The Sexist

Why Female Bikers Get Harassed

Yesterday, local cat-calling chronicler Hollaback DC asked for some street-harassment intel: "Have you been harassed on your bike in the DC Metro area?" According to Hollaback, "We have received several stories from individuals who have been harassed by a biker, but have yet to hear from any folks who have been harassed while biking."

The inquiry was sparked by a recent Guardian piece, titled "What is it about a woman on a bike that attracts such unwelcome attention?" Author Jessica Reed, frustrated by the cat-calls she suffered while biking in skirts, resorting to a program of "dressing head-to-toe in black lycra" while riding the city streets. "And wouldn't you know?" she reports. "The catcalling ceased immediately, except for that recent time when I had the incredible audacity to go on a bike ride wearing shorts."

My experience biking in the city has been similar to Reed's, though the harassment I've experienced has been less sartorially-motivated. Usually, just biking while female is enough. And I think I've figured out what it is about a woman on a bike that attracts such unwelcome attention.

It's an easy in. When it comes to picking up women, pick-up artists will tell you that the initial contact is often the hardest part. When your female target is perched atop a big, mobile metal contraption, would-be harassers have an easy way to spark conversation—or harassment. I'd say half the harassers who have targeted me on my bike resort to variations the same line: "Wish I were that seat." Simple, offensive, effective.

Bikers are a natural outlet for road rage. Bikers—whether preventing the driver's ability to drift thoughtlessly into the bike lane, or turn right without looking at who they might swipe in the process—are a constant annoyance to drivers. I've experienced my share of non-sexual harassment while biking as well—but it's a short leap from road rage to sexist verbal bashing. See: General outrage at "women drivers" of all vehicles.

People just love fucking with people on bikes. Pedestrians, too, love fucking with bikers. I have a few theories on why this is true. First, it's relatively effective and low-risk: bikers are close enough to the sidewalk to hear the harassment, but going too fast to bother to start shit. I also suspect that in some circles, biking is regarded as incredibly douchey, and harassing bikers is hilarious. This may explain why, several months ago, a woman leapt onto my boyfriend, laughing maniacally, as he attempted to ride past her. She didn't seem to want money or sex—just fun.

Bike naturally puts your ass on display. Just sayin.'

As a result, the bike serves as a proxy for the short skirt. As Reed points out, certain wardrobe choices tend to encourage harassers. Even on foot, a woman's interest in wearing a short skirt becomes a harasser's invitation—hey, she's not wearing pants, so she must want me to discuss her vagina! While elevated onto a bike seat, the harasser interprets your interest in using an efficient method of transportation that happens to elevate your butt as free vagina access. Most of the time, it doesn't matter what the victim is doing—all that matters is that the harasser can find a thread of justification for the cat-call.

So, what is a girl biker to do? Given my history with biking harassment, I was intrigued by the testimony of Lauren Mardirosian, a D.C. resident who launched pro-bike-helmet initiative "Safety is Sexy" in an effort to look sexier while riding. In March, CP's Tanya Snyder wrote of Mardirosian:

As a recent transplant, she liked flirting with people on bikes, figuring they shared at least that one interest. But she “felt dorky with a helmet on.” Instead of just chucking the helmet, though, she set out to change the reason she felt dorky, launching a “Safety is Sexy” campaign. Her trademark sticker, “You’d Look Hotter in a Helmet,” fits perfectly between the vents on helmets. She says she wanted people to look at someone riding with a helmet and say, “Hey that guy’s hot, he’s wearing a helmet—that’s smart.”

Reed started wearing androgynous clothing to look less sexy while peddling. While Mardirosian took an opposite measure—starting a campaign to make androgynous biking gear seem sexier—I think we can learn something from her tactics. Mardirosian "set out to change the reason she felt dorky." Instead of lady bikers curbing our own behavior—we like riding and wearing skirts for ourselves, not the harassers—I can't help but think we have to change attitudes, not wardrobes. I'm not sure how that's going to happen, but chronicling our bike harassment on Hollaback DC sounds like a good place to start

Photo by mindfrieze

  • Drew

    Nothing to add on the sexism angle, but to be fair to drivers, DC bikers are often pretty douchey themselves. Many rarely obey traffic laws in any consistent fashion (sometimes they decide they are pedestrians, sometimes they decide they are cars, sometimes bikes), and hence add an element of unpredictability and stress. I know many devoted bikers don't act like that, but the problem is that drivers have no way of knowing that you are a contentious biker or not just from looking at you.

  • Amanda Hess

    Drew, true. And Bikers can be douchey from the sexism angle, too: Hollaback DC has recorded several interests of D.C. street harassment committed by people on bikes.

  • Eric

    Drew, this all sounds very metaphysical, but as far as I can tell, bikes are always bikes, not cars or pedestrians. If you have a question about how bikes are supposed to obey the law, you can check out Title 50 of the D.C. Code. Then you will be able to identify contentious bicyclists all over town.

  • just sayin

    "And I think I’ve figured out what it is about a woman on a bike that attracts such unwelcome attention."
    I'm surprised you omitted the bosom - leaning down over the handle bars, sometimes the view is quite charming.

  • Dave

    Drew is right. Most of the negative comments are more to do with inconsiderate cyclist behaviour than with sexual harassment. Most of us have much better things to do than to sexually harass Ms.middleaged-overweight-paisley-skirt-crazy-cat-lady as she huffs and puffs her way to work.

  • Amanda Hess

    Dave, do those "much better things" include harassing women on local blogs?

  • Bob

    "Simple, offensive, effective."

