The Sexist

Streets Without Harassment

Last year, a friend of mine moved from D.C. to Philadelphia. After a year in Philly, she noticed something odd: "I don't get street harassed. At all. Ever." She writes:

So I've been in Philly close to a year now, and I've noticed something here that I wanted to talk to you about: I don't get street harassed. At all.  Ever.  I know it does happen here, I've heard stories from lady friends, from dudes with girlfriends, on the news.  However, I've walked around a lot of different neighborhoods in shorts, skirts, and tank tops here and no one has ever said anything to me.  Like, I've walked down the sidewalk towards a group of men, braced myself for a comment, and then not even gotten a "hello."  It is awesome.

I'm sure it has a lot to do with the fact that a) Philly is super affordable and I spend most of my time in relatively safe, middle-class areas and b) I drive a lot more often than I walk or take public transit.  But still, in DC you get comments in all neighborhoods, and even when driving I would get guys pulling up next to me in their cars and saying shit.  Not here.

Anyway, so I think this might be why you get so much resistance when you write about street harassment.  Outside of DC it's uncommon for men on the street to proposition you or touch you.  I can see now how someone wouldn't understand how a "compliment" can be threatening—it just doesn't happen in most other cities.  Have you heard this from anyone else outside DC?  Any idea why?

So: Has anybody else lived in an area that's seemingly devoid of street harassment? Um . . . any vacancies?

Photo via the Library of Congress

  • b-bop

    I will just say it's really annoying when you're walking in sync with the garbage truck to catch a bus. I feel like a character in a cheesy movie about the 50s made in the 70s.

  • Cass

    Jesus son: This is just me personally, but I'm fine with normal compliments (i.e. non-sexual ones). I'm fine with someone saying 'hi' or trying to make small talk or whatever. Where I think it crosses a line is if someone is doing that but doesn't back off or becomes hostile when you make it clear that you aren't comfortable with or interested in the conversation.

    The other main verbal thing that crosses the line (I think fairly obviously) is sexual comments or gestures from people you don't know, or don't know well. Drunkenly telling me that I have nice legs and you wish my skirt was shorter so you could see my ass, or saying 'hey baby' while miming that you want to grab my boobs, is not okay.

  • Rose

    I live in Seattle, and it's been pretty good to me. When I had a bus stalker I felt comfortable enough on the metro to tell him to fuck off and know someone would step in if things escalated. He didn't come back again. :)

  • Qu’appelle

    I've never lived in a place where street harassment hasn't occurred, including getting physically grabbed (Berkeley, CA and San Francisco) followed down the street and harassed in multiple languages(Chicago, IL).

    Ironically, however, now that I live in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Oakland harassment is much less common than in other places I've lived. Maybe because most people seem to know one another here. A similar situation to Harlem, perhaps?

  • Sarah No. 13

    Katie! I'm a central Illinoisan, too.

    I've received next to no street harassment in my 24 years, and I'm not sure if it's just the specific area I'm in or the fact that the town where I live is not public transportation or walking-friendly (e.g. I drive much more than I walk).

  • Amy

    Man, I'd like to know what part of Philly she lives in. Possibly on the more nicer outskirts of the county, but I'd be surprised if it were in the urban parts of Philly. It's always a nice surprise when I can walk through Philly by myself without getting any sort of street harassment, but I usually get at least a 3-5 instances anytime I walk somewhere for more than 5 minutes. Now that I've cut my hair really short, I've gotten slightly less, but not as much less as I was expecting.

    To Jesus Son: Generally it's things along the lines of "hey, baby" "hel-lo" or "daamn!" while they give me a look over. It's very rarely just a friendly "hello," like something you would say to a friend or family member, but I'd say the line is crossed when they have that tone in their voice that says they're checking me out.

    But sometimes I do get genuine compliments. Today a man said "excuse me. No disrespect intended, but you should model. You should really model" and then went on his way. That was nice. But the things that people say to me are generally sexual in nature, and I can't escape it short of leaving the city itself.

  • Valkyrie607

    What's up, Snarky's Machine! We're in the same town! I think Burlington has too much of a granola ethos for guys to get away with much street harassment, though I have gotten groped while in bars.

    Philly, well, in Philly I got harassed a fair bit. I think it had to do with me being a white girl in a black neighborhood. I'm sure that street harassment changes depending on how the men perceive the women they're harassing, i.e. whether they seem like they belong or are out of place somehow.

