“You look really hot,” says the man standing by the drinking fountain at the hike and bike trail.
He’s a perfect stranger, nobody I know, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, this would be, at best, an awkward situation; it might even be a dangerous one. Comments about one’s hotness, from strange men, when you are out running or walking or waiting for the bus, are a low-key but obnoxious fact of life for women. It’s called harassment, and it’s a form of assault. Harassment may not involve physical threats, but the specter of force looms over it, predicated on gender: “I can say whatever I want to you, because I’m male and you’re female.”
However, in this case, the stranger isn’t harassing me. He’s afraid I have heatstroke. “Are you sure you’re OK?” he asks, with real concern in his voice. He’s not leering at me; he’s worried that I’m about to collapse.
It’s an honest mistake. Some physiological quirk makes me I overheat when I run, and after a few miles, even at a very modest pace, my face turns red—really red; the deep, rich hue of a New Hampshire barn. I have long suspected that my body’s original design standards called for a heat dispersal mechanism, maybe a set of flanges or condenser coils or something, that were eliminated due to cost overruns, because this can’t be what nature intended me to look like during moderate exercise.
Luckily, my spectacular coloration has never had any adverse effect on me, so I reassure the stranger that I’m fine, and thank him for his concern. He looks relieved and goes about his business, and I bend over the drinking fountain, sigh, and chalk up another failure.
The sad truth is that I’ve wasted a lot of time the last few weeks trying to get harassed.
I decided I needed to seek firsthand experience because street harassment is a popular topic in self defense workshops. I figure if I’m giving women advice on how to deal with harassment, I need to know that advice will work. Also, frankly, I’m a little tired of being left out when everyone else tells their harassment stories. The problem is—and I hate to sound like I’m complaining about this—that I almost never get harassed.
I get threatened pretty often, and you can draw your own conclusions as to why. But the run of the mill, Hey baby, sleazy-guy-on-the-street harassment? It hardly ever comes up.
There could be many explanations for this, the most likely being that I radiate some repulsive quality which prevents men from harassing me. That’s a mildly dispiriting thought, but actually if you think about it more like a superpower, it seems pretty cool. The trouble is that if I can’t identify this quality, I can’t recommend it to anyone else. My co-workers have assured me it’s not a smell, so I can at least rule that out. But that still leaves an awful lot of possibilities.
Have I perfected the art of icy indifference? Have I stumbled upon some combination of dress, gait, and mannerism that renders me invisible to harassers? It feels that way sometimes; still, I know they can see me, because I make a habit of looking people in the eye, noticing them, wherever I go. It’s a way of practicing situational awareness. And I know most women don’t do it, but is it really that unusual? Does all that direct eye contact lead men to think I’m insane?
Actually, the more I think about that scenario, the more plausible it seems.
I’ve also considered the possibility that I am being harassed and just don’t realize it. I’ve always been bad about noticing when people lose weight or get haircuts. And I’m a terrible flirt, by which I mean I’m really, painfully bad at flirting. Any attempts I may have made at it, in my long-ago youth (and I’m not admitting anything here), would be charitably described as gruesome. I’m a woman much more often hit than hit on, and I like it that way. Perhaps, then, I’m so tone-deaf to expressions of romantic interest that I simply fail to notice anything short of a marriage proposal or cash offer.
Maybe it’s something else entirely. You could ask my husband; I’m not sure he knows the answer but he’d probably have a lot of other interesting things to say on the subject. Or hint at.
Anyway, running at the lake (in a spandex top and shorts, no less—you have no idea what I put myself through in the interests of self defense) was my last-ditch effort to attract harassment. I decided to try this because the closest I ever get to being harassed is when I run. During road races, you always pass supporters lining the route who shout things like “You look great!” and “Yeah, baby!” at complete strangers. Not the same thing, I know, but I was getting desperate.
And also, I think someone whistled at me once a couple of years ago, driving by in a car while I was running. Admittedly, the only hard evidence I have is the acute embarrassment on the young man’s face when he drew level with me and realized I was two decades older than him, beet-red, and looking him right in the eye. So I’m not sure that counts either.
At the lake, primed for harassment, I strike out repeatedly. Everyone either ignores me or is maddeningly polite. “Nice day for a run,” says an older gentleman pleasantly as I pass him, unaware that I’m hoping for some far more offensive remark. I smile and nod because it is nice; it’s under a hundred degrees. Inside, I grit my teeth and think, Where are all the dirty old men when you need them?
