flatbush and fenimore.

there are women out there who reject the term feminist, and i just cannot understand why.

there was a time when i was semi flattered by passing compliments on the street. i don’t mean classy compliments – which i’ve only ever received once, a few years back, and it is a golden little memory that i treasure. but i mean the trashy, low class, sleazy comments. there was a time when i thought, “well, at least i’m pretty enough to comment on. i guess.” i was always, however, irritated by random strangers, usually men, insisting that i smile. “smile, it can’t be that bad.” dude, you know precisely jack shit about me and my life. you don’t know if i have cancer. you don’t know if i’m on my way to my mother’s funeral. you don’t know if i have a blister that really hurts and i need to get home and take my shoes off. you do not know anything, and perhaps you should keep your opinion of what i should be doing with my face to yourself. perhaps you should just leave me alone and let me be. i wondered if this attitude made me unfriendly, and if the smile army had some kind of point.

i didn’t understand until recently that the term for this behavior is street harrassment. i didn’t understand that it is not at all a comment on how attractive you are – it’s a comment on the fact that you, as a woman, are obviously there on the street for a man’s appraisal and approval at all moments. it’s a threat. it’s to make sure you know your place, you know that even running an errand or getting home from work, you are not safe from an unwanted advance. i didn’t understand that commands to smile are commentary on how women, to some, should always be pleasant and pleasing, and how dare i be anything but. i didn’t understand that this phenomenon is a direct result of institutionalized patriarchy and repression. now, i do.

most of the time, i know the wisest response, the thing that will not cause any ruckus, is to walk right on by and not engage. and you know, deep down, i’m just really not ok with that, not even the tiniest bit. that is a tacit agreement that this behavior is ok. that you’re somehow allowed to assert yourself in my sphere of existence in an offensive way and that i am somehow ok with it. i am not fucking ok with it. and so, i’ve taken to shouting back at street harrassers. it really depends on how frustrated or stressed i am with other things going on, how i’ll react.

today there was a group of 3 guys standing around on a stoop as i walked home from the train. i honestly can’t remember everything they said as i walked by, but the smile commanding was part of it. it’s rainy and the first day back after a long weekend and hot and humid and disgusting and yes, i shouted back. i asked them why they thought anyone cared what the fuck they had to say. i shouted at them to shut up. i kept walking, turning around to yell my replies through more and more raucous laughter and more and more comments. there was a woman walking next to me – i looked her in the face, but she kept her eyes dead ahead and wouldn’t meet my gaze. i accept that i possibly seemed like an insane person, but that too was a sad reminder of how alone i was in the moment.

i barely turned my corner before i was letting out small gasps to keep from crying. in my anger, i thought some nasty racist, classist things – that’s shameful and not ok, but it’s the truth. i thought about carrying an umbrella, or better, a bat with me every day, so i could stop ineffectively shouting and instead start ACTUALLY responding when these things happen. less shameful, but still a little shameful and also true. i thought that i would really like to get out of this neighborhood, and why don’t i have the money to do that? i felt disgusting, ugly, worthless, and stupid. i considered walking back to where they were, tears in my eyes and trying to explain why this is fucked up, why it’s not ok to do this to women, to anyone. and i realized i would look even crazier, and they wouldn’t care.

i walked in and tweeted a few things about it and several of my friends were kind and supportive in return. the bouncer came home, was surprised to find me so upset, and also seemed surprised when i told him this is not the first time something like this has happened, though it doesn’t normally escalate. he wondered why i hadn’t told him about any other time. and i answered, “because it’s just a thing that happens.”

he told me right away that if i feel unsafe we should not be here. and i don’t. i don’t feel like anything bad will happen to me and i don’t feel in danger. i am sad that i can’t just make my way home from work peacefully. i’m sad that the world we live in allows and and supports this bullshit behavior. i’m sad at how remarkably shitty it feels to be on the receiving end of it, when i’d love to just brush it off. i’m sad that my response, my anger, my disallowance of it is a joke to them. i am just something to be laughed at.

i’m tempted to, but i won’t apologize for how issue ridden and feminist ranty this is of me. maybe similar things have affected you and maybe they haven’t, but tonight, this tore at my soul a little.


