True Tales of Street Harassment (And My Anger Issues)

Do you hollaback?
Publish date:
August 4, 2011
body politics, anger management, catcalls, coffee-throwing

If you met me, one of the first things you'd notice about me is that I'm fat. Not like, “Oh darn, Anthroplogie doesn't have this in a 12!” kind of fat, but rather the kind of fat that has to shop in the special fat-lady store. The kind of fat that has to consider the structural integrity of thrift-shop furniture. And, unfortunately, the kind of fat that elicits public humiliation and harrassment more often than I’d prefer to face.

The aggressive stuff I can deal with -- I can eviscerate a jerk like a boss. I’ve had a lot of practice. The most recent instance took place in a Home Depot parking lot, where I was walking to my car with a bag of potting soil. Some dude who apparently spends his days hanging out in his car in the Home Depot parking lot with his equally-pathetic dudebro friends saw his opportunity and seized the moment, hollering at me, “DAMN BITCH, YOU ARE HUGE.”

You know, I like a little creativity in my harrassment. If you’re gonna yell, make it something good. Ideally something I can laugh about later when I’m telling the story to my friends. The standard harrassment is just boring. “SURPRISE, YOU’RE FAT! LIKE IN CASE YOU FORGOT FOR A MINUTE. I’M REMINDING YOU. YOU’RE WELCOME.” (Harrassers speak in all caps, all the time, I have decided.)

My usual response is to shout back, “YES!” or "IT'S SO TRUE!" or, if I’m feeling especially sassy, to wag my ponderous ass in their direction whilst smacking same.

Sometimes fate takes the wheel. There was the time a guy called me a “fat slut,” evidently for failing to cross the street quickly enough in front of his car, and in his haste to zoom away, he drove into a curb and busted a tire. I like to think I made that happen with my mind.

Harrassment doesn’t always take place on the street, either. A few weeks ago I was sitting in a museum cafe, eating a salad, when I noticed a table occupied by three young men staring and pointing at me and giggling to one another in a manner so lacking in subtlety that I was less upset that they seemed to be talking about me in first place, and more offended that they thought I was too intensely stupid to notice.

Sometimes I think this sort of thing is worse than being catcalled in public by dudes -- at least with the yellers I can yell back and exorcise my fury, even though this is not always the wisest nor the safest course of action.

iHollaback is probably well-known to many New Yorkers, but may not be to those of you living elsewhere. It was originally founded in 2005 by a group of women who were sick of feeling angry, frustrated and helpless as a result of street harassment. What began as a straightforward blog that collected stories and cell phone pictures of harassers has since evolved into a full-fledged worldwide social justice network dedicated to stopping street harassment of women and GLBTQ folks. There is even an iPhone app, and there are individual Hollabacks in cities around the world. Plus, the organization will help you launch one in your own locale, if you’re inclined to join the effort.

Street harassment is ultimately about entitlement -- it’s about a dude (usually a dude, though women are occasionally guilty of it too) who is emboldened by gendered power dynamics into feeling as though your body is public property, and he has a right to comment on it, whether he thinks he’s paying you a “compliment” for which you ought to be grateful, or trying to tear you down for not being attractive according to his exacting specifications.

The intention behind the commentary doesn’t really matter because public harassment by a stranger isn’t about making you feel good. It’s about putting you in your place, and reminding you that as a woman, your social purpose is to look appealing to guys. Even strange creepy guys you’d rather ignored you altogether. And no, it doesn’t matter what you look like, what you’re wearing, whether you’re alone or with a group, public harassment is never justifiable. You are never “asking for it,” and anybody who argues that position is kind of a jerk.

I admit to being inept at reacting to harassment in a classy or clever way. Historically, it has only ever made me irrationally angry. Once, years ago, I threw a huge cup of iced coffee at a passing car, the occupants of which had yelled something hateful and homophobic at me. The plastic cup hit the back window and sprayed coffee over the top of the car, and everyone involved looked equally shocked by it. I was embarrased at my violence, but I also felt kind of satisfied by it. At least until I realized I’d sacrificed my coffee.

Luckily, I get harrassed in public with diminishing regularity these days, which I suspect may be a function of age -- women get more socially invisible as they get older, and while this is frustrating and annoying on many levels, it also has its perks. Some days I just want to go out and do stuff and not have to justify my right to be in public where people can see me, you know?

So tell me your tales of street harassment. Does it happen to you often or rarely, or never? Do you respond or just let it go? And do share your tragically unspoken l'esprit d'escalier (i.e., staircase wit), as I could use some ideas for responses that don’t involve screaming or throwing things.