You can’t imagine how annoying this is. If you think harassment is humiliating (and I’d like to state authoritatively that it is, but how the hell would I know?), consider how it feels to try to get harassed, and fail. I should be grateful, right? Instead I just feel guilty and weirdly rejected. I worry about how this affects my qualifications to teach self defense, since it forces me to discuss harassment from a purely theoretical perspective, as if I’m explaining how to address the Queen of England, or attract unicorns. I’m just kind of going on what other people have told me.
Since I’m sadly ignorant about the experience of harassment (though not for lack of trying), I’ve been relying on the HollaBack Web sites when I teach. HollaBack, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a brilliantly simple way for women to respond to harassers. The first HollaBack site was created in New York; there are now many more in other cities. Contributors to HollaBack post reports, and sometimes photos, of harassment and harassers. Technology makes the images and stories easy to share (there’s an iPhone app coming out soon, apparently), and the World Wide Web turns everyone with an Internet connection into a potential witness.
You can learn a lot about harassment on the HollaBack sites, and none of it is pretty.
In some ways, “harassment” is a subjective concept. You could have an honest disagreement about whether some comment or other should be taken as a compliment, or whether a certain gesture is culturally appropriate in some contexts but not others. The bulk of what you see on HollaBack, though, isn’t up for debate. Whistling at girls may be acceptable behavior in a Midwestern high school parking lot, but I think we can all agree that masturbating on the subway is a no-no the world ‘round. I’m inclined to say the same of explicit sexual language, threats of physical harm, and—I believe I’m on fairly solid ground with this one—licking people’s body parts.
And the reports on HollaBack make it clear that this crap is ubiquitous—women deal with it on the street, the bus, at the doctor’s office, driving, shopping . . . it’s literally everywhere. There is nowhere a woman can go, in public, and expect not to be harassed.
Reading these first-hand accounts make me feel like a rank amateur, unqualified to even discuss appropriate responses to harassment. Honestly, how do you respond to behavior that’s so far outside the bounds of appropriate social interaction? What should I advise students to do? What would I do?
When you think about it, your options are surprisingly limited, as long as the harassment consists of words or gestures. Even though harassers are bullies and cowards, and each and every one of them richly deserves to be racked like a cheap bicycle, you’ll probably get in trouble if you hit them. So what’s left?
The reports on HollaBack show that women tend to respond in one of two ways: By ignoring the jerk, or by responding in kind, with words or actions. Most women have been taught to ignore harassment, to just keep walking. “Don’t encourage them,” is the reasoning here, and I have to admit it’s sound advice. This is the conservative approach, and it’s the response most likely to get a woman out of the situation safely. Physically safe, anyway.
But refusing to respond to harassment doesn’t mean you aren’t affected by it. Women who ignore their harassers still report feeling frightened, humiliated, and angry after the encounter.
Which explains why there are plenty of accounts on HollaBack from women who confront their harassers, sometimes going so far as to chase them down and get them arrested, or even fired, if they were harassing on the clock. There are some very resourceful women out there. It’s pretty inspiring.
It’s also risky—engaging with a harasser very often escalates a situation, and the stories on HollaBack make the dangers abundantly clear. And that’s a point you have to keep in mind if you teach self defense. I certainly understand why women might choose to confront a harasser (boy, do I ever). If I ever encounter one, I’d feel entirely within my rights to confront him. But I’m not at all sure it’s ethical for me to advise someone else to do so.
Forget, just for a moment, how satisfying confrontation can be. The practical side of me keeps asking: Is confrontation an effective strategy? Does it stop the harassment? Sometimes it does, and sometimes it makes the situation worse, more violent, more abusive, more confrontational. That’s not what women sign up to learn when they take a self defense course.
Still, if I tell women they should ignore harassers and walk away, I’m advising them to let themselves be treated like dirt. And that feels wrong too. Why should I expect women to act like grownups when men act like children? Why should it be the responsibility of the victim to defuse the situation by absorbing the abuse?
The genius of a project like HollaBack is that it offers women a safe way to confront their harassers, from a distance, before a sympathetic audience. It’s sort of the gold standard of empowerment: Minimize the risk, maximize the potential for change.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need Web sites like HollaBack. But having more sites like it, more networks for exposing and condemning abusive behavior, might get us a little closer to a perfect world, one in which I can stop trying to get harassed, and focus on the unicorn problem instead.