When I first started being honked or whistled at, I was about ten years old. I’ve always been tall for my age and I can imagine that, from a distance, I looked older. I remember that on one particularly bad day, I was harassed repeatedly over the course of a short walk home from a friend’s house.
At home I burst into tears and divulged to my mom how confusing it was to be continually mistaken for an older girl. Talking to my mom helped me make sense of the new situation.
Most of us have experienced street harassment in some form or another. We share these stories of whistling, cat calling and honking with each other readily. A group of my female friends were walking down a busy street the other day when the driver of a passing truck honked at us. A few of us rolled our eyes and kept talking but one friend, let’s call her Jess, began to express her frustration that she is honked at all the time. She went on and on (and on) about how the general public deems her appearance too striking to go unaddressed.
Recently I have started to wonder why girls share stories of street harassment. Are these stories battle scars or medals we wear proudly?
Part of me believes that we talk about street harassment to avoid feeling alone. Being harassed can be a profoundly isolating experience. This sense of loneliness is only intensified when the incident occurs in public and bystanders are silent.
So we consult our friends for the reassurance we often do not receive from people who witness harassment. Hearing a friend’s story of being repeatedly “bumped into” on the Metro is oddly comforting because it is evidence that I am not alone in my experience. Furthermore, knowing that most girls are subject to harassment proves that you are not to blame for becoming the topic of strangers’ conversation.
I think discussing street harassment allows women to transform a potentially shaming experience. A relatively new crop of websites encourages people who experience harassment to shed the role of victim and get even with harassers by posting pictures of them online and describing the incident.
While I believe that talking about street harassment can be cathartic in some circumstances, I think girls sometimes share stories of unwanted attention for the wrong reasons. In middle school, when being noticed by strangers was new and exciting, I often felt like girls were competing to have the most outlandish story. I vividly remember a friend telling me about how a teenage boy and several of his cohorts followed her through a shopping mall asking for her phone number. She seemed proud. I was terrified.
Honks, whistles, and catcalls became a tangible way to measure how pretty you were to the world at large on any given day. Saying a stranger ogled you was a socially acceptable way of bragging about your physical appearance. But I worry that when we start thinking about unsolicited feedback as compliments, we reinforce the misguided notion whistlers and catcallers have about their behavior.
We are told by these sidewalk Miss America judges not to get upset, they are merely trying to compliment us. I can’t help but feel that if we recount being harassed to prove that we are desirable, we are just tricking ourselves into confusing compliments with harassment.
I am especially troubled by the sexual nature of these so-called compliments. In VH1’s recent special about America’s eroticization of virginity, “The New Virginity,” Jessica Valenti brilliantly explained that talking about a young woman’s virginity is a largely tolerated way in which people can discuss the sexuality of a young girl.Street harassment encapsulates the ways in which society teaches girls that being perceived as sexual beings is a cool way of getting attention, and getting attention translates into proof that one is a valuable person.
Furthermore, younger and younger girls are now hoping to look sexy, whereas in the past they may have tried to look pretty. When girls start to believe being sexy is a way of being pretty – and being sexy is about being looked AT – being objectified and projecting an image to others becomes the norm.
Let’s recap. Look good, get attention, feel good. Am I the only one worried about this state of affairs? What do you think? Is sharing stories of harassment a healthy coping mechanism or a reiteration of the falsehood that harassment is flattering?