides you for being rude, reminding you, over and over, about how polite and friendly he is, until he finally gets off the train.

When you get home, you call the police about the first guy. At best, they tell you there’s nothing they can do, because technically, he didn’t break the law, and even if they found him, it’s just your word against his. At worst, they tell you to get over it; that he was probably just being friendly, and you were imagining any hostility – after all, you went out dressed like a painter, so clearly you were inviting someone to comment on it.

Now imagine being a painter isn’t something you chose to be, or can ever stop being. It’s who you are. These encounters happen more or less regularly. They are exhausting. When you complain to non-painters about it, they frequently tell you it’s all in your head, and that you just need to deal with it politely.

Does that sound shitty?

You bet it does.

Men who behave this way – who accost women in public places, demand their time and attention, violate their personal space, make abusive or threatening comments in response to perceived slights (that is, rejection or silence), and who ignore not only verbal requests to go away, but every accompanying scrap of body language saying the same thing – aren’t being polite. They’re not being friendly, either.

Politeness is all about social niceties and empathetic consideration: it is the exact polar opposite of making someone uncomfortable, or ignoring their discomfort, just because you feel entitled to their time and attention. Similarly, a friendly person cares about others, not just themselves: if someone asks you to leave them alone and you don’t, persisting isn’t friendly.

If this is how you treat women on the street, it doesn’t matter what you say, and it doesn’t matter what tone of voice you use: you’re not being friendly, and you’re not being polite. At absolute best, you’re being selfish and demanding, insisting that random women stop what they’re doing and talk to you in obviously antisocial contexts (when they’re walking, when they’re reading, when there’s no earthly reason why they should have to indulge your whims), then sulking if they don’t. This is what toddlers do before they’re old enough to know better, and even then, they mostly make such demands of family members and friends, not total strangers.

At absolute worst, you’re being manipulative, domineering and aggressive, deliberately targeting women at vulnerable moments (when they’re alone, when they can’t escape, when they’re preoccupied, when they’re in a rush) – and, indeed, are orchestrating those moments through a calculated abuse of social niceties (sans context, her shouting will look worse to a random observer than your quiet importuning of a stranger; so long as you keep your voice calm and refuse to desist, you ensure that your victim will be viewed as the aggressor if she protests your blatant disregard of her wishes, thereby deploying a second, subtler type of coercion to make her compliant while being harassed).

Precisely why you feel entitled to the adoring attention of strangers, I don’t know. Perhaps you’re really just that big of an egotist; perhaps you’re a sociopathic misogynist who takes pleasure in the discomfiture of women; or perhaps you’re a potential or practised rapist, which state isn’t mutually exclusive with either of those two others. Either way, I don’t know, and I don’t care. What I do know, though, is that you don’t care about her, whoever she is; you only care about getting what you want from the exchange. The women are interchangeable, and however much you might want to deny it, everything in your behaviour says otherwise.

If you cared about her, you’d respect her personal space.

If you cared about her, you’d respect that she might be busy, and let her go.

If you cared about her, you wouldn’t pressure her to stay.

If you cared about her, you wouldn’t threaten her for not being docile.

If you cared about her, you wouldn’t call her rude, uptight, a bitch, a whore, a user, a timewaster, frigid, a slut, a cunt, a shrew, hysterical, pissy, a harpy, fat (which shouldn’t be an insult, but invariably is), retarded (which shouldn’t be an insult, but invariably is), or any one of a dozen other heavily gendered slurs and insults just because she wouldn’t stop and talk to you.

Because if you cared about her, you’d afford her the exact same rights which, given your behaviour, you demonstrably afford yourself: the right to be assertive around strangers, the right to feel safe around strangers, the right to be left alone, the right to walk away, the right to express yourself freely, the right to have better things to do – the right, in other words, to behave like a fucking human being, and not just a nameless body whose rights are forfeit the instant she hurts your ego.

You men, who behave like this to women? You’re not friendly, polite and misunderstood. You aren’t nice guys in any literal sense of the term.

You’re abusers in training – or worse, abusers in actuality.

Get the fuck over yourselves.

  1. This!

    It goes well with this:

    And I feel your post and his both should be mandatory reading for all boys before they are allowed to graduate or get a job.

  2. Lurkertype says:

    Reblogged this on Lurkertype's Blog and commented:
    Foz is not only correct, she writes the correctness SO WELL.

  3. SingingTuna says:

    Brilliant, and important.

