You know what I hate?
The impression that I’m lying, or exaggerating, or taking things too seriously when I speak out against street harassment. The most common response from people (usually men) who doubt me, is that I just don’t understanding flirting.
This response is more revealing of them than me, though. Because while my naysayers would like to believe that I, and women like me, are upset over some friendly flirtation, street harassment is a reality of cruelty, verbal and physical violence, fear and degradation.
One example? My friend and I were waiting to cross the street when a car whipped by and the driver leaned out his window to scream “SLUTS!” Why? Because we were standing on a street corner? Waiting to cross the street and go out for dinner with our friends? Because we were women in public? As a reminder that we can never be in public simply as people? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t flirting.
Of course, this example is mundane compared to the street harassment that escalates into violence, such as the 14-year-old girl who was run over for refusing to prostitute herself. Or the woman who was stabbed for refusing to respond to a harasser.
Harassment that doesn’t escalate into violence, and the defense of it as “harmless flirting,” serves to create a framework for this violence to occur. How am I supposed to know that the man who followed me down the street won’t pull a knife or gun on me if I don’t smile at him? As feminist Soraya Chemaly wrote, “If your way of flirting scares and repulses people, then you need to stop and find a new way of flirting.”
Either the naysayers are in denial that this is an issue, or they’re looking for an excuse to continue harassing and dehumanizing women.
I suspect it might be both.