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On street harassment: Consent in public space

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

Dude asked me the time. And let me tell you: Getting my phone out for this bastard was a major act of largesse. It was hot, I was cranky, and you know what your mother always says: Honey, no man wants just the time.

But I was floating on a cloud of summer and cranbeer (cranberry juice + beer: WHY DID IT TAKE ME TWENTY ONE YEARS TO TRY IT) and therefore feeling benevolent towards the world and its children. So like the humanitarian that I am, I craned my neck down, pressed the on button of my phone, and informed the man that it was, in fact, three ten. Actually, I think I said three fifteen, because that is a time-telling social convention, and I am part of the universe of humans that walks on streets and sits on benches and helps thy neighbors and tells the time.

And then, he asked me if I had a boyfriend.




You and I were having a perfectly civil human interaction, Coney Island Man! We were homo sapiens sapiens existing peacefully together in public space. We were by a freaking ferris wheel, for Christ’s sake. Is there something I was missing? Was my phone wrong? Was I supposed to ask the boyfriend that hasn’t existed since early 2013 for the time because my measly woman brain was too paltry and small to read four numbers in a row and round to the nearest quarter hour? Was it National Inquire About Strangers’ Relationship Status Day? Are you pre-queer-emojis Facebook?


Dear Street Harassment, Hello! Long time no see! Just kidding, I saw you earlier today. Listen, I have a small question for you: What on earth does my conjugal status have to do with whether it is three fifteen or three thirty? Why is simply wanting to be asked the time and not have it be about my gender, about my body, about my pussy and who’s inside it and whether he could also be inside it a UTOPIAN FUCKING DREAM?

In case you’re wondering, after the dude asked about my boyfriend status, I made a silly waving-him-away gesture while repeating the words “No, are you kidding? Absolutely not” several times until he got the hint and walked away.

I know, I know what you’re thinking. Cold bitch. What if he were the man of my dreams and I totally missed the love of my life because I’m such a gnarled old warlock? Did I just dismiss him because of his lack of game? What if he were Ashton Kutcher, would I have given him the time of day then? Blah blah boohoo.

  1. No.
  3. I’m gay.
  4. Even if I’m not gay you don’t know whether I’m gay or not and you have no idea whether I’m interested in meeting dudes and you have no idea whether I feel like meeting you because I am literally just sitting on a bench, and finally,
  5. No.

Luckily for all of us, this incident speaks exactly to one more aspect of street harassment that I’ve been meaning to discuss with you all — besides that it is inherently based on and propagates unwinnable gendered double standards, and, oh yeah, totally blows.

And that’s this: Street harassment is an interpersonal interaction in public that does not allow for consent. Street harassment hinges on us expecting that certain bodies and identities are always consenting, are definitionally consenting, and thus cannot be violated. And street harassment keeps us in fear by driving home the point that our consent does not matter.

Let’s dissect the “Do you have a boyfriend?” bit to learn a little more!

I found the incident so jarring not because it was particularly offensive or obscene in and of itself (believe me, baby, it wasn’t my first time at the rodeo *bats eyelashes seductively* *flips the bird*) but because it took what seemed like a normal social interaction and inserted sexuality in a way I had given no reasonable indication I wanted. Telling the time — an exchange between humans that doesn’t normally hinge upon our genders, sexualities, and bodies — suddenly became a situation charged with gendered and sexualized vulnerability.

When I offered the guy the time, in fact, I did so with some trepidation: With the fear that wells up in my heart every time I’m approached in public by a man I don’t know. As someone who lives in a gendered body that is often the target of harassment, me telling this guy the time was an act of trust. Him asking me whether or not I had a boyfriend broke that trust. It made me wonder whether I had not perhaps invited his attention. It made me wonder whether I could navigate the world as a normal body, an unmarked body, an unmolested body at all. It forced me back into my vulnerability as a woman. It reminded me that I was queer. It reminded me that the only thing standing between me and his advance wasn’t my choice, but a fictive boyfriend.

What bothered me wasn’t what he said — it was the assumption that he could say it, that because I was a woman my sexuality was relevant to him.

Listen, here’s the thing. There are contexts in which approaching a cutie to strike up flirtastic conversation is totally cool (“do you have a boyfriend” always sucks as a pickup line, however). At a party. At a bar. Certainly at a meetup for available singles. (As long as you back the eff off if the person doesn’t seem to want to talk to you.)

But a lady on the street? You never know where she’s going. You never know who she is. You never know what she carries with her, what she wants. I could have been with my girlfriend. I could have been running late. I could have been a lesbian. I could have been expecting a call from the doctor. I could have been high off my ass. I could have been a CIA operative with explosive diarrhea about to detonate a bomb. I could have just lost my dad.

There is something cruel about forcing another person into the vulnerability of their flesh. I remember the first time I realized that the only thing preventing me from being raped by any of the men that growled at me in passing on the street — the only thing — was their kindness. After that day I couldn’t get it up to feel unambivalently flattered. It’s the kind of thing that makes you fear eyes, that makes you fear the space between men and walls.

It’s not enough to depend on — someone else’s kindness.

It’s funny how my utopia is just being asked the time.

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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