It takes a village to silence street harassment

Original Artwork by Norma Krautmeyer 

If I had a nickel for every time a dude tells me to smile while I’m walking down street to the store, train, work, school…Lord, I could fund a Super PAC called “stop telling women to smile because you don’t have any clue on how to engage them,” then launch a successful messaging campaign and lobby to stop uber conservatives from curtailing reproductive rights of American women.

If only I had saved all those nickels.

Street harassment is an everyday reality for damn near all women. It doesn’t let up when you get older. You just get more creative and confident in defending yourself against it. You know this already. You have your own clever tools to disarm folks so that things don’t escalate, or manage aggression from those men who feel slighted. Men who feel Men have trained men to do this. This is essentialized as a definition of manhood in our culture. In communities of color, it feels more pronounced. Some BS machismo: you’re a man defined by the numbers of honeys you holler at, you’re wanted, valued, desired.

And let’s be honest, men know it’s annoying. They know. We’ve told them so. When we’re exasperated by the umpteenth time some clever dude says, “Smile. It ain’t so bad.” The presumption that, when we’re keeping company with our own thoughts, you dude walking bad should suggest (often bark/command) me to “smile” and somehow I feel better. There is a lesson passed generationally that this is how one should approach a woman. The coaching perhaps includes the idea that you’ll get told no, you’ll get no response, but there’s always that one. Again, a numbers game, the thrill of the chase. In communities of color (and beyond), there are countless tales of street harassment–from a whistle, a holler, to a follow, to worse.

It’s why I deeply appreciate two very recent voices dissenting against the everyday misogyny of this seemingly benign command in the street harassment lexicon. I’m tired of having to choose moments when it’s safe enough to tell men why it’s annoying, wrong, threatening, or uncomfortable.

But let me amplify this point yet again: Women do not like it when men tell them to smile:

It’s just that, when presuming that nothing could possibly be that bad in an attractive woman’s life that she dare not smile, you are dehumanizing them. It’s a “nice” form of dehumanization, but it’s still dehumanization nonetheless. It’s also transparent. You don’t see men running up to homeless women and the elderly and asking them to smile. The request is usually made when the requester thinks the requestee is attractive. It’s not about a legitimate need for women to be happy as much as it’s that smiling/pleasant-looking women are easier on the eyes and more inviting to approach. It’s really not about the woman at all.

If you really are that hard-pressed for a woman to smile, tell a joke, slip on a banana peel, pay her phone bill; basically, instead of asking a stranger to fake an expression for you, do something that might legitimately brighten her day. Who knows, she might even smile. And, she might not. You have no control over that, and that’s kinda the point.

Exactly. Maybe not the banana peel thing, but for serious: Men, you don’t have any control over how any woman will respond. It’s a risk you’re just going to have to take. Taking an emotional risk that fails to garner your desired outcome doesn’t mean you respond with venom and malice. That’s not how to approach women. We are not things. We are people. But here’s the simplest truth: When you smile at me, I smile back. Or as Tyra puts it, smile with your eyes. Smile with your eyes and your mouth. The immediate response is someone will likely smile back. The exchange is so simple.

And delightfully, there are boys who become men who are unlearning this culture of casual misogyny. Postbourgie’s Joel Anderson offers us a reflection on his early introduction to effects of repeated street harassment on young women:

Either we could be complicit in a culture that permitted the mistreatment and harassment of women, or we could hold ourselves, our friends and our family members accountable for the misogyny.

We had a responsibility to unlearn.

As boys, we had to learn that all women and girls deserved better than our crude war-room banter, whether it came at camp or from our favorite musicians. We would need to, from that point forward, respect more than “mines.” And as men, we have to pass these lessons on to our boys.

The work of undoing a culture of street harassment, and the work of eliminating rape culture more broadly, requires more male voices like Anderson and Young to engage other men and hold them accountable for their actions. We’re vigilant as we always are with our bodies and our space. We need men in our communities to stand up.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

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Join the Conversation

  • Chris Boese

    What? All people who yell people on the street must be transformed into Ryan Gosling? (Or Rachel Maddow?) Hey Girl!

  • Christine

    You know, weirdly, I’m not sure that I’ve ever been harassed on the street. I’m in my 30s, so I’m certainly old enough. I lived for several years in Manhattan, where I walked constantly. So I’ve certainly been female and on a street in front of men. Yet, I can’t really think of any incidents.

    Having said that, I have female friends who tell me they’ve been harassed constantly since puberty. I’ve also, of course, read many posts/articles about street harassment. So I understand that it clearly exists and is clearly a problem.

    I guess that on some level, this makes me wonder if the truth is that I have been harassed, but I just didn’t notice because I was thinking of other things, I was off in my own little world, … who knows. It makes me wonder how many other people just don’t notice. Because, when you don’t see something, you can’t call out a problem.

    • Kit

      While I can’t say I’ve never been harassed, I know that I experience it less than most other women I know. (Except when I’m cycling, when random men seem to feel a great need to define my sexuality at the top of their voices. No, I just don’t know either.) And harassers don’t tend to target women in the company of men, for the most part, so men’s awareness of it is more likely to be as something that happens to strangers. But I don’t think most men are oblivious to street harassment, they just don’t see it as their problem.

  • miraz

    Great article! I have had many a frustrating conversation with people trying to explain why the “smile” command is so irritating. It is really hard to make people understand. Why is that? I think for me, the most frustrating aspects of it are:

    1. I am usually thinking about something else, and they are distracting me from what I am doing.
    2. It feels like they are saying, “you don’t look nice, you should gussy up your face for me.”
    3. I don’t like talking to strange men I pass on the street… just my personal preference. They tend to think any interaction is flirting, especially smiling, and I don’t want to deal with that constantly. Think about how many creepers would follow you home if you smiled at every stranger you saw on your way to work.

    I once read a submission into Miss Manners, asking what the proper response is when unwelcome strangers command women to smile. I liked her suggested response… (unsmilingly) “Why, did you say something funny?” I am going to try it someday…

  • John

    “But here’s the simplest truth: When you smile at me, I smile back. Or as Tyra puts it, smile with your eyes. Smile with your eyes and your mouth. The immediate response is someone will likely smile back. The exchange is so simple.”

    This is great advice. Although I’ve also had women smile and talk to me when I was agitated. I think they were nervous. I don’t want to suggest that it’s a good thing. It’s not. That’s something that guys should be aware of also and probably worthy of an article. When your trying to catch an elevator at night, sometimes all a woman sees is a man running toward her at full speed.