I recently got into a public spat with a male Skyride employee on the corner of 33rd and Fifth Avenue, and it wasn't because he was trying to get me to visit the Empire State Building on my way to work. He called me a "sexy sexpot" (good one...) in front of a flood of tourists on the sidewalk, and I made it known that I didn't appreciate being approached that way by a total stranger.
"That's not respectful or professional," I said calmly, hoping but not expecting him to think twice about attaching offensive descriptions to random girls going forward.
"Oh, shove it," he screamed a few feet away from the large group of people, many of which looked back at me as if waiting for a response.
"Really? I have to 'shove it' because I shot down your advance?" I said before turning on my heel, moving quickly to ignore his high volume followup insults. I'd bruised his ego, and just as quickly as I'd become the recipient of what he believed to be glowing comments, I'd turned into the villain for daring reject him.
This totally unnecessary encounter pretty much sums up summer 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, etc., for me. As any female in NYC can tell you, catcalling and street harassment are year-round problems, but can seem even worse during warmer months, when the oppressive heat forces us to dress down for long stretches of time. As much as I love ditching my gloves, puffy jacket, and tights after seemingly endless rough East Coast winters, I can't believe men think this gives them the right to gawk and stare at women like circus animals from May to early September.
Though I had a rather negative encounter with the Skyride harasser, I'm glad I stood up for myself, and that's what iHollaback, a worldwide anti-street harassment campaign, encourages women to do. The movement, which boasts more than 26K Facebook fans and is active in 64 different cities, allows women to post their stories and experiences with street harassment on the site. Some users upload photos of their harassers, but as spokesperson Debjani Roy told me, not everyone is comfortable taking snapshots of a potentially dangerous street harasser. iHollaback still urges women to hold their own, but only if they feel safe doing so.
"If you're on the receiving end, it's OK to confront the harasser firmly, but don't engage beyond that," Roy told me over the phone. "It happens any time of year, but with more people outside, it might seem to happen more now. Not engaging is important. If you respond, people think it's an opening, and it turns sour very fast."
She reiterated that it's acceptable not to respond, adding, "I find when you ignore them, there's little time for them to respond. When a stranger bothers you, you never know what you're going to get, and that makes it frightening. You don't know what they'll do. Respond if you want, but do it firmly and fast."
Speed is key, especially when dealing with harassers who turn on you the moment you put them in their place, just like the aforementioned Skyride worker. Another strategy, which I don't totally know how I feel about, is making crazy faces at people who bother you. I thought I was the first to come up with this tactic, but as my buddy Crystal pointed out after I blogged about scaring creepers away with ugly expressions, Jenna Marbles proposed the very same thing in a viral YouTube video in 2011, so the comedian was way ahead of me:
I've done this a few times, and though I've left each incident laughing rather than fuming about being violated on the sidewalk, acting goofy isn't always the way to go. Yeah, it can be amusing and even a little empowering to confuse street harassers with distorted and unattractive faces, but if you want to stand strong and emphasize that you won't be treated like that by strangers, you can confront him.
"If you choose not to respond and are still thinking about it later, visit our site and share your story," Roy said. "You will see you're not alone. Not everyone likes taking pictures of their harassers, so you could do something more symbolic, like taking a photo of the street corner where you were harassed or post a picture of your heels and ask 'Did I deserve it?' That can help capture the experience."
You can also use the iHollaback app to document what happened and maybe even shed light on why you may have been victimized, even though it's absolutely never a woman's fault for being catcalled or harassed.
"Many say they're targeted more when they wear brighter colors," Roy said. "Obviously we say you should be able to wear whatever you want."
iHollaback, which is active in 22 countries, has become a platform for women all over, and Roy says many of the experiences are universal, "It's insane, actually, to see how similar stories are from location to location, it really is a global problem."
Late last year, I interviewed iHollaback co-founder Emily May, who won a MAKERS award for her work for the organization, and she agreed that street harassment can feel inescapable: "I think people were just sick of street harassment and wanted a response … People aren’t in public space as much [during winter] as they are in summer, but a lot of people think it doesn’t happen in winter because you’re wearing more clothes, but the truth is you can get harassed in a burlap sack, a puffy coat, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing."
Summer, winter, spring, or fall, you don't have to put up with objectification of any kind in the streets. If it's better for your sanity to shrug off gross, perverse lines from strangers, more power to you. Some of my buddies have told me I'd be a lot happier on my walk to and from work if I just "let it go" every time some sad loser whistles and coos at me in front of his apathetic male friends. I don't like getting worked up, but if it could stop that guy from bothering one woman in the future, I'm happy to do it.
Anything to help end this unacceptable, sexist, degrading trend that should never happen in 2013. We spend so much time patting ourselves on the back for the professional climb of power figures like Sheryl "Lean In" Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, yet we still can't get the male population to stop objectifying, salivating over, ogling, and cornering us in public. As one of the few female employees of PolicyMic, I love heading to my job each morning, but when I get called a "sexy bitch" or something just as offensive three times before even reaching the office, I wonder how our country has failed so miserably at achieving equality in other aspects of life.
Some argue I should be "thankful" for the unsolicited remarks on my looks and use them to boost my ego, but that kind of attention is anything but flattering. It's embarrassing. I'll leave you with this line from another blogger, because it's one of the greatest things I've ever heard and I couldn't top it if I tried: "[G]uys, if you find yourself wanting to compliment a random woman you do not know and who is not asking for your opinion, ask yourself this: why does your opinion on her appearance matter?"
For more on street harassment, women's rights, and social justice, follow me on Twitter: @LauraDonovanUA