I heart NY. I really, truly do. However, when I leave to return to school in late August, I know I’ll breathe a sigh of relief. No more constant hot urine smell in the subways. No more swimming upstream against massive crowds heading in the opposite direction. And most importantly, no more constant sexual harassment on the street.
I doubt that street harassment is more of a problem in New York City than any other highly populated urban area where a lot of people walk. It’s just that this summer in New York is the first time that I’ve spent a significant amount of time walking by myself in such an area. I’ve certainly been catcalled, propositioned, and even groped on the street before, but never in such a constant, unceasing manner. In the time I’ve spent in the city, there has not been a single day when I haven’t been sexually harassed in a public place on at least two separate occasions. I’ve also witnessed dozens of other women being publicly sexually harassed.
It doesn’t matter what we wear. I’ve seen creeps yell at women wearing booty shorts, baggy pants, tank tops, and sweatshirts. I’ve seen a Hasidic Jewish woman who was covered in loose garments from throat to wrist to ankle be called “sexy mama”. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it.
Getting dressed in the morning is a constant fight to find a balance between trying not to let these guys have power over me by changing what I wear and trying to practice harm reduction. I can wear the miniskirt that makes me feel so cute and confident, but I’d also better wear bike shorts under it because it’s too easy to slip a hand up on a crowded train. I can wear my hair up even though pony tails are easy to grab hold of, but I need to wear flat shoes that won’t make it hard to run away. I can listen to music on my headphones, but I need to keep the volume low so I can still hear anyone coming up behind me.
Of course most of the street harassment I’ve encountered has been verbal rather than physical, but lone women can never be too careful. Even within the verbal harassment, a minority of it is too graphic and disgusting to recount here. Most of the time it amounts to some creep yelling “sexy legs” or “you need a man?” or my personal least favorite, “hey baby”.
I’ve struggled to explain why I find “hey baby” so much more objectionable and insulting than many of the other much more explicit and degrading comments I’ve received. What it really comes down to is that “hey baby” has no specific goal. When some predatory dude on the street yells, “nice tits” his desired reaction is for me to come over and offer to let him feel them. When he yells, “let me be your boyfriend tonight” his goal is for me to tell him that that would be great and offer him my phone number or some sexual favor or both. When he yells, “hey baby” there is no desired reaction.
The big deal isn’t the words themselves, it’s the underlying message. There’s no point to a guy yelling, “Hey sexy baby” at me out of the passenger window of a car as it speeds past. Even if I was into creepy misogynists and wanted to give him my number, I couldn’t. The car didn’t even slow down. But that’s okay, because he wasn’t actually hitting on me. The point wasn’t to proposition me or chat me up. The only point was to remind me, and all women, that our bodies are his to stare at, assess, comment on, even touch. “Hey sexy baby” is the first part of a sentence that finishes, “this is your daily message from the patriarchy, reminding you that your body is public property”. This so-called “minor” sexual harassment is the tax you pay for daring to exist as a woman in public.
“Hey baby” is the cashier who touches your hand just a little too long and winks as he hands you your change. “Hey baby” is the guy who sits just the tiniest bit too close on the subway when there are plenty of empty seats available. “Hey baby” is the guy in the coffee shop who just keeps trying to start a conversation even while you’re giving one-word answers and pointedly staring at your book or phone. “Hey baby” is too subtle to complain about. If you try, guys will say that it’s not a big deal or you’re just flattering yourself or that they wish a hot chick would say “hey baby” to them. What they don’t realize is that this is second “hey baby” today. Yesterday that guy at the bar trailed his fingers down your spine, and when you looked at him he gave you a thumbs up and a smile communicating his approval of your body and existence. Two days before, you caught a guy at work unapologetically staring at your cleavage. Last week on the bus, a guy just kept pressing his crotch against your ass, and though the bus really was packed, it seemed unnecessary and malicious.
Even the most “minor” street harassment is a tile in your mental mosaic of fear and distrust and vulnerability. Piece by piece, it builds into a picture of some larger violence always lingering on the edge of your thoughts. I’m by no means comparing a guy yelling, “hey, sexy baby” to sexual assault, but the culture that makes this man feel entitled to comment on your body, on your existing in public as a woman, is the same one that makes men feel entitled to sex, and makes some feel entitled to take it by force. “Hey baby” is a symptom of the disease of rape culture.
I do heart NY. I just wish it would leave me the hell alone.
Title from ‘Nasty’ by Janet Jackson