Volume 75, Number 11 | August 3 - 9, 2005

Just looking: A view of street harassment of women

By Meredith Napolitano

It varies from “Ow!…Baby…Mmm, I want some of that…” “Will you have my baby!…” “Hi mommy…I want you!…” “Oh mama!…Nice ass!”… “Ayayay! Kiss kiss, pst pst, woo-hoo, mama!”…to “Wow…(a pause as she walks by)…beautiful!”

Street harassment to female pedestrians has practically become an institution in New York City. Sure, it’s quite comical to think that male dwellers of the street have nothing better to do than to feel the need to express themselves toward women in a manner of crass desperation, but in reality, it is a tragic and disturbing way of communication with females.

“Do they think we will pay attention?” laments Kelli Miro, who lives in the West Village. “It happens everywhere and it’s terrible. I hate it.” The frustrated 22-year-old complains that verbal street harassment makes her feel rage toward the male race, in general, as if the men who call out to women sexually are creating a bad name for their sex on the whole. “I have become prejudice against Hispanic men, and I am Hispanic,” she says.

Street harassment as a concept has been virtually ignored except in feminist literature. One notable point is that men will almost never harass a woman when she is accompanied by a man. “If the woman is alone, her role is in doubt and she may be metaphorically spoken to by men,” says Jaclyn Packer, a feminist researcher, in an editorial on women’s therapy. “Plus, many men do it to impress their buddies,” she says.

Ansel, a 39-year-old male, is keeping his cool on 14th St. and Sixth Ave. when I catch him overtly staring at me and smiling and nodding. “It’s not that I am looking for something,” he says. I explain to him what his “look” at me suggests. “I don’t do that!” he denies. Is the woman imagining it then? “See,” he explains, “I look and I see pretty girls and I think, wow.” The unemployed, divorced man continues to defend himself (as he calls me “sweetie”). “The women, they think we want to talk to them or take them, but it’s not that, it’s just looking, all right?”

When questioned about their behavior, the general tendency for men was to act slightly embarrassed, surprised, cool, pseudo-sensitive and uninvolved. They brush it off as if it were no big deal, and something women should just accept about their gender and get over. “I don’t know why it is,” says Manuel, 27, who called “I want you” at me from his spot on a Bowery railing. “I only know what I think, not what women think.” What he thinks is that he isn’t doing anything wrong and that because his gestures “don’t mean to offend,” it’s O.K.

What most women probably do not realize is that at any point when she feels harassed by disruptive behavior conducted by men on the street, she can report it and it will qualify as a “dis con,” or disorderly conduct, charge. “If the woman calls 911, stays in the location where it happened and keeps an eye on the guy, police will come and the man will receive a summons for his offense,” says an officer from the New York City Police Department’s Rape Hotline, who asks that her name not be printed. “The gentleman can be questioned and charged, but unless the female victim is there on the scene, officers can’t do anything,” she confirms. If the accuser feels strongly enough and follows through with the case, it could result in the issue of a ticket with a fee to the man acting out in public.

If women did follow through with the harassment, there would be thousands of tickets issued per day. Thus it seems to be a matter of the woman’s perseverance. If the woman doesn’t ignore it, feels that enough is enough, maybe the man can learn a lesson from her activism. But the point is that city women are usually on the go, on their way to work and don’t have the time to dwell on chauvinistic comments that have become just another part of their day, and so men get away with it.

Arturo, 40, hanging out in the East Village, sees it as a way to express his feelings. “When I see something that interests me, I say it,” he proclaims confidently. But does he think women are interested in lewd remarks? “It’s 50/50…we take it from there. Some feel offended, some respond.” He explains that the comment is just an introduction. “From my point of view, I’m single and I am always looking.” But why can’t he think the remark if he sees a pretty woman…why does he have to publicly objectify? “Because if I think it, I lose the opportunity that she might be it.” For him, it is another way of getting attention from women, regardless of how he is interpreted by them.

Is it a matter of women not talking back? Most don’t due to fear. “There’s always a threat of physical or sexual violence,” says Maggie Hadleigh West, a documentary filmmaker who directed “War Zone,” a nationally acclaimed 76-minute film, in 1992, which documents street abuse on sidewalks and confronts men about their abusive treatment of female pedestrians. West explains her usage of slowed-down action in the film. “From a viewer’s perspective, the abuse is a very quick incident, but for the women in question, the moment becomes elongated, because they don’t know what might happen.” A look can be imposing and intrusive. It is also objectifying, since there is no conversation, only eyes on the body. “I want the shot to feel claustrophobic,” she says.

