I don’t owe you a smile

Last summer, when my hair was very long. Source: Guion.

To get downtown, I have to walk over a bridge, adjacent to a lane of often busy traffic. As any woman who lives here will tell you, this bridge is an epicenter for cat calls, whistling, and shouted comments from male motorists. You get used to it. You start to expect it; you even develop an ability to predict which vehicles are most likely to contain men who will harass you.

On this particular day, traffic was stopped as I was crossing the bridge. I’m walking, trying not to make eye contact, when a man leans out of the window of a truck and says to me, “Heyyy, baby, give me a smile!” I don’t look at him and keep walking. Then, in my peripheral vision, I see him lean back out the window and he screams at me, “You stuck-up BITCH!”

It’s jarring to be called a “bitch” by anyone, much less by a man you don’t know, who feels justified calling you that because you won’t smile at his leering, pock-marked face after he demanded that you do. Even though nothing physically happened to me, I was upset by the incident for the rest of the day. I finally realized why I couldn’t get the encounter out of my head: This was the first time, in my young adult life, that I actively felt like an object.

We talk about “the objectification of women” all the time. It’s a phrase I’m very familiar with and I’ve sat in university classes about just that topic. But I never really thought it applied to me. Women in the media are objectified; models on billboards are objectified; actresses are objectified… but me? I’d never felt that way before.

Like any young woman in my general age bracket, I’m fairly acclimated to street harassment, but this is the first time that it made me feel angry, exposed, and even a little frightened. As I finished walking down the bridge, I grew increasingly self-conscious. I wanted to disappear. (And, alternately, slash that truck’s tires.) I had never expected to feel this way, but there it was, that feeling I’d only heard proclaimed from podiums or academic columns: I am a woman and I am therefore an object, free to be publicly evaluated, insulted, bossed around, and lewdly scrutinized.

I don’t really have an “action point” for this post. I don’t have any happy promises to wrap up the ending. Recounting the little incident still makes me feel furious. I take refuge in expressing anger (and sometimes bits of humor) about the culture of street harassment with other women, especially Stephanie, who has lots of stories in this dehumanizing department. But we don’t have any solutions. You get used to it, you adapt. You vaguely dream of a world in which your daughter might be able to exist as a human being, free to walk on a public street without being regarded as a sex toy, a manipulable body who owes mankind a smile. But that is often too hard to imagine.

14 thoughts on “I don’t owe you a smile

  1. Ok, I’m commenting on this. And, i apologize in advance…
    I am your father-in-law. And i have just decided that, for your house-warming present, i’m getting you a Glock and a permit to carry. And i will suggest that this not be a “concealed” weapon. When you are out walking alone (to which i strongly object, by the way), i hope you will display your side-cannon prominently.
    Similar to the way i wish we did not live in a post-Christian America, i also wish you did not have to feel threatened while walking downtown. But, guess what? We probably aren’t going to change either of those states of being, so we learn how to be whole people anyway. However, a few reports of some pock-faced, verbal assaulters being popped with a .45 while screaming obscenities out of their truck windows might curtail some of that kind of stuff.
    Hmmm. Could mean jail time for the shooter, though. I’ll have to think about that.
    See, dear, men are just like that. Think of cave men. Not much has changed, huh? Enlightened as we are, or should be, there’s still a gender difference that produces the deplorable behavior of which you were (and may be again) victim.
    I know you are a feminist. I confess that, while i don’t comprehend the full meaning of that term, it seems to me that you are probably the best one i’ve ever known.
    But here’s where we’re going. We’ve swallowed the idea that nothing that is available to one individual should be off-limits for any other individual. So, if a man can be an executive, so can a woman. Of course that’s true. How about this one: if a man can be a husband, so can a woman? Not so sure about that one, and here’s why: God created them male and female. So, there are certain roles we were designed to fulfill, and some that naturally exclude some of us. (I’ll never be a mom.)
    Ask friends in the middle-east if the women dressed in burka are whistled at while out walking alone. We might hear that a) they don’t go walking alone, and b) they don’t go walking alone! One role i wish we could observe is the one about a father providing “cover” for his daughters, or a husband providing cover for his wife. My own father taught me rules for walking down the street with a woman. These rules had to do with protecting her. Not because she is weak, but because she is a target of pock-faced morons.
    Be carful out there. Keep a Glock near your clock, and an extra in your sock. Love you!

