The sun is shining and it is unseasonably warm in Southwestern Ontario. I gleefully shed my winter coat and boots, trading them in for the cute spring dresses that have been hibernating in my closet. I choose the blue denim-ish dress with the rolled up 3/4 length sleeves, skirt above my knees, and collar that, if I wore a small neck scarf, makes me look like a 1960s flight attendant. I finish it with my black ballet flats and the retro style brown leather handbag that I love so much.
I don’t often “do cute” but when I do, I revel in it.
But as I step outside and start down the street to catch a bus, my gleefulness is quickly replaced with unease. With every step carrying me closer to the busy main road, questions, frustration, and anger build in my head:
Maybe I should have worn a scarf to cover my cleavage? Do my boobs seem bigger? Maybe I should have put on leggings. Is this actually slutty instead of cute? What if someone says something? Why didn’t I just wear jeans and a t-shirt? …Stop thinking these things! You are a strong, powerful woman who has every right to wear what she wants! How many Take Back the Night’s have you walked in? Didn’t you make signs and scream at the top of your lungs against slut-shaming at last year’s SlutWalk? Aren’t you a feminist?
…but really, maybe I should have worn leggings…
As I stand at the bus stop I am acutely aware of male heads turning to leer as they drive by. I wonder why they can’t keep their eyes on the road. At one point a car load of men scream and catcall out their open windows as they speed away looking for other women to harass. All at once my skirt seems too short, my legs too long and bare, my breasts too big and exposed. In an attempt to refocus, I share a disgusted look and heavily exhale with the other women at the bus stop. One woman mutters, “jerks,” under her breath. What else can we do? Welcome to Spring.
“Undeterred, the brash trainee smiled at [Sydney] in a manner that was openly flirtatious, causing an unexpected ripple of battle fatigue to skip over her usually impenetrable surface. Men could do and say anything they wanted to you, she thought, a sense of helplessness washing over her anger. And ultimately, what recourse did women have? Every day she had to endure being repeatedly leered and jeered at when all she wanted was to get to the gym or the drugstore to get her Xanax. She was powerless to prevent random street harassment, something that infuriated her to no end…” (excerpt from Feminista by Erica Kennedy)
Many times harassment happens so quickly there is no time to respond. Often, I feel so shocked that I have just been reminded of my place in the world as a sexual object that I am left stunned. Did he really just touch me? Was that really just said to me? Why does he think he can look at me like that? This is quickly replaced by anger.
The experience described in Erica Kennedy’s Feminista spoke directly to how I have felt while being harassed by men. And, as far as I know, is the most direct comment about street harassment in chick lit. Because I believe that chick lit deals with many different women’s issues, I thought it was a bit curious that concepts of street harassment in this literature is hard to come by. I have no evidence as to why this is, but I might speculate that this type of harassment has become such a part of women’s daily lives that it is hardly something to be mentioned as a problem… even though, in my experience, it leaves women feeling objectified, degraded, confused, powerless, and angry.
It is time for this to change. This week is International Anti-Street Harassment Week. Street harassment is defined as:
Unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.
Feminista‘s Sydney wondered, “what recourse [do] women have?” Well, thanks to movements like Anti-Street Harassment Week, Hollaback!, and SlutWalks there are lots of ways for women and men to take action against harassment.
Hollaback! was started in 2005 as a way for the focus of harassment to be shifted onto the harasser and away from women. The idea was that instead of ignoring the unwanted behavior, women could take out their cellphone camera (as these new-fangled cell cameras were all the rage!), confront their harasser by taking his picture and posting it to the Hollaback! blog, therefore publicly naming men as harassers. When I discovered this website soon after it started, it was like being given a tool. Suddenly, I and others had something we could DO. Something to take our power BACK.
For me, whenever possible, I like to take the direct route and name the unwanted behavior. I tell men they are being sexist, or racist, or homophobic. Speaking up makes me feel powerful. I attempt to remain as safe as possible, but I have even physically placed myself in the middle of men physically harassing women because I refuse to live in a community that turns a blind eye to this behavior. I think this is a shared sentiment after so many people across the globe picked up the anti-harassment and anti-slut shaming message of SlutWalk Toronto and took to the streets with it.
Please check out the websites listed and learn what you can do to end street harassment. There are a number of suggestions on what women and men can do. StopStreetHarassment.org includes information on what bystanders can do as well. This isn’t just a woman problem, this is everybody’s problem and it will take all of us to put an end to it. We have the power.
Now as I step outside in my summer dresses I am reminded of the “My Short Skirt” monologue from the Vagina Monologues and these lines become my mantra:
My short skirt is not an invitation
that I want it
or give it
or that I hook…
…My short skirt, believe it or not
has nothing to do with you…
…My short skirt is a liberation
flag in the women’s army
I declare these streets, any streets
my vagina’s country…
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share your own story of street harassment in the comments and how you have dealt with it. Also, if anyone has any other chick lit street harassment references, please let me know!
References and Resources: