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Smile, Sweetheart

Dismantling justifications for street harassment

By Nian Hu

It was seventh grade, and I was walking to the bus stop with my friend. We were in a heated argument about a TV show, and I was frowning at something she was saying about one of the characters. We were in middle school, and this was serious business.

“Damn, sexy ladies!” A chorus of whistles followed. A group of men were sitting on the stoop across the street from us, wearing dirty denim and even dirtier grins. One of them looked directly at me. “Smile, sweetheart!”

Our conversation ground to a halt. We boarded the bus and sat next to each other, suddenly uncomfortable. I pulled my school skirt down past my knees, and she tugged at her shirt to cover the area where she would one day have cleavage. We exchanged glances, and in that moment, I saw my friend as the sexual object the men saw her as, and I felt like one myself, reduced to nothing more than a pair of tits and an ass.

I am far from the only woman who has experienced harassment at such an early age. Around 85 to 95 percent of women experience street harassment before the age of 17. Not only do most women first experience street harassment as minors, but they also continue experiencing it over and over again, until it becomes a normal part of their lives. Over 99 percent of women have experienced street harassment.

When a man yells, “Good morning, beautiful!” across the street at me and my friends, or when a group of teenage boys honks at us and whistles at us from their car, or when an old man sitting across the train from us smiles and licks his lips and rubs his crotch, we just breeze right by, continue our conversation, or look away—unfazed, or at least pretending to be unfazed.

Yet, despite affecting so many women, the extent of street harassment is often questioned. In a viral video, actress Shoshana Roberts is shown walking through New York City, wearing a simple T-shirt and jeans and minimal makeup, receiving endless come-ons, cat-calls, and demands. Many viewers didn’t see harassment, however. They saw men being polite, they saw men offering compliments, they saw a frigid bitch who didn’t have the decency to say “thank you” or flash a quick smile to the nice men complimenting her.

But there’s one problem. “Damn, sexy!” and, “Hey, beautiful!” are not compliments. If these nice guys just wanted to be nice, why weren’t they also complimenting other men? You’d be hard-pressed to find a straight man whistling after another man and telling him he looks great. Catcalls are not compliments; they are signs of ownership. Street harassment has nothing to do with politeness and flattery and everything to do with the idea that public spaces belong to men, and that when women impose their presence in a public space, their bodies belong to men too and invite critique and commentary. There’s a reason why the majority of women report feeling angry, annoyed, disgusted, nervous, and scared when catcalled. Those are not typical reactions to compliments, and there’s a simple reason why: catcalls are not compliments.

Part of the reason why catcalls are so distressing is because they are unsolicited and unwanted. But many people see things differently. Viewers of the viral video saw a woman wearing too-tight clothing and too much makeup, a woman begging for attention from men and then screaming harassment when she got that attention. After all, why was she even wearing makeup or fitted clothing if she didn’t want to draw attention to herself?

Here’s a theory. When women wear makeup or clothing, they do it to express themselves, to feel good about themselves, or maybe just because they want to and they don’t owe anyone an explanation for what they choose to do with their own bodies. Women don’t dress their bodies in the hope that a strange man on the street will whisper, “Oh, so sexy,” to them in passing, or give their ass a quick squeeze. Women don’t walk down the street waiting for someone to notice their taupe eyeshadow or skinny jeans. They walk down the street to get where they need to go, just like everybody else.

But at the end of the day, street harassment seems like small potatoes in a world where women are regularly beaten, mutilated, and raped. The catcalls are rude, perhaps even degrading. But harmful?

Yes, actually. Street harassment amounts to more than just a few passing remarks—it perpetuates the idea that women don’t control their own bodies. This idea is integral to a rape culture in which sexual assault is pervasive and normalized. And indeed, though most women experience street harassment in the form of catcalls or whistles, many women also experience groping, grabbing, having their paths blocked, being followed home, or even outright assault. A whistle or catcall is not a physical attack, but it reflects the same sense of entitlement over women’s bodies that could easily lead to one.

“Smile, sweetheart!”

No, I will not smile for you. I did not dress myself today to be a pleasing sight as you walk to work; I dressed myself to go somewhere. I am not walking on this street to look pretty for you; I am walking on this street because I have somewhere to get to. I do not owe you anything, not even a smile. The streets belong to both you and me, both men and women, and I will smile for myself and myself alone.

Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, lives in Mather House.

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