*Photo courtesy Patrick Devries
I was walking down 8th avenue in midtown Manhattan yesterday when I saw an elderly man lying on the curb with his arms and legs splayed at odd angles. He wasn’t moving and his eyes were closed, and a young woman nearby told me that he had fallen. She already had her phone out and had dialed 911, and I was looking at the man to gauge his condition and see if there was anything I could do in the moment. Just then, a young brother approached me, got just a little too close for comfort, and said “Damn ma, you’re beautiful.” Really? Standing over an elderly man who had fallen on the street? I rolled my eyes and tried to maintain my focus. He raised his voice: “Yo, I SAID you’re beautiful though!” As I turned to look squarely at him and give him a stern We’re Not Doing This Right Now look, another young man approached me on my other side and loudly said “Yo my friend is just trying to talk to you, ma.” This made me whip around sort of goofily, and my shock at the inappropriateness of the situation increased exponentially. They went back-and-forth between talking to me and talking to each other: “I don’t know why she won’t talk to you…” “I’m just trying to get to know you Miss…” and on and on, loudly and rapidly.
They were well-kempt and casually dressed and might even be called physically attractive if they were images in a picture and not two guys standing way too close on either side of me and yelling. They didn’t happen to use any of the profane, vulgar language that I usually hear. The words they used might even be called respectful if they were words on a page and not being shouted at me. At six feet tall in my Nikes, I was taller than each of these guys. I was wearing modest gym clothes and I knew I could run or fight back if it came to it. It’s not always about fear. In that moment, it was about disgust. Crippling hatred of the fact that with street harassment, there is truly no way to win. I could have shouted louder than them, but I was trying to focus on helping the fallen man if I could. And there were two of them. Physically push them away? No. And I don’t want sympathy, because in this real-life circumstance there was an actual human who had fallen in the street and certainly that trumps two assholes who won’t leave me alone. Or does it? The fact that I can ask that question sums up my problem in that moment. Was I really being stopped from trying to help an elderly man in need of aid by these two wastrels and their uncivilized carrying on?
My “best” recourse would have been to walk away and leave the man lying there. I was not doing anything particularly heroic, someone else had already called 911 and was still on the phone with them; I was just expressing concern and seeing if I could help. The two guys only acknowledged the man lying in front of us once, with a glib “Ol’ dude’s gonna be alright, I’m just trying to know you though…”
All at once, the elderly man started to stir, a police car pulled up, and I stomped away without a look back. The guys yelled after me, but they stayed put and I willed myself to not hear them. I was angry and wishing I hadn’t stopped in the first place but also ashamed at my wishing I hadn’t stopped. So, an effort to assist someone became a disgusting encounter that left my heart pounding.
I shouldn’t need to tell you what I was wearing. I shouldn’t need to tell you what they were wearing. Or their race. Or how much makeup I had on at the time. Or any other details, really. But the ugly truth is that I will.
I fear that many of my sisters, the true social crusaders who fight against street harassment and other societal ills daily, will be upset with me over that. But if you are reading my words, then please know that I appreciate you. And as such, I will not lie to you. I am at a point where I will tell you any detail that I “shouldn’t need to tell you” if it will help you understand that this is not okay. What “should” and “shouldn’t” be has left the building. I’m dealing with what is.
And what is, for me, is that I don’t feel safe walking one square block alone in the city in which I was born. Not even in a “safe” area like where I was yesterday in the middle of the afternoon in gym clothes and no makeup. I grew up here and I’ve been dealing with this since I was a little girl. I’ve moved across the country in part to get away from it, and as an actress, I go back and forth between NY and LA. Three weeks back in NY this time around and the street harassment feels relentless. Having been through it before, I knew it would be an issue, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Street harassment is not a compliment. It is not cute. It is intrusive and it is upsetting and it is making me hate men.
I don’t want to hate men. I think that some women actually do hate men, to be completely honest, but I am not one of them. At least not yet.
I want to work with you, men, and continue to see the good in you over the rotten apples that spoil the proverbial bunch. I implore you; please speak to your brothers, your friends, and your sons. Please have those same heart-to-heart conversations with yourselves as well. If you’re shouting at a woman, you’re not paying her a compliment. If there is a genuine attraction, you most likely won’t have to shout. We have eyes that can take you in as well, but the more harassment goes on, the more likely we are to activate our invisible blinders. Believe me; your true love will not pass you by on 8th avenue if you don’t scream HEY BABY HEY MA WHAT’S GOOD at her. Street harassment is about power, not romance. Genuine attraction feels different than harassment to us, please trust me on this. Or ask for details on how I can make it clearer to you; as I said, I really don’t care about right or wrong anymore in terms of what I “should” tell you, I just need this to stop.
I was followed on the street by a man on my very first day back in NY. Since writing more for both this site and other websites, I’ve considered doing a “Weekly Street Harassment Spotlight” or some other such thing to share the more noteworthy instances. But the honest truth is that this is not fun for me. I am in what I believe to be a privileged position of being paid to write and I would gladly give up that pay if it meant I didn’t have to deal with continued street harassment and therefore could not keep writing about it.
Still, as long as it keeps on happening, I will address it in whatever way I see fit. For a true leader in the fight, I invite you to learn about activist and TWiBNation host Feminista Jones’ #YouOKSis movement, spreading awareness of street harassment, violence that has been suffered because of it, and how to safely intervene as a bystander. It has to get better, and we need your help.