Years ago, a friend told me to take a sexual comment from a stranger as a compliment. I had just walked alone from the coffee counter to our table, and an older guy said something. I glared and was annoyed. She told me it was a compliment.
But it did not feel like a compliment. It was loaded with lust.
Now, I’m a friendly person who greets and smiles at strangers; I have no problem with kindness or compliments from those I don’t know. However, comments about my body are not compliments.
That day, though, my respect for my friend caused me to be confused as to how I should respond to words. I mean, if someone groped me, I’ve taken self-defense (and kickboxing and karate), and know how to respond. But what about words? My day can be destroyed by a stranger’s lustful words, but how should I respond?
Christians seldom talk about street harassment. It’s as if we think our talk of modesty will protect women from it, but street harassment is not about a lack of modesty, as explained in myth #7 of ihollaback, “a nonprofit movement to end harassment in public spaces.” Christians need to talk about how to respond to street harassment.
Although a somewhat amusing video, “What Men Are Really Saying When Catcalling Women,” shows that the men don’t necessarily feel strong when they harass, it is still a power play. Men have the power to speak, and women are supposed to just take it. At least that’s the message I’ve received.
I’m thinking of two particular scenarios. I was walking down Broadway in NYC with my new husband, when he saw his close friend, and they came together in a hearty, joyful embrace. Unbeknownst to them, a man stood up behind them in my eyesight, to offer me a hug, too. It made me uncomfortable and ashamed; I shook my head and looked away. I didn’t tell my husband, because I was afraid he would destroy the guy.
In the other scenario, I was happily walking atop a short rock wall, pregnant, and at a beautiful park to enjoy spring flowers. A man made a comment about my posterior (he used a different word) and how I must have Hispanic background. I was taken from my joy, and felt cheap and ashamed. My husband saw and I told him not to do anything, but he proceeded to follow the man and have a conversation, telling me later that it was to teach the man that speaking that way is not okay, and to protect the next person.
These two scenarios have bothered me for a while; I realize they’re relatively mild and street harassment is super-common, especially if I look at the 2014 Huffington Post article with quotes of what men have said to women on the street. However, I’m still not okay with the fact that someone can say something to me and make me feel ashamed.
I’m done with feeling ashamed and sheepish when street harassed. While I appreciate that my husband stands up for me, I would rather figure out how to stand up for myself—how to use my voice to deflect the comments. Only if I do that will I free myself from shame.
In New York City, I can use an app and record photos and other data when I am harassed. This is one form of using my voice.
A Glamour article recommends first assessing my safety, and if I feel safe enough, speaking up to the person without inviting a conversation. Say, “That’s disrespectful and I don’t appreciate it,” and then move on. It also recommends sharing the incident with friends or social media.
Those are really good ideas. But, somehow, what I really want to do is shame the guy the way he’s shamed me. Is that bad? Is that not Christian? What would Jesus do?
Now, I realize that I have white, tall female privilege and can act in ways others cannot. My stature intimidates because I can look most men in the eye. That said, perhaps I can use this privilege to silence the street harassers for myself and for the others that cannot do the same.
Consider this response to scenario #1 (I would pull myself up to my full height and do this rather loudly in order to bring attention and shame): “What did you say? You offered me a hug? No, I don’t want to give you a hug, and would prefer not to even talk to a stranger who cannot approach me with respect. Don’t ever speak to women that way. Your childish ways get you nothing.” The man would have been surprised, and my husband and his friend would be readying themselves for a confrontation. Hopefully, we would all walk away, and that man would not harass another woman so easily.
And how about this to scenario #2 (loudly again): “You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re unable to respect a stranger enough to not talk about her body parts. Never speak to anyone the way you’ve spoken to me.” Again, I’d walk away, but would have spoken loudly enough for my husband to hear. Who knows his response?
Would this actually shame the men? I don’t know, but it would deflect any shame I might feel, and would make me feel stronger in the situation.
I’ve been taught, though, to be kind and sweet, especially to strangers. The only way I would ever be able to speak to others that way is if I practiced. And that practice, while awkward would be well worth it. I’m not sure I would be able to do the responses that shame, but I could easily practice my version Glamour article response, “You’re being disrespectful and you need to stop.”
Anyone with me?
Let’s remember that most men are not street harassers, but respectful and good. May we all present a united front against street harassment and stop the mania!