FU and Other More Effective Responses to Street Harassment

I have ranted previously on this blog about street harassment.  Last week I got to rant in front of a bunch of people about the same.  At the DC FemEx event (I've talked about FemEx more here) called Engage. Explore. Empower. I gave the following speech (pardon for some of the adult language, but I gotta say, what I gotta say):


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It's rush hour. Thursday after work on a crowded bus. I find myself, once again, slowly reaching behind me to wrap my fingers around the wrist of the hand that has gently, yet firmly, cupped itself around the curve of my ass.

I grab this wrist, gently, yet firmly, lift it high over my head and announce in my clearest, more authoritative voice: what is this hand doing on my ass?! This man has put his hand on my ass. You, sir, tell the driver to stop the bus. This harasser has put his hand on my ass.

The bus load of people is stunned into silence, all staring at me, except for the man I had just addressed who turns to the bus driver to say “um, I think that man put his hand on that lady's ass.”

The entire bus breaks into applause. They ridicule the harasser. The bus driver calls the police who come and take the harasser away. They thank me for taking a stand against such a dastardly criminal. Someone has caught this whole scene on their smart phone and it is an instant hit on youtube. It starts a worldwide movement of people no longer letting harassers get away with it. I win an award for helping to eradicate street harassment in all its forms. Forever.

I have to admit that this scenario is all in my head. Approaching unwanted grabbing in this way is what the lady at my “Street Smarts” class has taught me to do. I practice this move in the mirror at home. I assure my friends that of course I would do this if anyone were to touch me inappropriately. I show the world my calm, confident, not-taking-shit self, because I am a calm, confident, not-taking-shit kinda lady.

But when faced with street harassment, sometimes my imagination is better at this than I am. What usually happens is:

Rush hour. Monday morning. Walking to the metro feeling good. I am wearing my suit and my heals and my favorite earrings. I am super prepared for my morning meetings. I even remembered to pack a lunch. And then out of nowhere, someone says

Smile for me baby. Why you look so sad?
I mean it, baby. Smile for me.
Bitch. Why you gotta be such a bitch?
Fuck you.

I don't know why, but this surprises me every single time, and I end up responding in one of the same three ways:

My go-to response tends to be: “Fuck you, mother fucker!” which inevitably leads to confirming the harassers' belief that I am, in fact, a bitch and makes everyone around me think I am a crazy person with a lack of self control.

Sometime I try to restrain myself. I turn to a friend or random stranger, and say “can you believe that guy?!?” I tell everyone at work what happened to me. I feel slightly better when people are outraged, but slightly worse when they tell me that it happens to them all the time. I feel much worse when they tell me that they see it happen to other people, too. On the metro, at work, at the gym, while walking their kids to daycare, while hauling groceries to the car, while on a date with their partner to the movies, in front of their parents on the way to freshman orientation.

Most often, though, I walk by without saying a thing. And then, I feel like I have failed all woman kind for not having a witty response at the ready.

Because what I wanted to say was: Pardon me sir, but could you repeat yourself more clearly? I couldn't understand you with all that ignorance in your mouth? I am so sorry that you feel so emasculated by life's circumstances that you need to get your rocks off on trying to bring me down. But here's news for you sir. Your words mostly just make me sad for you and your inability to talk to women in a respectful and meaningful way. Life must be difficult for you.

I would wish him a good day and walk away with my dignity in tact and him having learned his lesson, never to offend again.

The problem is that I thought of this five minutes, an hour, two days too late, standing fuming, gesticulating to myself in the shower. I am pissed I can't think on my toes. Pissed that I feel so unsafe and frustrated and frazzled because of one small person's comments.

I've been told that dealing with street harassment is part of living in this world and in the city. That if I have a problem with what I see that maybe I should take a self-defense class and learn how to respond to a harasser when they bother me.

Yet I have this sneaking suspicion that in this world of 76 cents on the dollar, choices getting smaller, domestic violence, sexual assault victims silenced, and superman that ho, that, hmm, I dunno, but maybe I am not the one that needs the empowerment.

The messages about women we hear every day don't exactly encourage respect. And the fact is that I took the empowerment class. I've taken them all. I know the proper way to respond to harassment. I've been empowered.

But I wish street harassers would take those classes, too. Empower them to find another way to assert their masculinity. Empower them to stop harassing women and show some respect.

I wish bystanders, people that see something happen but don't know what to do, would also take those empowerment classes. Empower us all to find a way to support women in this situation. Empower us all to speak up and tell harassers to stop harassing women and show some respect.

And because things are so much easier to deal with when you know there are numbers of people surrounding you that believe in what you believe in, I would love for you all to feel empowered today and every day to speak up for yourself, for other women, and for passing strangers by saying:

Stop harassing women show some respect.

I said stop harassing women, show some respect.

So now say it with me so we all have a response at the ready for when we are in this situation or see it happening to others: 

Stop Harassment; show some respect