On any given day of the week Melanie Ennis leaves her studio apartment and steps on to the streets of her Brooklyn neighborhood, there’s a strong likelihood of her being called a “bitch,” “stuck-up hoe,” or verbally abused by a man whose overtures — often quite lewd — she ignores.
Ennis, 25, says she has learned to create buffers around herself so that the verbal abuse doesn’t penetrate her psyche: putting her earbuds on and pretending to listen to music (even though she isn’t) or talking in to her iPhone as if she’s speaking with her mother in Detroit (even though she isn’t). Her tactics work in many cases, until a man grabs her arm and she has to forcefully pull it from his grasp. The salacious catcalls are so troubling that Ennis tries not to process them. She admits, however, it’s difficult to hear someone say, “Damn girl, you thick. I bet you feel good,”and continue walking down the street as if it was never said.
Qachelle Dozier can relate. She recalled one afternoon when a man made his intentions perfectly clear: “When you gonna let me hit that?” Courtney Hayward told me that she also deals with men on the street constantly catcalling her and finds it frustrating.
“It’s kind of annoying, because I’m just minding my own business, trying to shop and look around,” Hayward, 21, told me during an interview on Fulton Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. “I know I look nice, dress a little sexy, but sometimes you just want to be left alone.”
But during the two weeks I’ve spent speaking with more than two dozen women in New York City about street harassment, many of them said they feel powerless to fend off men whose advances are almost always unwelcome. No matter how humiliating it can be for a woman to have a random man ask, “Can I lick your p*ssy,” it’s not illegal. Some of the women I’ve interviewed tell me all they get is a shrug from the beat cops they approach to complain about it.
While interviewing women on the street, alone with a female videographer, several men who passed by could not resist walking in to our space — literally within inches — just to take a closer look at the bodies of the women I was speaking with. This, to me, had more to do with just a general curiosity about two reporters with large cameras; these men felt a territorial comfort invading the space of women, even with a male reporter present. One woman told me that a man grabbed her arm just minutes before I approached her for an interview. Soon after, another woman I spoke with told me she had just been harassed.
According to a recent study commissioned by Stop Street Harassment (SSH), 65 percent of women in the United States reported being harassed in the street by men, 57 percent of them report being verbally harassed, while 41 percent claim they were physically assaulted. Holly Kearn, the author of the study and founder of SSH, told me that street harassment, as an academic subject, is in its infancy and that few comprehensive studies on the issue have been conducted. But Kearn said what is known so far is that there is no set profile of a street harasser; it isn’t germane to race nor does it have a direct link to any economic class.
“Street harassment does seem to cut across all economic spectrums, from the man on Wall Street to [men in] lower-income areas,” Kearn said. “I think lower-income men may be more visible as harassers because they may be out on the street more, whereas wealthier men may be driving places or not hanging out on the streets in the same way.”
But regardless of who the street harasser is, Kearn says it’s directly linked to male privilege.”Men feel entitled to everything and everyone because they’re in such a position of power in society and that includes women’s bodies,” she said. “They just feel entitled to seeing or touching them. And then for men who may be more marginalized, harassing women may be a way for them to try and feel powerful, to try to put someone they see as lower than them down.”
The Attack On Black Women
The issue of street harassment isn’t new, and woman have taken to Twitter to express their frustrations over it, using hashtags #StreetHarassment, #YesAllWomen, and #NotJustHello to coordinate the dialogue. Melissa Harris Perry, perhaps American’s most well-known feminist, uses her weekend show on NBC to lead discussions on the issue, and Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh started a visual campaign called “Stop Telling Women To Smile” that has made national headlines.
But during my reporting, I found that, while women of all races experience street harassment, the online assaults against Black women are particularly harsh and seem coordinated. The following tweets are just a small sampling of the vile rhetoric aimed at Black women:
negro bed wenches, are yall ready for tomorrow?
And some even come after me:
Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, says the vitriol doesn’t surprise him at all nor does the refrain from men that they don’t see street harassment as a serious issue. For many men, Neal said, it’s viewed as a rights of passage activity.
“It becomes one of the ways they can articulate their sense of their own masculinity,” he said. “One of the ways they can articulate their sexual virility, their own desirability. In so many cases when we talk about men and their desire for women, it very rarely takes into account women’s humanity.”
Perhaps the most visible online voice speaking out against street harassment against Black women — and, arguably, the most targeted by trolls — is Michelle, known on Twitter as Feminista Jones. Her Twitter timeline and comments section on her blog is, at times, a continual stream of the most-vile language imaginable, including threats of rape and other forms of violence. She doesn’t use her full name on any of her writing because of it.
Michelle was 11 years old when she had her first experience with street harassment. On a late night after leaving school in the Bronx, she heard a man saying, “Hey, girl. I wish I could get some of that” and “ooh, work it, girl.” Standing at nearly 6-foot-0, Michelle had the body of a grown woman, but she says if you look at photos of her from that time, she clearly had the face of a child. But she says it did little to stop the man from following.
“He acknowledged that I was young because he said something like, ‘Hey little girl,’ or something where he [indicated] that I was underage,” Michelle recalls of the incident. He eventually stopped his pursuit, but that would be one of many she would experience for the next two decades of her life. She is also a victim of sexual assault, something that exacerbates her street harassment experiences.
“For me, street harassment is somewhat of a trigger,” Michelle told me one Friday evening near Union Square, Manhattan. It is one of the areas she regularly receives unwanted attention from men. “For a long time, I was able to block a lot of it out. I’ve learned defense mechanisms. I’ll wear my headphones. I’ll keep my head down or I’ll wear a scowl on my face that kind of says, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ But a lot of times, it still gets through. It’s still the comments. It’s still men walking entirely too close to me and whispering in my ear or hissing at me or ‘damn, girl. That shit is phat’ or ‘look at that ass.’”
For many women, street harassment traumatizes them to the point that they constantly change the routes they walk to work or choose to jog for fear of running in to men whose verbal advances may turn physical. But what if you are a teenage girl on her way to school? There aren’t too many routes you can take. Three weeks ago, I ran in to four girls between the ages of 14 and 16 and asked them how often they were harassed by men. Not only did they say daily, but they told me the men don’t care about their age.
“He’s old enough to be my grandpa,” one girl said of a man who tried to get her number. None of the girls looked a day over 16: One wore a backpack with a cartoon emblem on the front pocket. Another wore a chain with a large “Barbie” nameplate hanging from it. Their attire screamed, “Child! Child! Child!”
How Do We Stop Street Harassment?
Getting men to see that referring to a woman’s body in a sexual matter as street harassment and not a compliment isn’t a simple task but Neal, whose scholarship has focused on gender dynamics, said reverse psychology may get some Black men to realize the wrong in their behavior.
“You have to get men to think, ‘What if the positions were switched,’” he said. “What if we were to take it outside of gender or talk about it in the context of race. How would most Black men feel if those catcalls were now coming from White men — who they obviously might have viewed as more powerful — who are commenting on every little move that they make and then it strikes a chord when you place gender in this race context.”
Veralyn Williams, the communications organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center, said that her organization’s anti-street harassment working group, No Disrespect, has spent the last year discussing their experiences with street harassment and has recently launched a new Central Brooklyn initiative, No Disrespect. In the future, No Disrespect wants to create male groups that can serve as allies to help spread the anti-street harassment message.
“The next step is for the male allies to advise us of how they want to spread that work among men,” Williams said. “We want to leave it to them to talk to other men and we will be a support as far as laying the groundwork on the definition of street harassment and how we see the issue. Our goal is to change the culture of our community as opposed to criminalizing this behavior.
Many of the Black women I spoke with were very resistant to criminalizing street harassment. As much as they despise the sexual comments directed at them, their cultural affinity kicks in, as if they do not want to create another excuse for the criminal justice system to disenfranchise Black men.