“It’s overwhelming,” says Janine Brady, 21, a hostess at an outdoor restaurant in Union Square. “Whether I am on the job or not, it happens. It happens when I work nights and days. The men on the staff say to let it go. It’s NOT O.K.” She ardently brings up the issue of lack of self-control on the man’s part, likening it to blaming rape on the woman. I ask her what about speaking up, or answering back? “When you talk back, it’s ‘bad,’” she says. The woman is perceived as a bitch or dyke. After all, the man was simply complimenting her on her looks, and, well, women should love that, right? Not from strangers.

If a man touches a woman without invitation to do so, she has a case, but when it comes to words and lustful looks from strangers, the boundaries become much more shady and less substantial. Because men act out their sexual fantasies and desires in the form of lewd comments or even in words they think are compliments such as “I love you baby” or “you’re gorgeous” there is no direct accusation applicable on the woman’s part, unless touching is involved.

Criminologist Robert T. Sigler acknowledges that street harassment toward women has received little attention from both the public and lawmakers. “This activity is seen as recreation by the men involved,” he notices, citing that participants indicate that their intent is not to anger or humiliate the victim. Sigler suggests that men engage in street hassling because it alleviates boredom and provides them with enjoyment. He cites a survey on street harassment that reveals that 80 percent of people view it as a problem and 78 percent express need for legislation against the behavior.

“If you get upset and answer, you’re gratifying them and giving in, and if you let it pass, you have to deal with it,” says Erika Bracy, 23. It is like a game. Perhaps the most striking thing for women, then, is how utterly confused they report feeling in that elongated moment of objectification. They don’t know how to react. All they know is that it is uncomfortable, awkward and seedy…at least for American women.

“In Colombia, where I am from, everybody is happy. The women are happy when we call out to them on the street.” says Henri, a 38-year-old male who claims women should take street calling as a compliment. An employee of OZ moving truck company on Lafayette St., he admits he often tries to talk to women he doesn’t know on the street. I ask him if it ever crossed his mind that women don’t want to hear sexual innuendos from men they don’t know, and that sexual commenting is not talking, it’s harassment. He still brushes it off. “If I saw a beautiful woman, I need to tell her. If she don’t respond, it’s her problem, I think she has problems with her family or home, and if she does respond then she is happy.” So women’s responses are based on their mood and not induced by the behavior of the man? If a woman doesn’t respond, “I feel nothing,” says Henri.

The idea that women are “victims,” is facilitated by the socialization process that established women as passive and inferior to men. This fortifies the argument that men catcall to women because they can get away with it in society, and it amuses them. “If it’s amusing, it’s a sickness,” says Ebid, a guard from the New York University Public Safety Department. “Every day I see it and I don’t like it at all,” he argues. “This is a big problem. People don’t have respect for women,” he says.

From the moment she leaves her front door, a Manhattan woman realizes she is automatically pegged as a victim to men’s ogling eyes and overt remarks. It’s just a fact of life here. But the real fact is, this city is a public place where people should be able to walk and move freely, and not have to take alternate routes to avoid the “men who hang out.” Moreover, to verbally harass someone is a dimension of sexual harassment and women should realize they do not have to take it.

The basic definition of sexual harassment comes from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

Granted, the streets of New York City are not a working environment, just a route to work. However, examples of verbal sexual harassment from the E.E.O.C. include: “…sexual comments, jokes, gestures, noises, propositions, catcalls or whistling in a demeaning manner with sexual overtones, referring to an adult as ‘girl,’ ‘boy,’ ‘honey,’ ‘sweetie’ or ‘babe,’ asking about sexual fantasies, preferences or history, making sexual comments about a person’s clothing, body or looks…” All of this happens on a daily basis and has become second nature to the men who do it, and see nothing wrong with it. If harassment continues to be one of the inconveniences from which women suffer as a group, it is because of the enduring devaluation of female status in society. Until women are regarded as equal human beings, with freedom to walk sans whistles from workers, women will continue to be “free game” for men on the street.

“Nature won’t change. Different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds permit and encourage this activity, but it doesn’t make it O.K. here,” claims Heelix Milkiotomous, a 27-year-old professional male in Washington Square. “It’s appalling.” His solution: “Less breaks for construction workers!” He does have a valid argument: Boredom. Understandably, boredom leads to the quest for amusement. Just as kids in detention start misbehaving, so do unoccupied men who watch women pass. We can’t change people, and, unfortunately, not all men are on the same plane as Heelix. Therefore the prospect for now lies in the hands of the women. As I see it, the problem is about a severe lack of communication. Women should take heed that they can defend themselves, whether it’s by calling the police or intelligently putting the men in their place. As I have discovered, speaking may be a way to make peace with both the institution itself, and its effects on the victim.

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