Today the Kojo Nnamdi had Chai Shenoy, co-founder of Holla Back DC, on his show. Shenoy did a great job, and it was wonderful to see such popular local radio show take on the issue of street harassment.
A couple of men called in saying that street harassment was unacceptable -- but they immediately noted that women shouldn't dress so "provocatively." In essence, they seemed to believe that women brought harassment on themselves because of the way they dress.
Shenoy had a great response, referencing work from Holly Kearl of Stop Street Harassment. Kearl's global research shows that even countries where women are strongly encouraged (or even forced by law) to dress conservatively, street harassment doesn't stop. Shenoy rightly responded, "It's not about what you wear." For Shenoy, street harassment is a form of gender-based violence. The problem is, few people see street harassment this way.
So often the response to complaints about street harassment is that comments like "Hey baby, "Look at you, all sexy today," and "Can I get your number?" aren't meant to be offensive and are complimentary. What men (and most street harassment is perpetrated by men) need to realize is that street harassment, however it is intended, doesn't make women feel good. It makes them feel uncomfortable. When street harassment has happened to me in the past, it didn't make me feel beautiful or wanted.
About a year ago, as I walked down the street near my house nearly a year ago, I experienced some of the worst street harassment of my life. I was walking down 11th Street between Florida and U Streets in Northwest DC. For those that think what I was wearing matters, I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt in the middle of a hot summer day, hair up in a pony tail. A man was driving by, but slowed down his car to roughly the same pace I was walking on the sidewalk. The man proceeded to yell at me about the way I looked and the comments lasted several minutes. I can't remember the exact words he used, but even if they were meant to be complimentary they didn't feel that way to me. After the man finally drove off and I made it back to my house, I was shaking. The harassment made me feel horrible and so, so angry.
My attitude has always been to ignore such harassment, that I shouldn't waste time or energy responding to people that treat me with such disrespect, but Shenoy's interview today made me try to think about it a different way. Though such an encounter might make me feel angry, there may be ways to respond in a polite, rational way without escalating the situation. Perhaps next time, if I can summon the courage, I'll say something like, "I know you mean what you said as a compliment, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't comment on my appearance. It makes me uncomfortable."
Thanks to Shenoy and the work she does at Holla Back DC, for making me think more about this issue.