Talking Back About Talking Back

Talking Back About Talking Back

On The Issues selected a few people to read an advance copy of Teresa Yunker‘s story about street harassment. Here’s what they had to say:

Farai Chideya

author of Don’t Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African-Americans (Plume) and political analyst for CNN

Street harassment of women is more about power than sex. The conundrum for women who even consider fighting is that the power is real — the power of intimidation, escalation, possible or actual force.

I grew up in a residential neighborhood in Baltimore two blocks from a run-down shopping strip. A trip to the drugstore to buy shampoo or candy invariably got the men who loitered all day whistling, at least by the time I was 13 and getting “womanly.” My mother’s advice was to ignore them, and I generally still do but with increasing ire. It’s a burden for me to stay silent when I know I’m being taken advantage of; it twists a knot in my stomach to know I could retort but won’t because I’m afraid of repercussions.

I remember going to a club in New York in 1990, a decent one, where a woman was shot in the cheek for refusing a dance. And yet street harassers often use this as their tag when I forge grimly ahead: “Smile, baby. Smile.”

Jackson Katz

director of the Mentors in Violence Prevention Project at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society and cofounder of Real Men, an anti-sexist men’s organization

One thing that struck me was the fact that one of the men who harassed the author was “acquainted” with her boyfriend; yet there was no discussion of what the boyfriend could say to the man. Women shouldn’t have to remain powerless in the face of men’s abuse, waiting for a supportive man to intervene, but men can be doing much more to fight sexism than giving women advice on how to respond to harassers.

One way to get men to recognize and then take responsibility for their sexist behavior is for other men to confront them — their brothers, friends, coworkers. There might be a fine line between men confronting each other about sexism (good) and men chivalrously defending women (bad). But it’s better for men to walk that fine line than to do nothing.

Linda Fairstein

author of Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape (Morrow) and chief of the Sex Crimes Unit, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

I spend a great deal of my professional life dealing with issues related to this one. If — after 24 years doing this — I had any idea how to get men to stop abusive behavior, I’d be the first to want to put myself out of business.

Can I understand why a woman would want to talk back? Of course, but it’s impossible to judge the circumstances when you’re not a witness to the event — the variables are enormous. I’ve had cases in which women shout a response to someone driving by in a car — causing him to get out of the car and shoot at them. There’s no advice anyone can give that works in every situation. Some are more dangerous than others, and the most important thing is for the woman to be careful, to stay safe. Some guys back off when a woman responds aggressively, while others become more violent.

Henry Rollins


That really sucks. Guys who do that are just bullies.

But I really don’t know what women should do. Talk back? Maybe, but be careful.

Maggie Hadleigh-West

New York-based filmmaker and writer

I think the single most important thing that a woman can do to combat street abuse is to initiate a dialogue, whether it’s between herself and the abuser (as long as it’s safe) or among the people in her life.

We can boycott businesses because they employ men that treat women badly. Women can come to the aid of other women on the street. We can educate our children to understand that this is part of the continuum of male violence against women. We can stop treating street abuse as if it has no ramifications and discard the notion that nice girls should ignore this behavior.

The anger, fear, frustration, and humiliation that women continuously experience does not just dissipate. It affects the very core of our identities.

Men can take responsibility for their behavior by recognizing the very real threat of rape that women live with and treating us with the same respect that they would want from a stranger. Together we can begin to create a climate where women being vilified in public is no longer condoned.

Tara Roberts

Contemporary Living editor, Essence

I don’t think I ever handle that type of situation well. I always want to say something smart and witty, but I usually end up just ignoring people and walking faster, or I’ll make a face. I think that gives them power when we don’t call them on it. I wish someone would compile a whole list of ready-made answers to say back to these guys, things that they’ll really hear.

It really bothers me when I’m walking down the street and a guy asks me why I’m not smiling. Like a woman can’t be thinking about something serious or important.

Why don’t I talk back to these guys? Because I can never think of what to say. They totally catch you off guard. Then there’s the fact, though it’s a generalization, that men speak in a different way, they’re more aggressive, and if you’re not ready to give that back, then you’re weak. And you want to be nice to people. I don’t want to tell these guys off, especially because there’s a real fear of retribution.

A lot of times they don’t even realize that they’re being offensive. I’m wearing a short skirt and a guy says, “Great legs.” Now, aside from being objectified, I have to wonder if I’m the one doing something wrong, making myself a sex object, asking for it. But that’s not the truth.

And whenever there’s a group of them and one of them says something to you and you ignore him, he’ll come back with “Bitch. I didn’t want to talk to you anyway.” It’s a tough-guy thing; it’s all about “being the man.”

Joan Jett


Depending on my mood, sometimes it just strikes me as so absurd that I just laugh it off. But you have to think, What’s being said to you? If it’s some disgusting thing, or if it’s something minor, or if they’re blatantly insulting you, or they think they’re complimenting you.

If it’s an insult I’ll usually respond with the same. And a lot of times it will just be some “minor” thing that really pisses me off.

I’m not saying that every woman in every situation should say or do something back, but I don’t think it’s empowering to do nothing. I’ll usually respond if it’s just one guy, but when it’s a shitload of guys and you’re alone, that can be scary. But if there are a lot of other people around, I would usually say something, ’cause there’s less chance the guy’s gonna do something violent, and you would like to think that if he did, people would defend you, not that they probably would.

Yeah, that’s a sad thing — people don’t want to get involved in other people’s situations. But you know, it’s situations like this that make us all sisters. The same things happen to all of us. And we don’t talk about it. You don’t have these conversations until something tragic happens.

It would be great if women felt they could reach out to other women about these things. Women should feel that they don’t have to “grin and bear it.” They can stand up for themselves. Guys are not used to women speaking forcefully.

I’ve not taken self-defense classes, though it is something I want to get into because I think women should be able to defend themselves and not be afraid. But what you can do is not let it go, not grin and bear it, not let them think they’ve gotten away with it, so they can do it again, and then it escalates into something more. You can speak in a loud voice, shout at them.