  • Golden Silence

    I think it's a case of "different strokes for different folks" because some people will complain about harassment in one city, while someone else will say they had no problem living in that city.

    The harassment I've faced in DC has been beyond awful. I got it in my hometown in Western New York, but never to the magnitude I have in DC.

    A lot of people talk about NYC harassment being bad, but in my few visits there it wasn't that bad. I got the dumb catcalls, but was never stalked, insulted or physically threatened. I never felt scared to walk alone, regardless of the time of day.

    Santa Fe, NM was a good experience for me because the week I was there I only remember one truck honking at me and some homeless kid who asked me for money then said he wanted to take me out on a date. Compared to the DC area where it almost happens every day, it was a breath of fresh air to get a temporary reprieve from major harassment.

  • prowlerzee

    wow, I don't know what part of Boston Phira lives in, but Boston has little to no street harassment. In fact, I've known women to leave Boston because the men are so far from forward.

    NYC, on the other hand, is a city of forward men.

  • EmilyBites

    I live in the UK, in London, and it seems pretty bad here wherever you go - it's the product of an attitude that men in general apparently share.

    What's bizarre about this thread is the number of people who differentiate between polite/friendly/complimentary/nice harassment and rude/overtly sexual/threatening harassment. It's all part of the same thing - men do not check you out on the street because they consider you a person, they're doing it because that's what women are for. Window dressing for mens' lives.

    Whether it's punitive harassment like 'Hey, you stuck up bitch' or sexual in tone like 'Nice tits!' or intrusive like 'Hi, your dress is pretty', men who do this know exactly what the effect is, and exactly how they are reinforcing an atmosphere of threat and an attitude of compliance in women. It's just like the 'smile' phenomenon. A man who becomes hurt and aggressive because his 'Hi there, how are you?' is rebuffed knows exactly how he and his buddies in that country enforce that women's bodies and personal space are not their own, that they can be invaded, threatened and harmed at any time - and disingenuously pretending harassment of any type is a compliment is pointless. It just reinforces what a woman already knows: that women's bodies are public property. Excuse me for not enjoying my daily ladysmackdown.

    I've been lucky enough to travel all over the world and there wasn't one country in which I wasn't street harassed - and that was even when I didn't understand what men were saying to me! Different towns/cities in the UK have been pretty much the same because of the same pervasive inequality.

    Let's leave this dirtball...Mars, anyone?

  • PharaohKatt

    I live in WA, so no USian or European (yay for different experiences!)

    In Midland, Maylands, Perth and Northbridge I always got/get harrassed all the damn time. Everything from "hey sexy" to people yelling obscenities at me, and once had someone follow me home.
    But in Wembley, Glendalough, Osbourne Park, Subi, Crawley, Nedlands it's not happened at all.

    Question for you: Mace is illegal to carry here, so I have a small, hand-held can of spray-on deoderaunt in case of attack. Anyone else do that? I also walk with my keys out if I'm alone after dark, which I hear is pretty common.

  • Kit-Kat

    EmilyBItes--I guess I just have a different take on it. I agree that pretending harassment is a compliment is stupid, but I don't agree that all compliments are harassment. I've lived in places where people routinely greet others they pass on the street, male or female, and it's just sort of part of the culture. Plus, sometimes the random complimenters are women, often asking where I got my shoes, and it has to be possible that men might also randomly compliment women without ulterior motives. I figure that I don't know the guy who just said hi or good morning or awesome shoes, and maybe he really does just talk to strangers a lot.

    For me, the proof is in the guy's reaction to being being ignored or rebuffed. If he really was just trying to be polite and I don't answer, then he will just let it go, because that's what you do when you don't feel entitled. If he gets aggressive and angry, then he wasn't trying to be nice, because nice people don't call you a bitch because you didn't say hello.

    That said, sexual comments to strangers are not compliments, ever, and I agree with you that the guys who say them do not really mean them that way.

  • Michael Hatfield

    Let me offer one tiny criticism on the issue of street harassment. It's not so much that I disagree with you, I just think you go a little to far and there are some fine distinctions you don't make:

    1. If a guy sticks his head out a car window and yells, "show us your boobs," that guy is a street harasser. He isn't looking for sex or romance, he's just trying to get a laugh out of his friends. That guy is a rude asshole.

    2. A guy comes up too you and tries to start a conversation, or tries to flirt with you. That guy is probably looking for romance or sex. That doesn't give the guy a free pass to say or do whatever the hell he wants, but flirting is not on it's own an aggressive or harassing behavior.

