Street Harassment Now That I Present As a Woman
I was listening to Citizen Radio while driving down to the Chicago Fringe Festival. It’s a fantastic, independently-produced, liberal news and commentary podcast, and I highly recommend it. One of the things they discussed was this blog post from UnWinona. It discusses one woman’s experience with harassment on the train and, in particular, a very scary experience with someone threatening her.
Here’s an excerpt:
It’s not the first time I’ve been bothered multiple times. As such, I’m still amped from the teenagers on the first train. So when this man leans across the aisle into my personal space and asks me, yes, what are you reading, I assertively but calmly tell him to please leave me alone, I am reading. The man stands up, moving to the front and muttering angrily over his shoulder that it isn’t his fault I’m pretty.
Yes. Exactly that. I am the bad person in this situation because somehow this is all my fault. I started this by being attractive. I am making a mental note to bitch about this to my friends later. I go so far as to write it down so I know I’m remembering it properly.
This brought up a few things for me, not least of which was a question I’m often asked: How are things different now that you’re presenting as a woman?
My usual answer is to discuss how fortunate I am artistically, personally, and professionally. I’ve been involved primarily in women-run arts organizations, almost all of whom have been very accepting and very supportive of my transition. (There was one big exception.) Likewise, even though it has taken some of my family and friends a while to come around, I’d say they’re all supportive these days. I can’t think of a single friend or family member who has cut off contact, or even been particularly rude about my transition, and that’s great.
At the same time, I usually gloss over street harassment. I don’t know why I do it. Maybe I don’t want to dwell on it. Maybe it’s because I don’t always know whether to feel threatened or complimented, and my complex feelings make me hesitate to talk about it in a quick question and answer session. Maybe some third thing I can’t think of, which would round out this list and play to the rule of threes. Regardless, it is a difference I’ve noticed since I started transitioning.
Like all women, I experience a range of street-harassment-slash-"compliments." On the relatively harmless end you have things like “nice legs!” while walking on a crowded street downtown. Danger level seemed pretty low, since it was such a public and crowded area. On the other end, I was walking along the lakefront earlier this week with a friend. We passed a group of men, one of whom asked something (I’m not sure what). We kept walking, and he called back – clearly annoyed – all you had to say was “Yes” or “No!” The isolation – there weren’t many people around – made that one feel much higher on the potential danger meter.
Nothing like that would have ever happened when I was presenting as male.
The episode of Citizen Radio also made me think about a conversation (almost an argument) I had with a friend who really enjoys “complimenting” (his word) strange women on the street. From his position, it’s purely a compliment. I believe him when he says he has no ill intent, and honestly wants to make women feel good. He refused to believe, however, that what he did could possibly be seen as threatening or unwanted.
What he (and other harassers/”complimenters”) miss is that they are making the assumption that my presentation, my appearance, and above all my time is for them. In their mind, it’s impossible that a woman wouldn’t want unsolicited male attention, or that dressing pretty isn’t in and of itself solicitation for attention. I may have intellectually understood that before I transitioned, but I emotionally understand it now.
And yes, there is a range. As I said, there’s a big difference between “you look nice” and “hey baby, suck my dick.” But both, ultimately, stem from those same assumptions of women – our bodies, our attention – being “for” men.
One of the things they mentioned on Citizen Radio, and which the blog post mentions on UnWinona, is that this type of "complimentary" harassment is part of rape culture, too. Another quote from her post (emphasis from the original):
So when people (men) want to talk about “legitimate” forms of assault, tell girls they should be nice to strangers and give men the benefit of the doubt, tell them to consider it a compliment, tell them to ignore the bad behavior of men, I want them to be forced to feel, for even one minute, what it feels like to have so much verbal hatred and physical intimidation thrown at them for nothing more than being female and not wanting to share.
I just wanted to read my book.
It’s not my fault I’m pretty.