  4. Lee says:

    Foz always writes what I’m thinking better than I can articulate! And yet I STILL think even this falls short of being able to communicate to men the sheer fear and discomfort these repeated exchanges produce. And I don’t think that’s something anyone can do… because men never seem to have to feel that fear, and if they do, it is a very rare, isolated experience and everyone is very understanding.
    “Oh, Jesus, dude, there was a panther HOW CLOSE to you? No, man, I understand if you’re scared to go into the woods, I would be too!”
    I have tried time and time again to explain the pathological fear of walking down the street and getting into the bus that has developed in me and my friends who live by themselves, even though I live in the country and they, invariably, live in the city. The amount of harassment we receive is comparable despite the difference in the number of people (men) around. And both of us dread leaving our places of residence even as we acknowledge it as necessary. And even men who are actively trying to understand–I can see the effort and confusion in their strained faces–just cannot seem to grasp what it’s like. And maybe they never will.

  5. sylvia says:

    ” her shouting will look worse to a random observer than your quiet importuning of a stranger; so long as you keep your voice calm and refuse to desist, you ensure that your victim will be viewed as the aggressor if she protests your blatant disregard of her wishes, thereby deploying a second, subtler type of coercion to make her compliant while being harassed”

    You point out that becasue he keeps his voice low, no one knows he’s a stranger. Makes me wonder what would happen if a woman shouted “Stranger danger! Stranger danger! This guy is trying to make me his instant best friend, someone get him away from me!”

    • 65snake says:

      I had to laugh at the image of the woman shouting “stranger danger”. That would NOT be what anyone would expect, it would be pure awesomsauce!

      At the very least, though, perhaps simply saying, loudly enough to others to hear, something along the lines of, “look, I don’t know you and I don’t want to. for the last time, leave me alone.”

      Maybe that type of thing works better for me than it might for others, as I have the ability to be physically intimidating myself….at 6 ft tall….and am not particularly polite by nature (I have to make an effort….I don’t mean to be impolite, I’m just blunt!)

  6. DM says:

    (sans context, her shouting will look worse to a random observer than your quiet importuning of a stranger; so long as you keep your voice calm and refuse to desist, you ensure that your victim will be viewed as the aggressor if she protests your blatant disregard of her wishes, thereby deploying a second, subtler type of coercion to make her compliant while being harassed)

    Lord, but this is especially heinous, because the guys who do this know people are far less likely to pay attention to a tense interaction between old friends or lovers than they are to one stranger harassing another. They have to be quick to establish this familiarity, which is why, I imagine, they get right into a strange woman’s personal space from the start – if she doesn’t immediately and loudly repulse him, which most women are too polite to do, then the outside assumption is that they must know each other. After that, the game is set. (And I’m willing to believe there’s plenty of guys who use this tactic more to protect themselves from witnesses knowing they’ve been rejected by a stranger than to actively intimidate a woman, but intimidation is the side effect, and they aren’t willing to stop because their own embarrassment bothers them more than upsetting another person.)

    It’s a lose-lose situation, because if you’re direct enough to reject these guys at the outset, you’re crazy and rude and paranoid, but if you’re polite up until the Nice Guy mask drops, then you were leading him on and deserve insults. At no point is it expected of guys to be empathetic of women when it comes to this stuff; we’re all of us supposed to sympathize more with their fears of rejection (and need to get laid) than a women’s fears of aggression (and need to be left in peace).

  7. […] Ben Ramsdale’s first-hand encounter with everyday sexism, and Foz Meadow’s PSA to street harassers, and Jinan Younis’ description of what happened when she started a feminist society at her […]

  8. Lurkertype says:

    I really kinda want to see women starting to shout “Stranger Danger!” at harassers. If it’s good enough for our children, why isn’t it good enough for us?

  9. Sarah says:

    A few years ago I experienced street harassment. At first he shouted at me in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish so he drove around the block and spotted me in a store. He waited for me to leave and then proceeded to follow me. “What’s your name, baby?” and other vile questions. He followed me even after i gave him a fake name. He followed me even after I told him I had a boyfriend. He followed me even after I told me to leave me the fuck alone. I was thisclose on going into a store, there were many since this was on a busy street, but I didn’t. I was afraid what he would do. He asked if I wanted to follow him to his car. I told him to go back to his fucking car and leave me the fuck alone. He looked at me up and down and ran back to his car. He then drove around the block and saw where I went into my apartment and honked his horn. I was afraid to go anywhere for a few weeks after that, no matter the time. This happened at 8pm. It could happen at any time.

    I have been cat called out car windows before, but that is nothing compared to being followed and propositioned out in public.

    After this happened I looked up street harassment and didn’t know it was actually a thing. I thank you and other bloggers for bringing this to peoples attention.

  10. Willow Wood says:

    Reblogged this on Lemon City III and commented:
    A well-deployed metaphor, I think.

