From “This App Is Helping Women Fight Against Street Harassment,” Hunger TV.
When Hawley Fogg-Davis writes “Sexual terrorism is an apt description of street harassment. As a young woman you know it will happen, but you never know for certain when or how it will happen,” it’s not conjecture. The landscape of harassment, assault, acts of terror committed against women’s bodies is simultaneously nuanced and glaring. The murder of Janese Talton-Jackson is not the first, and sadly won’t be the last. We’ll say how horrible, stand aghast as the Facebook feed, and hashtags repeat like a newsline ticker until her death, and many others are bumped for the newest devastating news.
We ask how does this happen? while forgetting the daily — seemingly pedestrian — ways the root of violence against women has roots in entitlement and acquisition. “This makes street harassment hard to define, and difficult to combat. Its insidiousness derives in large measure from its venue: the semi-private, semi-public everyday occurrence of walking, sitting, or standing along city streets, or other public spaces such as parks and shopping malls,” says Fogg-Davis.
“Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Everyday Life” by Meredith Tax likens the condition to a form of schizophrenia: “It is to be both Self and Other, and to be torn between them.” Or as both subject and object, as Tax also describes. She adds, “When, then, a woman turns into the Subject-as-Object, as in street hassling, she can feel as though she were losing her mind.” We think of ourselves as human, but when we’re catcalled we’re reminded that we are not.
Women are not crazy. Or paranoid. From Victorian literature to contemporary essays, poetry to pop culture TV shows, the following excerpts illustrate just how much we’re not imagining things; how the seeds for violence are planted, and the deep recesses where they take root.
We need art not to explain, but to distill.
From Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
Street corners have always been space that has belonged to men — patriarchal territory. The feminist movement did not change that. Just as it was not powerful enough to take back the night and make the dark a safe place for women to lurk, roam, and meander at will, it was not able to change the ethos of the street corner — gender equality in the workplace, yes, but the street corner turns every woman who dares lurk into a body selling herself, a body looking for drugs, a body going down. A female lurking, lingering, lounging on a street corner is seen by everyone, looked at, observed. Whether she wants to be or not she is prey for the predator, for the Man, be he pimp, police, or just passerby. In cities women have no outdoor territory to occupy. They must be endlessly moving or enclosed. They must have a destination. They cannot loiter or linger.
—bell hooks, “A Place Where the Soul Can Rest” in Belonging: A Culture of Place
From “Battling Sexual Harassment in Cairo and Beyond,” Deutsche Welle (DW).
…I noticed four boys standing across the street from me; they were looking at me and bowing as they said, in an exaggerated tone of voice, pretending to be grownup gentlemen living in Victorian times, ‘Hallo, Madame. How are you this afternoon?’ and ‘What a pleasant thing, our running into each other like this,’ and ‘we meet again after all this time,’ and ‘Ah, the sun, it shines and shines only on you.’ The words were no sooner out of their mouths than they would bend over laughing. Even though nothing like this had ever happened to me before, I knew instantly that it was malicious and that I had done nothing to deserve it other than standing there all alone.
—Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
“American Girl, Florence, 1951,” Ruth Orkin Photo Archive.
…women’s magazines instructed ladies how to navigate and manage heterosexual relations on the street. Early in her adolescence, a girl had to learn to free herself of unwanted admirers.
—Judith R. Walkowitz, “Going Public: Shopping, Street Harassment, and Streetwalking in Victorian London”
Venessa Marco “Patriarchy” courtesy of Button Poetry.
The men in my life noticed my body was changing before I did. Suddenly, at 13, the parts of me I had largely ignored made people uncomfortable. And in some cases, downright angry. I was walking home from school when a man pulled his car over and asked me for my phone number. I told him how old I was and he spat on the ground next to my feet.
“Go home and tell your mama she needs to be dressing you like you’re 13. You almost didn’t get treated like somebody’s child.” He sped off.
I stood there, shaking, gaping at my jeans and T-shirt. What about my clothes said I wasn’t 13? What about me kept telling the rest of the world I wasn’t a child? My mother told me, more than once when I was growing up, if a man ever put his hands on me, she’d kill him. I walked home, already knowing I wouldn’t tell her what just happened. I believed her.
—Ashley C. Ford’s “The Year I Grew Wildly, While Men Looked On”
Hijas de Violencia (the Daughters of Violence), a Mexico City collective that fights street harassment with confetti guns and punk rock, courtesy of AJ+.
While I’ve heard the argument that street harassment is actually a compliment – you know, because we’re supposed to be flattered that strange men are screaming at us about our asses – it’s really a super-insidious form of sexism. Because not only do perfect strangers think that it’s appropriate to be sexual toward any woman they want, but street harassment is also predicated on the idea that you’re allowed to say anything to women that you want – anytime, anywhere.
—Jessica Valenti, author of He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut…and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know (2008) and founder of Feministing.com
From Master of None.
“Hey,” Garrett called.
“You remember me? I saw you a few weeks ago at the gas station.”
Maribel stared at him.
“What’s your name?” Garrett asked
When she didn’t answer, he said, “What’s the matter? You don’t speak English? ¿No inglés?”
She shook her head.
I watched as Garrett took a step back and surveyed Maribel from head to toe, nodding in appreciation. She didn’t squirm, didn’t shift, just stood there letting herself be ogled.
—Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans
From Broad City.
you want to eat me
out. right. what does it taste like
you want to eat me right out
of these jeans & into something
a little cheaper. more digestible.
more bite-sized. more thank you
come: i am greasy
for you. i slick my hair with msg
every morning. i’m bad for you.
got some red-light district between
your teeth. what does it
taste like: a takeout box
between my legs.
plastic bag lady. flimsy white fork
to snap in half. dispose of me.
—Franny Choi, To the Man Who Shouted “I Like Pork Fried Rice” at Me on the Street
From “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.
I don’t know if I’ll ever stop wanting that elusive patriarchal stamp of approval — or the feminist one for that matter. Maybe one day the way I relate to and interact with my body will mean more to me than how the rest of the world does.
—Kayla Whaley, “Nobody Catcalls The Woman In The Wheelchair”