It’s Not a Compliment: A Response to Street Harassment - Women's Foundation California
Woman walking down the street.
Photo by Luis Hernandez.

This morning as I was walking to the bus stop, a man stopped me to say, “You’re absolutely gorgeous. Have a great day.” Avoiding eye contact, I muttered a quick “thanks” and walked faster, hoping that he wouldn’t follow me or try to continue the conversation. Luckily, he didn’t, but that doesn’t mean the incident was innocuous.

To some, my fear may seem misplaced. Was this man just trying to be nice? Probably. Did he intend to harm me? Most likely not. But as I continued my morning commute, I felt an overwhelming sense of shame that was difficult to explain.

Even though I pride myself on being able to stand up for what I believe in, street harassment silences me in a way that is incredibly disempowering. Because I am a woman in a public place, I am automatically fair game for unwanted attention and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

I texted my mother to tell her about the incident, adding, “I didn’t ask him to comment on my appearance. It takes a really large sense of entitlement to make a man think that he has the right to treat random women on the street like public property.”

“Truly,” my mom responded. “They may even think that they’re being nice, but really it’s an assault.”

My mother was right: I honestly don’t think that men realize that their unsolicited compliments and greetings, even when well-intentioned, are far from flattering. Women are conditioned to exist in a constant state of wariness and fear of violence at the hands of men at any moment. Any man is a potential threat. Many times, the familiar call of “Hey gorgeous!” is the prelude to acts of violence and physical assault.

One of the most prominent examples of this is the story of the New Jersey 4. On August 18, 2006, a man named Dwayne Buckle catcalled a 19-year-old black gay woman named Patreese Johnson and her six friends. When Johnson responded by saying, “Mister, I’m gay,” Buckle punched her, leading to a violent altercation between him and the women. All seven women were charged with felonies ranging from gang assault to attempted murder, while Buckle received no charges.

When I learned about this incident, I realized that it could have easily happened to me. Like Johnson, I am a young queer woman of color. Even though every single woman I’ve met has been a target of sexual harassment regardless of race or sexual orientation, being marginalized on multiple axes means that I am vulnerable in certain ways that straight white women aren’t.

A few months ago, I was on a second date with a girl in a public park in Boston. We were sitting on a bench and chatting with her arm around me, when a man approached us. “I just had to talk to you because you’re both so beautiful. It’s so unusual to see two women together. Are you girlfriends? Sisters? What are your names? You’re both so beautiful.” Neither of us responded to his questions, but he could not be dissuaded. He continued to ask us questions about the nature of our relationship, until my date (who was also Asian American) finally said, “We no speak English.” The man laughed. “Nah, you speak English,” he insisted, but eventually he walked away, leaving us feeling deeply shaken.

When I describe these experiences to my male friends, they are often sympathetic, but they usually don’t understand the depth of my anger.

I’m angry that simply existing as a woman is enough to warrant unwelcome attention from men almost every day. I’m angry that the first time I was catcalled was before I had even hit puberty. I’m angry that being a woman of color and being a queer woman means that I also receive racialized and homophobic harassment. I’m angry that I have to smile and thank strangers for harassing me so that my silence doesn’t elicit a violent reaction, while at the same time, responding positively to harassment means that I’m encouraging them or “asking for it.” I’m angry that men feel entitled to women’s bodies no matter who or where they are. I’m angry that I can’t even walk to work unbothered.

Here’s a note to all men, especially those who consider themselves feminists: even if you are not catcalling and assaulting women, that’s not enough. You need to actively combat rape culture within your own communities by calling out your male friends when they harass women and explaining why this behavior is harmful. You have to educate yourself and other men by listening to women when they speak out about their experiences. And if you want to talk to a random woman on the street, even if it’s just to tell her that she looks nice today, take a moment to consider why this might make her uncomfortable. Would you say the same thing to a man you didn’t know? If not, then she probably doesn’t want to hear it.

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