    Effective? Really?

    "...a woman leapt onto my boyfriend, laughing maniacally, as he attempted to ride past her."

    I am not sure what this means, because I cannot imagine any sane person doing this more than once. Are you saying that a person tried to tackle your BF off of his bike while he was moving? Is this happening a lot?

  • Q

    The obvious reason women (and sometimes men) get verbal attention? Cycling puts your entire body on display which is out of the ordinary, unlike being wrapped around sheet metal of a car. Lady motorcyclist and moped riders get similar attention. Cycling also encourages folks to believe you are fit. Primal instincts say that a healthy member of the opposite sex is prime for mating. Add to that bikers are still uncommon here in the US. If we were in China this wouldn't be such a big issue, but bikers are still a minority here.

    Now, adding to that theory, a lady skateboarder would generate even more comments for based on her body being on display and the danger factor.

    No real research needed here, at least in terms of why you get noticed on a bike. The real story here is what's in a man (or woman's) mind to make rude comments like that. Most people who make those comments are simply fishing for compliments themselves. If you objectify them in the same way, they will back off.

  • Q

    My comments got mangled, but I think you basically got the gist of what I was saying:

    1) Biking puts your entire body on display. Skirts, Lycra, it doesn't really make a difference.

    2) Athletic types are suitable for mating

    3) Cyclists look odd to the motorist genotype. They stand out, so thus they will get attention.

    P.S., Amanda, if anything I thought you'd be all over the Marion Barry story. Far more fitting for your column, than the lady with the skirt and spandex leggings on a Schwinn. LOL!

  • Amanda Hess

    Q, I made points one and three in my original post. Again, please read before commenting.

  • Pingback: Biking Harassment Part II « Holla Back DC!

  • Q

    Amanda, I did read your column. Somewhere in your cheeky delivery, the simplistic description was lost. "Puts your ass on display" and "the bike serves as a proxy for the short skirt" only talks to the lower region of a lady cyclist. Point 1 says "ENTIRE BODY", which means, hair, eyes, arms, etc. are all on display. Things that are not covered up by a car's sheet metal. Many professional women cyclists, don't have the "a** factor" or have thin muscular legs, so it ain't all the lower half that gets men's attention. Could be the hair blowing in the wind from under a helmet. Could be the determination in her eyes or pleasant eco-friendly disposition.

    Point 3, was simply talking to the oddity of riding a bike, hence why I mentioned skateboarding too. Heck, I've given a double-take to women on the razor scooters, because of the oddity.

    BTW, people who use the "wish I were the seat" comment wouldn't care if you were on the bike or not. If you're drinking a Slurpee, there's the "I wish I were the straw". Applying lipstick, "I wish I were the applicator". Hugging a child, "I wish I were that kid." Etc., Etc., Etc.

    If you want to discuss Freud and oral fixation, be my guest. Either way, the MENTALITY of the flirter is far more interesting than what women can do to curb flirtatious comments. I'm certain that a woman wearing a cardboard box riding a bike would still get hit it ain't the bike, it's how she rides it.

  • Amanda Hess

    @Bob "Are you saying that a person tried to tackle your BF off of his bike while he was moving? Is this happening a lot?"

    Yes. She attempted to tackle him off his bike while he was moving. While I have heard of neighbors getting mugged while on bikes, I do not think the full-body treatment is happening a lot. Anyone?

  • Drew

    "If you have a question about how bikes are supposed to obey the law, you can check out Title 50 of the D.C. Code. Then you will be able to identify contentious bicyclists all over town."

    I don't have any question about what they are supposed to do (I bike too!): that's not the problem. The problem is never "is this person obeying the law right THIS second" but rather "what might they do NEXT second." This isn't, of course, only a problem with bikes: lousy drivers create the same paralyzing anxiety (is this guy REALLY going to stop at the stop sign?). But bikes are generally a lot more freeform, and the people that do pull zany bike messenger-style weaving stunts ruin that social trust for the rest of us.

  • Quinn

    I think bikers just need their own lil' bike lanes. That way we can keep them off the road with those big ass cars zooming by.

    The women wearing the short skirts on the bikes need to stop.

  • Christina

    I skateboard in addition to biking and I do have to deal with more on the board. Stopping me while I'm trying to get my skate on to tell me you've never seen a girl on a board or to throw out some cheap one liners is soooo annoying. It's not about you and never will be. Google "female skateboarders" look at all the very talented female skaters in the industry and get over it.

    One good thing about the bike is I feel safer riding off with my middle finger in the air if harrased vs if I'm walking. I reccommend it ladies!

    Thanks for the article Amanda makes for good comment venting. : )

  • Raven

    Funny how in our christian society, it is a crime for a woman to sell her body, yet it is perfectly legal for a man to objectify her. Double standard, anyone? I think the problem here was perfectly summed up a while ago by a client of mine. Men feel entitled to our bodies. They resent the fact that we control the pussy that is between our legs. Thus, they seek to rape, blame and humiliate us as "punishment" for having what they demand, a pussy. As for Dave, well, Dave's some old troll ass douche in Brooklyn who is probably a rapist and excels in upskirt photography. Thank goodness my brothers and father isn't like that misogynist douche. Again, punks - since I won't call him what he is not: a real man - feel ENTITLED to our bodies and they demean us out of resentment of the fact that we have control and refuse to be seen - in their chauvinist, misogynist point of view - as lesser than men, as objects for them to conquer, as unqilling sex fantasies who - against our wills - fulfill their every desire. To pieces of shyte like Dave, GO TO HELL!