November 9, 2014

WALSH | Word on the Street

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By CONNA WALSH

It first happened to me as I was walking on a busy street in my small upstate New York suburb. As I waited at an intersection for the “walk” sign to blink and the stream of vehicles to cease, a car pulled up next to sidewalk at the red light. I heard someone in the car shout, “Hey, where’re you going?” As soon as the light turned and I hurriedly crossed the street, the car slowed down to match my anxious pace — “No really, where’re you going? Wanna ride? Look at that ass!” I escaped this nerve-wracking interaction by ducking into a nearby pizza parlor. I was 14 years old.

By now, I am sure most of you have observed the frenetic discussion on street harassment that has gripped the Internet for the past few weeks. The catalyst was a video created by the non-profit organization Hollaback that recorded a young woman walking around New York City and getting harassed repeatedly by people on the street. While this video does have some serious issues — including all the comments made by white males being edited out, leaving only evidence coming from men of color — it does shed some light on what it is like to exist in this world as a woman.

In the video, the woman is constantly commanded to smile, receives numerous instances of “Damn!” and “Hey, baby.” She is even followed by a man for five minutes down the sidewalk.  Among the recorded comments are some that at first seem innocuous — “how are you,” “good morning” and “have a nice day.” Devoid of context, these are indeed innocent and polite remarks. It is indeed possible that some of the men who said these comments in the video just wanted to be nice. But do you really think the men in the video were saying these “nice” things to men walking by on the street? Many people attempt to use these seemingly innocuous comments to lure women into a conversation that usually turns into harassment.

Additionally, there is a fear factor to all comments heard on the street, whether it’s a “nice tits,” or a “how are you.” Because women learn from a young age that being alone on the street can be extremely uncomfortable and possibly dangerous, all remarks are automatically construed as potential threats when coming from men they don’t know. Think about the guy in the Hollaback video who followed the woman on the sidewalk for five minutes. He started off by saying, “God bless you, have a good day” — seems innocuous enough, right? His behavior suggests, however, that his intentions were not innocent at all. There is no way to tell if someone means you harm, regardless of what they say to you. Yes, the vast majority of people you encounter don’t want to hurt you — but not knowing when you’ll run into someone who would hurt you makes every second even more stressful.

Some of my male friends have admitted that they have trouble empathizing with this situation simply because they’ve never experienced it and they don’t know what it is like. For those of you who fall into this category, consider the following situation. There is an NFL player convention in town, and the streets are flooded with large, strong people who could easily overpower you physically in every way. As you walk down the street, the players keep commenting on your watch. “Damn, that’s a nice watch!” “Hey, I really like your watch.” “I want a watch like that!” You have no way of knowing if they are trying to compliment you, or if they’re trying to threaten you. To avoid these threats, you can pull down your sleeve or put the watch in your pocket. You can hide your watch, but a woman can’t hide the fact that she’s a woman. Keep in mind, however, that the threat of losing material possessions is not equivalent to the threat of losing bodily autonomy.

With that, let us briefly address the clothing question, even though it truly has no legitimate place in this conversation. Women get harassed while wearing sundresses, and women get harassed while wearing burqas — a garment designed for the highest degree of modesty possible. Clothing doesn’t matter. Plus, last time I checked, walking outside in whatever clothing you want is a basic human right.

Harassing someone for being a woman, however, is not. A woman existing in public is not an excuse to comment on her body, lewdly or otherwise, and it’s certainly not an excuse to touch or assault her in any way. It is not normal behavior to treat a woman like a thing instead of a person. It makes me cringe when people drag out the old excuse that, “boys will be boys.” I think it is incredibly insulting to the men in our society that it is assumed that they are unable to control their words and actions. All people are capable of self-control, and operating under the assumption that 50 percent of the population should not be held accountable for their actions is insulting and wrong.

All in all, there is nothing wrong with trying to talk to a woman or even giving her a compliment. There is, however, an appropriate time and place for that. If I am at a café or a bar or in some other socially-oriented situation, I will welcome a conversation with a polite person. But if I am walking on the street going about my daily business, I don’t really feel like talking to anyone, let alone a guy who is telling me to smile.

Because I am confident that all men are capable of self-control and rational thought, here is my advice to you — the next time you see a woman on the street that you find attractive, consider that your comments on her appearance or her body, no matter how “nice” or positive your intentions are, will probably make her feel uncomfortable, self-conscious and unsafe.

Conna Walsh is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at cwalsh@cornellsun.com. A Word with Walsh appears alternate Mondays this semester.