[Trigger warning: Street harassment]
I was standing outside a bar tonight, chatting with a couple of guys, normal “nice to meet you” chit-chat sort of stuff.
It’s Halloween week, so a lot of the college kids out partying tonight were dressed in costumes. One girl walked by in a dress with the bodice covered in wrapping paper and a bow by the shoulder.
One of the guys I was talking to told her, “Hey, I like to unwrap presents.”
She, as I might have done, just kept walking. I knew how she must have been feeling, though she didn’t show it, that sinking sensation that comes when you’re out having a good time with your friends and then out of nowhere someone harasses you.
Do you know, men, what it’s like to not feel safe in a public space? To know that half the people you’ll run into think, if only subconsciously, that they own you? That they have a right to an opinion on you, and they have a right to tell you that opinion in whatever terms they feel like?
Since I’d been having a conversation with this guy, I couldn’t let his behavior go unchallenged.
“That was pretty creepy,” I told him.
“What?” he replied.
“Just because a woman exists in a public place doesn’t give you the right to comment on her,” I said.
He and his friend looked a little confused. He said, “But she was dressed as a present…”
I explained, briefly, what it’s like to be a woman. How you don’t feel safe when people harass you as you walk by. I explained that it is never under any circumstance okay to make a comment like that to a stranger.
He tried to push back a little bit. “But, it’s Halloween. You’re telling me I can’t comment on peoples’ costumes?”
“But you weren’t,” I said. “You told her you wanted to unwrap the present, basically what you were saying is ‘I want to take your clothes off.’ Even if that’s what you were thinking, it’s not okay to tell her that. It’s just not a respectful way to interact with anyone.”
By now he was looking a little ashamed. “I didn’t really mean it like that…”
“I know that’s probably what you were thinking, but you just can’t tell her that.”
“You’re right,” he admitted. “I guess I don’t always think, like I should really be more sensitive to these situations.”
His entire tone, his manner, the way he was conveying how ashamed he felt conveyed to me that he was actually getting it, that he didn’t want to be creepy and had just said the first thing that sprang to mind without giving it any thought. I got the sense that he really was a better person than that, simply from the way that he was owning up to his privilege and trying to understand what I was saying.
“Still,” he said, “you’re saying it’s not okay to make a comment on someone’s costume? Like, at all?”
“Well no,” I conceded, “but you can do it in a respectful way that doesn’t make someone feel like you’re being creepy.”
“So, could I have said, nice bow?…wait, like, what could I have said?”
At this point i was really feeling encouraged. He seemed to truly be getting it and trying to think about ways he could do better in the future.
“Maybe you could have said something like, ‘hey that’s a really creative costume, nice job,'” I suggested. “That might work.”
The conversation wound down, we went inside and parted ways to find our respective friend groups and some beer. But I feel like we both learned something. He learned about harassment culture and how women don’t find sexualized comments on their clothing to be at all okay, and I learned that sometimes, harassers speak out of ignorance, out of a lack of thought, rather than out of malicious intent.
I’m not saying all street harassers are relatively innocent players in a system they don’t fully understand. Absolutely not. Some are just terrible people. One time I was standing outside the same bar and an older guy walked past, looked me up and down and said, “You’re looking good tonight” in the most creepy of tones. I glared at him, full on evil-eye. He said, “Oh I know, so hard to deal with us men and our comments. Well maybe we wouldn’t say these things if you didn’t dress that way.” I shouted after him, “Oh, yeah, I was hoping someone would harass me and then slut-shame me for it tonight! Just what I needed!” That guy wouldn’t have listened if anyone had tried to explain to him what he was doing wrong.
But if you’re hanging out with someone and they say something unacceptable, don’t assume they were really intending it exactly the way it sounded, or they’re active and willing participants in systems of oppression. Sometimes, confronting a person and explaining the situation to them in terms they maybe never thought of before really does help. Sometimes, what begins as a one-off comment by an uninformed person can turn into a perfect opportunity to help them see life differently. I started out confronting this guy pretty strongly but when it became obvious he was open to learning, I tried to come alongside and lead him toward a better way of thinking.
Look for those moments. And don’t see yourself as superior, just realize that your perspective can broaden another person’s horizons and build their empathy. It is possible, if we’re all willing to teach and willing in our own turn to learn, that we can all help each other build a safer, more respectful society.