14 thoughts on “flatbush and fenimore.

  1. I am so glad you wrote this. And I’m juiced up with the kind of anger that makes me want to yell at them too right now.

    Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to help Myron understand what it’s like to not actually feel safe in some situations, and how it’s different for a woman. He too would probably wonder why you hadn’t said anything before… and I completely understand keeping it to yourself. I mean, even these good men, Dominique, there are things they just can’t get.

    I love the idea of you getting out of that neighborhood so much. I’m hoping you guys can make it happen. For what it’s worth, people (men, women, my elders, my family) have always felt the need to tell me to smile when I wasn’t doing it, ever since I was a kid. It pisses me off; it always has. I own my pissy moods and my distracted moods and my fucking flat moods. They have nothing to do with anyone but me. And I’ll smile when I feel like it.

  2. I’m definitely a yeller. An unapologetic, particularly articulate at this point full out curse you under a bus yeller when this stuff happens. I’ve yelled at men doing it to other women and men doing it to me. My hope is that I shock them enough to think about what they’re doing but sometimes they, like your harassers, laugh instead. I wish I had the answers but I don’t.

    I try and nudge men (and the boys and girls I taught) in the right direction but whenever it happens and whenever I hear stories like yours I feel sort of disjointed and disengaged. While maybe that particular type of harassment won’t happen in a better neighborhood it will just be a different type. We live in quite a fancy, upscale place now and I still get harassed though now it’s more subtle or stranger or different. It’s not something just low class, ‘bad places’ with lots of violence share. It’s ABSOLUTELY engrained in the entire system.

    I think it’s really hard even for good men to disconnect that the things they’re been raised to do (seeing women as things for them to view) and not even baseball bats will reverse years of media, peers, and social norms. Though I too wouldn’t mind craning a few people in the face, it might help ME.

  3. I wasn’t regularly on the end of street harassers until I moved into my current neighborhood, and now it is almost a matter of fact that it will happen when I leave the house. Everything from the ever-charming sucking noises to the “smile!” thing (which if I’m to be completely honest makes me the most murderous of all) to detailed commentary on what, exactly, they’d like to do to me.

    It can really get inside of your head and fuck with your desire to engage with your community in any meaningful way. I’m counting the days until we leave this neighborhood (still MONTHS away), because I’m tired of having to weigh the “can I handle the bullshit today” that runs through my mind each time I have to walk around my hood by myself. It’s certainly easier to be out and about when Jared is with me, but shockingly, that doesn’t completely make it go away.

    I have an old friend who, when we lived in Pittsburgh together, refused to wear skirts or dresses, or lipstick or heels. She said it was easier to dress in baggy clothes (“Like I don’t give a fuck…”) rather than deal with the unwanted attention. I hate that this is a place that some of us retreat to, that we even have to fucking think about it.

    I’m seriously looking into getting a taser, though. Just in case.

  4. Your second paragraph sums up exactly WHY it feels horrible to be treated this way by men. Sure, they think they’re just commenting and some guys may even think we like it – I’ve never been able to explain why it makes me feel so degraded. There is a huge difference between being genuinely complimented by a man, and being harassed. Until men can tell the difference, and teach their kids the difference it’s going to continue being a problem.
    My neighbourhood is pretty good, but I get off the bus right by the above-ground train and this is where I get a lot of comments. Most of the time I’m dressed in work clothes (read: skirts, dresses, heels) and I remember at my old house, I never walked to down-town, even though it was close, because I’d have to pass near a seedy area and was always afraid of the comments.
    It’s really sad.

  5. more and more women are coming forward with their own stories of street harassment. it’s definitely not okay and most of the time i act like i didn’t hear what people said, but it does affect me, and it’s shitty that we have to deal with it.

  6. Good for you for yelling back. I think it’s better than just taking it and I always get so flustered that I can’t come up with anything useful to say. I hate it and it’s not okay and I’m glad you’re speaking out and FUCK YES FEMINISM.

  7. You are awesome for yelling back. Why is it OK for guys to treat women this way? I hate it, I really do. And I’m sorry you have to deal with it on a regular basis.

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