  11. Trudie says:

    Very thought provoking! You are reminded of the times harrassment happens to you. It doesn’t happen to me so much these days…is that because as you get older and the years start to show you become less desireable to men? If you are fortunate to be attractive you might experience strange mens advances more than most or if you are less fortunate with looks, you might have experienced cruel situations. Why? Why do they do it? To do it in the first place must tell us something of their personality. Does this mean they have confidence? Or is this the side of men that enjoy intimidation? Does it make them feel in control? To do something at all, must give pleasure! The odd thing is while you remember the times when it happens, and feelings of being made so uncomfortable, a women once said to me, “i can go down the street and no one notices me” “there was a time when I turned heads” she said! There is a fine line of enjoying the odd admiring glance, the odd flirty smile, which is welcomed by most. So how does it get from something quite innocent to stalking, intimidating, persistence. It’s like I used to wear a great neon sign on my head when I was younger saying ‘easy target’! How a smile can be taken out of context, not even a smile, just having a pretty face! I have lots of experience of harassment. The one that sticks out is when I was staying at a hotel. I had been sight seeing with friends, they had to leave early, and as I had a few more days left decided to stay on at the hotel. When I was out shopping I noticed that I was being followed by some man dressed in a suit, wearing dark glasses and flip flops! Less said about the flip flops the better! Finding yourself being followed by a strange man in flip flops on my way back to the hotel is a situation you hope not to find yourself in everyday.
    I kept trying to shake him off by going into shops hoping he would disappear. The thought crossed my mind to just go straight up to him and ask what the hell he wanted, but the fear of that ending up in an aggressive confrontation quickly changed that idea. I was so scared he would see which hotel I was in.
    As I found myself in a small corner store, the shop keeper could see I looked frightened, when I explained I was being followed and needed to get back to my hotel, another man who was shopping in the store, said he worked as a porter at the hotel (he was in his uniform) and offered to walk me. I accepted and he walked me back to the hotel.
    The story doesn’t end there! The hotel phone in my room rings, and as I answer the man that has been following me is on the other end. The deep voice tells me that he is sorry but that i reminded him of his dead wife and could he send me flowers. I politely said it was ok and not to send me flowers. A few minutes later there is a knock on my hotel door….by now I’m shaking and very scared. As I look through the spy hole I can see the porter outside holding a large bunch of flowers. In the morning at breakfast the staff informed me that this gentleman was staying at the same hotel. Oh my god, I thought…what if I saw him again, I don’t want to speak to this weirdo (who, according to staff takes various women back to his room!!) obviously sees alot of women that remind him of his dead wife!!
    On my last day walking into the hotel, there he was facing me as he turned in the lift….the horror…do I take the stairs or, as I intended, the lift? There was no one else in the lift only him with his finger on the elevator button to hold the door open for me. That split second decision, I’m damned, fucking damned if I’m going to be intimidated to take the stairs. I took a deep breath, stood tall and entered the lift. Pressed my floor number, and the doors slowly closed. He stood behind me as I felt the motion of the lift. My back faced him. The mixed smell of sweat and aftershave filled the confined space. I wanted to scream…”let me out” the sudden fear he would follow me back to my room. You stupid cow, why did you have to be so stubborn, you should have taken the stairs, bollocks, why should I, I wanted to take the lift, how dare he intimidate me. Then it came, that voice again, but not on the phone, now down the back of my neck “sorry I frightened you”…”that’s ok” I snapped trying not to sound friendly. “Would you like to have coffee with me” “NO THANK YOU”!. That sounds funny now, realising that at the point, I am still being polite adding thank you on the end of ‘no’, so British! What I should have said was ‘NO, you stupid creep, fuck off and don’t ever bother me again’. The door of the lift opened and as I got out and turned the corner, ran like a crazed woman to my room where I stayed until I checked out the next morning!
    Wonder if he still wears flip flops!!

  12. Susan Lewis says:

    Love this. I did my own post one day about being harassed in a parking lot. Now that I’m older and a bit wiser, I confronted them on it. They all backed down and apologized.

    I would not always recommend doing that – depending on the situation and one’s own safety – but I swear to God most of these idiots think we like it, want it and take it as a compliment.

    Keep writing about it!

  13. An anon says:

    Okay, so. This is awesome. The point about contextual politeness is fantastic.
    But. R*tard and its deriviatives isn’t an insult, it’s a -slur-. It’s a slur, specifically referencing a group of people among which the most conservative statistic we have is that 70% have been -raped- and we don’t know the statistic for other forms of sexualized abuse and harassment.
    R*tard is a slur. Not an insult. It’s not that it ‘shouldn’t be an insult but is’, it is a slur. There is no way to make it okay.

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