  2. I totally understand where you’re coming from. This type of thing has happened to me many times. I walk stony-faced by some catcalling men and when I don’t turn to look at them or smile or whatever when they call for me to, I hear them saying things like “Oh, you think you’re too good for me?” or call me something like “ice mama”, etc. First of all, yes, I am clearly too good for you, and second, you have to wonder if this ever actually works for these men. Do they ever actually pick up women with this behavior?

  3. Abby,

    Ugh, I hate this for you just like I hate it for all woman (but it burns in me more because it is you, a dear friend!) It is wrong. This kind of behaviour is designed to tell lies about you: that you are created unequal, that you were created unwell, that you as a woman are somehow subhuman, that you can be owned by a stranger.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Pratt, I can confirm that women in the Middle East wearing burqas are whistled at, even when walking in a group with other women and their children. It’s sad and it’s confusing. I’ve wondered so many times what men get out of yelling at women on the street. What, does he think you are going to jump in the back of his truck? I think about it even more living in this region of the world, where the cat calls, jeers, honking, hissing, and cars following me sometimes leave me feeling like a disease. What the hell? (and this feels like an appropriate use of the word “hell”).

    I think so much of it is about power– making someone feel uncomfortable proves that you are stronger than them. (Which means you must not feel very strong in the first place, which is itself quite sad). I hate that we as a human race value power such that we fall into these types of patterns.

    But it doesn’t reflect truth, the truth of our human dignity as created beings. Thank God.

    I love you one million!


  4. Great post! So so true! And I am so sorry that happened. That incident makes my skin crawl.

    As for solutions, yes, still not sure of any good ones. I’ve considered calling the Police Non-Emergency line to report aggressive behavior (which you can do), but never have. The reason is that I fear feeling threatened even more by retaliation, and the incidence(s) just didn’t seem to warrant that much effort. A less appealing tactic has been trying to “educate” the man by explaining to him that I don’t know him and that it’s considered rude and unkind to ask for a smile…but that didn’t go over well the first time I tried that. The man just gave me a crazy-eye, excited / surprised smile and then started to mumble something incoherent and I realized I had stopped my nice, pleasant walk to talk with a large, sweaty, scary man who was making me feel bad, and that’s probably exactly what he hoping I’d do, so I gave that up! I’ve tried saying things like “Go away” but now I just glare and keep walking. It’s frustrating because eventually you develop a defensiveness, like you’re walking with a shield up and have to be ready at any moment. Makes walking alone around less enjoyable for sure.

    To end on a positive note: the humorous stories that I have as a result of all of this does make it less awful. Using humor to cope is one way to deal and process: I think I’ve told you about when I lived in DC a few years ago my roommates and I were all yelled at from a speeding car; “Snow Bunnies!!!!!” and another story I love to tell where my friend was crossing the street in a PONCHO in the RAIN and a guy yelled from a car “Haay! You can’t hide that!!!”…that’s one of my favorite stories. There are too many to name that are not funny at all, but sometimes for me it helps to recall the more ridiculous incidences…

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! I always remind myself of “SNOW BUNNIES!” whenever I need to laugh about the funnier side of street harassment. It’s always hilarious to retell.

  5. […] If you think this isn’t really a phenomenon, I’d encourage you to look around a little bit. You’ll find it; it’s not hard. Misogyny is very alive and well, and women, in many ways, are helping feed that destructive fire. Sexism, primarily hatred against women, runs virtually unchecked in our culture. (Just spend a few minutes reading the mountain of posts on the Twitter feed Everyday Sexism. Or flipping through a magazine. Or watching TV. Or trying to cross the Belmont bridge.) […]

  6. Ouch, this sounds like a horrible, infuriating experience and I’m very sorry it happened to you. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much these sorts of dehumanizing experiences can affect a person… especially if they’ve never been the target of one. But they shouldn’t be minimized, even if they never escalate. People seem to think that sexual harassment is “no big deal” so long as it doesn’t culminate in rape. “You got catcalled? Groped at a party? Leered at by a gang of guys on the street? Get over it… it’s not like you were raped. Boys will be boys, right? Stop being so uptight.” Talk like this needs to STOP. Harassment is not a little thing. Here’s one of my own stories to illustrate.

