balloons floating away

On street harassment: Asking for it

Ed. note: This post is part of a series on street harassment. Read the first post here.

Most days I am a bitch. Most days I try to be a sharp woman, razor, bird ready to flip. Most days I walk down the street with my bitch face very active. Keep away! I want to shout. My pussy secretes poison! My nipples shoot fire! Touch me and your fingers will burn off! 

Except this is a lie. Most days I try to be a hot bitch. Most days I try to be a sharp woman, razor dipped in honey, finger ready to beckon. Most days I walk down the street with a slight smile. Come here! I want to shout. My pussy secretes magic! My nipples shoot candy! Touch me and your fingers will turn to gold!

When delegates of the Official Street Harassers Caucus do take the bait — a bait I had no control over being; a bait I had no control over wanting to be; a bait I wanted to be — I am fearful. When they don’t, I wonder what is wrong.

And this is precisely the evil of street harassment: It makes us enemies of ourselves. It takes two contradictory things women are taught — be palatable, be desirable, be wanted; be tough, be inviolable, protect yourself — and puts them at odds. There is no proper answer.

So many forms of violence work like this: They pit us against ourselves. The put two inviolable concepts and forces us to choose, with the end goal of our destruction, and then when we fail to live up to either standard, they shrug and cackle Sorry bitch, better luck next life. The evil of street harassment is precisely that we are incentivized to like it, to justify it: Well, baby, at least he wants you. And at the same time, we are shamed for displaying anything but outrage: Walking around like that of course you’re going to get it, what on earth did you think?

We shouldn’t be ashamed of feeling any of these things. Patriarchy and all its fun playpals (give me a cissexism! give me a racism! give me a class hierarchy! Put it all together and what does it spell? LOL you can’t spell, you’re a woman) specialize in fucking with our psychological shit. They specialize in worming into our heads and producing conflicting desires, and then making us feel bad for feeling these desires in the first place.

So as we think about street harassment, I want us to do ourselves one favor: Remember that it’s okay if we hate it, and it’s okay if we don’t hate it, and it’s okay if we want our breasts to shoot both soufflés and baseball bats at roving eyes, and it’s okay to deal with it however we deal with it as long as that dealing with it doesn’t involve shouting racist epithets or blaming people whose neighborhoods we’re gentrifying or reiterating colonialist truisms about the Global South or otherwise reiterating someone else’s oppression because we’re wounded by our own. (Feeling constantly under assault can make us do really fucked up things to other people, and that’s such a normal human impulse.) 

So here is where I locate part of the violence of street harassment: You’re fucked if you ignore it and you’re fucked if you talk back; you’re fucked if you treat it like just a compliment and you’re fucked if you treat it like an act of violence.

That’s what street harassment is supposed to do. That’s precisely how it works. And that’s precisely why it’s so goddamn hard to do away with.

Let’s illustrate these concepts with cool, sexy anecdotes from my own personal street harassment history (TLC special forthcoming)!:

1) I guess it must have been three a.m., and it was raining, and I remember it was raining because I remember thinking she looked so beautiful in the rain, and then a man walking by paused and said Excuse me, ladies and I said Absolutely not, keeping walking, no way in hell. Because I was standing with my girlfriend on a street corner at three in the morning and she looked so beautiful in the rain, and because it happened so often I knew what was coming: Excuse me, ladies, can I interest you in a drink or Excuse me, ladies, do you actually touch each other’s pussies or Excuse me, ladies, do you know where a guy can get some head around here or Excuse me, ladies, but I have to say you look beautiful with the rain running down your skin.

Instead he kind of started back and put his hands out, like whoah, whoah, bitch, chill out. Whoah, he said. It’s not like that. What, you’ve gotten a lot of attention like that tonight or something? I was just going to ask if you knew what bars were still open.

And then I felt embarrassed, overreactive, a harpy, a shrew, embarrassed to have gone off on a stranger in front of her, embarrassed to be rude, defensive. But suspicious, too: Maybe he was about to say something and was just covering his ass. I didn’t know, because one never can know, and because if I had reacted nicely, what, after all, was I doing being queer and femme on a street corner at three in the morning? What was I tempting?

2) There was a time I said yes. I let a man pick me up on the L train to First Avenue. I was eighteen and big-eyed and curious and I was tired of saying no, and tired, anyway, of nobody asking, and I followed a beautiful man to a pub. He wormed his hand up my thigh and told me he liked my hair better down. He was ten years my senior and said You’re too young to drink, but you’ve done this lots of times, haven’t you. I concurred, since obviously it made him feel better to think I literally spent all my time waiting for free drinks from rapey strangers on the L train. When we crossed the street afterward he pulled me by the wrist, he yanked my hair to keep me following him, like it was a compliment, like he couldn’t resist. I wanted him to not be able to resist. I was supposed to want him to not be able to resist. When he kissed me he held me so tight I had to run to get away.

On one hand, wow! That bone structure! I was hot, I was cookin’, I was in business! I was an anonymous bag of sufficiently nubile flesh on the streets of New York City! The world was open to me!

On the other hand, I knew if I went up to his apartment I would have been raped.

And if he had, what else would I expect? Opening my hair for a stranger on the sidewalk. Might as well have been my legs.

So let’s suggest a rule: I think as a rule, any cultural standard that certain people definitionally cannot win by merit of who they are and how they have been socialized is one that should be done away with. Any double standard is suspect. Any double standard means a flaw in the system, and not a flaw in us.

I have a harder line on street harassment than a lot of women I know — I don’t think any of it is nice, though I do think it is culturally specific, historically specific, and contextual. I respect the ways other people conceptualize and deal with this impossible game. But I still think it is impossible.

Part of why street harassment is so good at fucking with us is because it colors all of our interactions in public. We are forever expecting it. We are looking for it, half wanting it, half never wanting to see it again, priming ourselves to respond or not respond, never sure how to answer — neither answer anyway being the correct one.

So if I could, I would do away with it entirely. If it were up to me, I would never be asked on a date in public, no one would ever tell me my dress is nice, even though I like it, even though now I’m like a whack-a-mole just craving to be tapped.

I imagine what would happen if street harassment stopped tomorrow.

For the first couple weeks, it would be bewildering, lonely even, to walk down a street and have no one commenting on my body, my gaze. I would tempt it, my hemlines would recede, I would pile more and more makeup on, I would look men in the eyes expectantly. Well? Aren’t you going to tell me I have nice breasts? What’s happening here?

Slowly it would dawn on me that nothing was going to happen, and a bomb would go off in my chest exploding confetti. I would skip down the street in booty shorts and a nun’s habit, I would throw my hands in the air, I would sing Fergie songs in a shrieking falsetto, wiggling my ass in front of oncoming cars.

My walk would lose its urgency. My eyes would lose their metal edge.

The big ballast of gender I lug around on my ankle, the one that tempers my steps, would lighten, bob, untether, would float away like a helium balloon.

It glides up, up over the police sirens of Brooklyn, hovers at the Chrysler building, hits the Empire State building’s needle top and pops like James’s peach, the pieces come down like colored snowflakes, the helium disperses, the gas shivers in the sun.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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