I had promised myself I would stay out of the never-ending street harassment discussions. I’ve written about street harassment several times before on this blog: about my encounters while running and walking for exercise in Harlem, and while headed to an appointment in midtown. I’ve spoken about the topic with dream hampton and Nuala Cabral on Al Butler’s former WURD-900 (Philadelphia) radio show.
I’ve seen anti-street harassment efforts gain major media attention, from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” to Feminista Jones’ “You OK Sis,” and now Hollaback’s viral video that purports to show the street harassment one woman experienced while walking around New York City for 10 hours (except all the white men were conveniently edited out).
Yet it seems women are mostly talking to each other. When men bother to join these conversations at all, many of them seem more focused on telling women that they’re wrong and that they’re just overreacting, instead of paying attention to what women are saying about how street harassment makes them feel.
I was first street harassed when I was about seven or eight. I started developing breasts early, so at school, the boys would grab my boobs and butt. Then, as I walked home from school – literally, just around the corner – men would shout things at me from cars. When I ignored them, they would yell at me. My mother used to have a picture of me that someone took right as I got home from school. I am wearing my spring coat, looking downcast, with my bookbag clutched in front of me, in a futile attempt to both conceal and shield my chest.
Now, I’m in my forties, and it’s still happening. At what point do I get to age out of being street harassed – especially by men young enough to be my son? Do I have to start carrying a cane as a prop to ward off would-be catcallers?
In discussions of the “Hollaback” video on social media, many people – men and women alike - parsed through the comments that were hurled at the woman in the video to determine which ones were “actually” street harassment, as opposed to mere “compliments” or “greetings.” One of my least favorite arguments about street harassment in general and the video in particular is: “What’s wrong with saying hi?”
Some of my most foul interactions with men in public started with a man saying “hi” or “hello.” Yet when a man says “hi” or “hello” to me, I usually – and reflexively – say “hi” or “hello” back. But I respond without making eye contact and without slowing my pace, bracing for some further unwanted intrusion. Like many women, I would prefer to be left alone. It’s one reason I’ve started taking taxis to work in the mornings.
Of course, some women enjoy being catcalled. Some women don’t mind being told to smile. Some women don’t mind being told they’re beautiful or sexy, and welcome a simple “hi” or “hello.”
Unfortunately, there’s no way for a man to know when he’s encountered a woman who enjoys his attentions, versus one like me who is strictly Team Leave Me Alone.
So here’s my simple solution.
For those men who worry that anti-street harassment campaigns mean they can’t even say “hi” to a woman anymore: Relax.
You can say hi or hello to whomever you want.
Just as you are free to say hello or hi, women are free to IGNORE YOU.
That’s it. That’s the solution. Men who want to say hi, can say hi. Women can respond, if they so choose, or not – if they so choose. And men need to respect her choice, one way or the other.
Understand that your simple, well-mannered, well-intentioned “hello” may be one of more than a dozen such greetings a woman may hear in the course of a day. The first hello might be fine. By the time she hears it for the twentieth time, though, it can be taxing. It’s not your fault, Guy Number 20, that 19 other men said “hello” first. But the fact is, by the time you cross her path, she may be tired of speaking. More than likely, she has other things on her mind, none of which include giving any attention to you. To have those thoughts interrupted 19, 20 times, just so she can appear nice to random strange men whom she is unlikely to ever encounter again, is a lot to ask.
So even if a woman has said hello to 19 other guys before you, guess what, Guy Number 20?
She is free to ignore you.
A woman may choose to ignore your “hello,” or respond in a manner you consider rude, for any reason, or for no reason at all. Maybe she’s tired. Maybe she’s got a lot on her mind. Maybe she dislikes you on sight. Maybe she feels threatened. Maybe she’d really, really, really rather just be left alone.
Maybe she’s a stuck-up, rude bitch.
None of that matters.
Because she does not OWE YOU a response.
A woman in public does not owe another person her time or attention. She is not obligated to be polite to you, even if you have greeted her politely. She is not obligated to respond to you at all.
So let’s recap.
Guys: You can say hello to any woman you choose.
And those women are free to ignore you.