    I was on the train on New Years Eve in Germany, heading home from a party. Obviously, there was likely to be plenty of drunks out and about, but I was going home before midnight, so I felt pretty safe. Plus, I am usually pretty confident in myself and my ability to control a situation. The train was almost entirely empty, but a young man came up to me and started trying to speak to me in German. My German is not very good, but I could marginally communicate with his slurring accent. He kept saying “I think you’re really pretty” and “I like you”. I could guess where this was going, but I just said “okay” coolly, ready to rebuff any advances. “Will you give me a Silvester kiss?” he asked before long. I told him flatly “no. I don’t want to. I am not interested. I do not like you,” all in clear German. He kept negotiating. “But I like you. Come on, it’s New Years Eve. Why not? Why don’t you want a kiss? I think you’re pretty.” I was getting angry. Since when did me being pretty obligate me to kiss anyone??? How dare he treat me like I was being a frigid bitch just because he wanted something I was not willing to give him?

    He finally fell silent for a while and I thought perhaps he had gotten the message. I was staring straight ahead, hoping my stop would come soon, when he reached his arm around me and tried to reach down the neck of my shirt. I grabbed his hand before he could sneak his feel and jumped up from my seat with a loud “NO”. I was furious now, and a tiny bit scared. I hadn’t thought that he would actually try to force something on me, even if it was a weak attempt. Memories of a close-call with rape from a so-called friend 10 months before flashed through my head. I suddenly felt upset with myself for letting the situation happen to me, as if it was somehow my responsibility to prevent promiscuous men from approaching me. I stood a few feet away, keeping an eye on my backpack that I had left on the seat beside him in my haste to move away. I told him again that I don’t want anything to do with him and he’d better leave me alone. I was speaking English now because I was too pissed to think in German. Being unable to communicate well left me feeling even more out of control, but as I sized him up, I was relieved at least that I was pretty confident I was stronger than he was.

    My stop finally arrived and I stepped forward carefully and took my backpack. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Will you shake my hand?” I stood uncertainly for a moment, certain that this was a trap. But it flashed through my mind: “if I were a man, would I be scared to shake this man’s hand?” I knew the answer was no, and that pissed me off enough to brace myself and impulsively offer my hand. He seized it and started to drag me forward, reaching for my face to try to force a kiss on me. I was prepared though, and I planted my feet, grabbed onto his shirt with both hands, and threw him back into his seat. Turned out I was stronger after all. I flipped him off and turned and stalked off of the train.

    In the end, I wanted to feel triumphant for having humiliated him in the end. But I didn’t feel triumphant. I felt dirty and embarrassed and angry. “I should have punched him,” I thought. “Then he would have REALLY gotten the message.” And then the even more ugly voice started: “I should have avoided the situation entirely. I shouldn’t have let a young man sit next to me on the train. I shouldn’t have talked to strange men. I should have come up with a stronger way to say ‘no’. I should have found a way to project my disinterestedness before he even talked to me. I shouldn’t have been on the train on New Years Eve alone. I shouldn’t expect anything better if I put myself in situations where drunk men might see me.”

    And that is the worst part. I honestly started feeling like it was my fault that someone couldn’t respect my body and my very-clear wishes. I started feeling like it was justified for men to view me as an object. And that is why it left such an impact on me for the rest of the night and the following days. I was embarrassed to admit the details of what happened when I explained it to my friends because I was afraid that they would tell me “well, what did you expect?” Because that’s honestly how I felt.

    It was just a minor incident. I wasn’t hurt, and the drunk idiot didn’t get his kiss in the end. But it still hurt me emotionally and left me feeling conflicted and angry long after I thought I should have gotten over it. That is the terrible impact of a culture that objectifies women… it HURTS to be treated like an object. Men might think nothing of it and might not realize how it feels. They might think that silly incidents like that are innocent and harmless. But when you’ve been there, you know the anger and pain that results from being dehumanized by another person, just for the crime of being female. It sucks. Men need to understand that. (Disclaimer: I am aware that this can happen to men too and men can be objectified as well and that’s also not okay. But for the sake of my story, and the majority of these sorts of incidents, I wrote about it as a women’s issue.)

    Anyway, that was a long comment. I just thought I’d share that I totally understand where you’re coming from and I really think it sucks that it happened to you. Don’t let anyone tell you that your feelings about it are unjustified or overreacting. You are so justified. The culture and that man are at fault here. I hope that, some day, that changes.

    1. this comment makes me so angry. i completely identify with the feelings of guilt, shame and fear of retaliation, as if it was somehow my fault for not communicating clearly that in absolutely no way was i interested.

      i did hope your story would end with you slapping that sheisskopf.

  7. […] some form of verbal or even physical harassment on the street. A woman alone on a street? Surely she deserves to be ridiculed and disgraced for her existence, for her outrageous boldness to possess a body! So men may yell at her, shout […]

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