When Street Harassment Gets Nasty

When Street Harassment Gets Nasty

by Teresa Yunker

Hey, babee! Hot-lookin’chick, man! Whoa-ee! Why dontcha wear somethin’tight?”

“Fuck off!” I screamed, whirling around to face them. There was a blank pause. The group of guys lounging on the street in the middle of the afternoon, dazed by the combination of hot bright sun and beer, gaped at me a moment, then laughed a little.

“Damn,” said the oldest, “can’t say nothin’to women no more.”

This guy: slack-shouldered, gut hanging out over his pants, straw cowboy hat on gray head. His friends: similarly attired, passing around a bottle, their six-pack done.

It turned out that my boyfriend, whose new place I was visiting that day, is acquainted with the guy in the cowboy hat.

“You are such an articulate person,” my boyfriend reprimanded me after hearing my tale. “I don’t understand why you have to be so instantly hostile, use such ugly language.”

Men like my boyfriend, who would never hoot and holler at a woman, just don’t realize the continual mental bracing women have to do when passing such a group. As every woman knows, the calls, whistles, whines, and aggressive pantomimes will begin no matter her manner or how she is dressed (I was clad in baggy sweatpants). Through it all, women are supposed to pretend we are impervious. We walk past like princesses, head held high, as if not hearing the words at all — “cunt,” “slash,” “ass.” The fact that a scene like this can happen at least once a day to any woman who uses public transportation, or walks anywhere, is something, I tell myself, that some men just don’t know. They are not subjected to the same constant, exhausting barrage.

Maybe that’s why my boyfriend is taking me to task for my talking back to this guy he knows. Jim, he tells me, is quite nice about reminding everyone to move their cars from one side to the other during street cleaning — as if that would somehow mitigate the fact that while I trudged up my boyfriend’s driveway this afternoon, this same man saw fit to comment on me like so much meat. My boyfriend hates it whenever other men talk to me like that, but he’s also very worried —

“One day,” he says, shaking his head, “you’re going to get yourself in real trouble.”

I knew what he meant immediately, viscerally.

“You have to be more careful!” he had also warned me when I once told him this story:

While visiting my parents, my sister and I went on a bike ride. The neighborhood was uncompromisingly suburban, the kind where, in our youth, we could wander late at night without a thought of fear. This was five o’clock in the afternoon; we were taking a ride before supper. A car, driven by a male teenager, came up behind us. While passing my sister, it swerved dangerously close. I, my heart gulping in dread, called out, “Watch it!” The car continued to sway close to my sister, who by now was hugging the curb, trying to get out of its way. I, pedaling fast with a sudden jolt of rage, yelled again, “Watch it, you jerk!”

At this the car, some feet ahead, screeched to a halt. The teenager, face purple, backed up the car with dizzying speed. In his armor of several tons of steel, he was now right next to us on our bikes.

“You bitches!” he screamed in our faces, “you whores, you cunts! Don’t you dare tell me anything!”

There was a pause during which, stiff with fear, my sister and I merely stared. Somehow, our sheer bafflement seemed to get through to this boy, reached him in a way that spelled “beaten.” After glaring in silence for a second, he spit out a few more expletives and roared off, triumphant.

We were left trembling. My sister looked at me. “Maybe,” she said, “you shouldn’t have said anything to get him mad.”

The phrase had stuck, the incident had stuck, and now here I am listening to my boyfriend say how I shouldn’t have “said anything” to Jim.

What he means, of course, is that women are supposed to be afraid in these situations and, thus, cowed. He means that if I yell “Fuck you!” at a group of guys cruising me in a car, they, affronted by my audacity, could leap out and drag me in, raping me one by one. He means that I, confronted by these types of men, would be better off to be meek about it — or else I could be harmed physically. I could even be killed.

At least he knows better than to suggest that I am an overdefensive female taking umbrage at a little innocent whistling. Being exhorted, “Wear somethin’tight, baby,” is not the same as hearing, “It’s a beautiful day for a beautiful lady.” A gentleman said that to me once. I smiled, said, “Thank you,” and went on about my day more cheerful for that small pleasantry.

But being hollered at as you walk by a group of males is not a compliment; it’s a threat. My boyfriend understands this, which is why he’s asking me to be more careful. The problem is, he sees my aggressiveness, my hostility toward hostility, as possibly “asking for” the actual enactment of that threat.

I know that the words “fuck you” are ugly words, I have no desire to fling them into anybody’s face, and I certainly have no desire to be physically attacked if I do. But since now Jim and his pals shut up when they see me, I have spared myself hearing those words, or their equivalent, from at least one small male contingent. “I guess she don’t take no shit” is what Jim said later, somewhat shamefaced, when he ran into my boyfriend.

And no — I don’t. I just hope I won’t get hurt because of it.

TERESA YUNKER is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, and the National NOW Times