“They’re are brothers, in a metaphorical sense and quite literally, this could be my homegirl’s brother bothering me on the street,” Anthonine Pierre, a community organizer at BMC who is also working on the “No Disrespect” initiative, told me during a phone interview. “When you’re talking about neighborhoods of color, we don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Half of our neighborhood is bothering us, so we’re just going to fight them or refer to them in a derogatory term. We can’t treat y’all the same way because you might be the same dude on my block who will protect me when the cops come by.’”
“I love my brothers, more than anything,” she said. “The last thing I want is to see them locked up or mistreated by police. This isn’t about criminalizing Black men– I’ve been harassed by White men, Latino men, Arab men, too. This is about wanting to feel safe as a woman and asking Black men, my brothers, especially, to not make us feel unsafe and to treat us with respect.”
It’s an interesting point. Would White women moving in to predominately Black neighborhoods under rapid gentrification, for example, feel the same sense of cultural affinity or be equally reserved for calls to criminalize street harassment? The question is important because it can reveal how complex reactions to street harassment are and how vital it is for organizations to fund a variety of studies that question how different ethnic groups feel the problem can be addressed.
Watch women talk about street harassment here:
Michelle believes getting directly involved while a woman is being harassed can discourage the behavior. Over a month ago, she noticed a woman being harassed by a man on 125th Street trying to sell her his mixtape. Michelle, who was walking several feet behind them with her young son, said the woman politely declined, saying she had no money. But instead of leaving her alone, the man began asking her intrusive questions: ‘Where are you from? What’s your name? Where do you hang out?’ The woman was pushing a baby stroller, but that didn’t stop the man from following her an entire block. He was walking inches away from her at this point. After some quick thinking, Michelle decided to take action.
“I walked past her, looked in to her eyes, and I said, You OK, Sis? And she smiled, looked at me, and said, ‘Yeah, I’m OK. I’m OK. I got this.’ And I felt like she did. I just wanted to make sure. I wanted to be in that moment in case she wasn’t. I wanted to give her an out. And I called her ‘sis’ to have that familiarity,” Michelle said.
She never made eye contact with the gentleman selling the mixtape, but Michelle says the man was very angry at her for “interfering in his business” and that all he was trying to do was “feed his daughter.” The woman went about her way, which is what Michelle wanted to accomplish: divert the attention from the victim on to herself. But the man, who she says looked no older than 21 years old, was still very angry about her intervention, calling her a “nosy old b*tch.” Michelle took a moment to compose herself over concerns her son would see her react in a violent matter. Michelle determined that the man wasn’t a danger; he just wanted to complain. During their exchange, she sensed that the young man was frustrated because she may have viewed him as dangerous or a criminal. Michelle tried to explain that she wasn’t trying to criminalize him personally but wanted to express how his actions could be perceived.
Her words didn’t seem to resonate.
“In that moment, he didn’t understand that randomly grabbing a woman on the street or following her all the way down the block past the point where she said, “No,” was a problem,” Michelle said. “All he saw was, ‘He’s trying to talk to this woman, and I interfered.’”
Most women likely would not have been as patient with that young man as Michelle, but she has no problem taking the lead on street harassment. She started the hashtag #YouOKSis? in an effort to help organize women on Twitter, especially those of color, to express their frustrations over their street harassment experiences. Besides being a safe space for women to open up, she also hopes the hashtag will be used to help women and men learn how to help women they observe being harassed on the street.
“We have done so little to address it,” she said. “People have accepted it as a normal thing, and I think what we’re seeing now is women saying, ‘No, we don’t want to deal with this anymore,’ and I think because of social media and online awareness, we have more and more people speaking up about their experiences and thinking, What can we do to stop this? I’m not alone. I don’t have to deal with this alone anymore. So now I think this is the time to focus on this particular kind of harassment because it’s happening across the world. And, as someone who has dealt with it for over two decades, I feel like I can be a voice to try to help women who have not fully processed the effects it’s having on them.”