    Most people understand the difference between the two. Now I realize that sometimes your busy and a random guy starts flirting with you on the train, and it's annoying because you're doing something else. It doesn't make him a bad guy, it's just your not interested. People come up and talk to me when I'm busy and need to get stuff done all the time, it doesn't make them bad people either.

    The problem with feminists is they refuse to see the other side of issues. A lot of the people on here who complain about street harassment have the same attitude as the guys who killed Matthew Shepard. They are furious if they ever receive unwanted sexual attention, or what could be sexual attention. If you get angry when people you aren't attracted to flirt with you then you are the one with the problem not the person who is flirting with you.

  • mayfly

    Well, aren't we all glad that Michael Hatfield is here to tell all us little ladies what the problem with feminists is? Not wanting to be bothered while going about your business is just like tying a guy to a fence and torturing him to death!

  • Emily H.

    I live in Nashville. Street harassment has happened to me many times, but it's NOTHING compared to what I had to put up with when I lived in D.C. I don't expect to get yelled at, whistled at or followed when I leave the house, and I was actually having trouble coming up with an example of the kind of harassment that exists. (Somebody wolf whistled at me a couple days ago.) When it does happen, it's not v. threatening, and not graphic/gross like the kind of comments I used to get ("hey look it's the pussy parade," "bitch you ain't got no ass," absurd questions abt whether I had a man or not).

    I am not surprised that someone might say she hadn't been harassed in a different city. No one lives in a feminist utopia, so if you've avoided ALL harass-y interactions it's probably by lucky chance, but in most cities the culture & environment isn't anything like D.C.

  • Cass

    To Michael Hatfield:

    I don't consider your second example to be harassment. I consider that to be small-talk or flirting, which is sometimes nice, and sometimes annoying. Either way, though, you're correct that it's not in and of itself harassment. However, if I make it clear that I'm uncomfortable with the line of inquiry and he either continues against my wishes or becomes hostile about it, I do consider that to be harassment.

  • Michael Hatfield

    "However, if I make it clear that I’m uncomfortable with the line of inquiry and he either continues against my wishes or becomes hostile about it, I do consider that to be harassment."

    Bingo. That is exactly right it has to be harassment to be sexual harassment. I think the fact that this has to do with sex clouds people's judgment. If we treated sexual harassment the same as any other harassment we would all have a much more reasonable approach to it.

    "Well, aren’t we all glad that Michael Hatfield is here to tell all us little ladies what the problem with feminists is? Not wanting to be bothered while going about your business is just like tying a guy to a fence and torturing him to death!"

    Well I'm happy your not going around killing people who annoy you, congratulations. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson felt that any unwanted sexual attention was a violation of their rights, that is the exact same belief that many feminists have.

    I'm not an anti-feminist I just believe people need to think carefully about the consequences of their beliefs. If a guy tries to make small talk and you rebuff him he's done nothing wrong, if he keeps trying then he is harassing you.

  • Xenu01

    In Philly I dealt with more street harassment than I have ever dealt with in my life. In the seven years I lived there I had to put up with everything from "What are you reading? Must be good." (that second part comes after you grunt and continue to read your book) to a man following me carrying a sack of something smelly and demanding quite loudly and profanely to purchase me, at 9:00 PM on a busy Friday night from 2nd street to El Vez on 13th, where I ran inside and hid for almost 45 minutes in the bathroom.

    The scary thing was not the harassment. It was the fact that not ONE TIME did someone step in to help me. Not once.

  • Kelly

    I moved from Bethesda, MD to a small suburban town outside of Houston. It's taken awhile to figure out why I'm so much happier here, even though the politics and people are so very culturally different. I don't get street harassed. Ever.

    I've heard complaints from friends who live on the other side of town, but even those are few and far between. In MD and DC it happened daily and I was afraid - daily.

    Thing is, men have approached me to talk and ask me out. But they go away when I decline. They don't attempt to follow me home. They don't yell at me and call me a bitch for declining. They just move on with life. Perhaps I'm just living in a nice area of town?

  • Michael Hatfield

    "Thing is, men have approached me to talk and ask me out. But they go away when I decline. They don’t attempt to follow me home. They don’t yell at me and call me a bitch for declining. They just move on with life. Perhaps I’m just living in a nice area of town?"

    It could easily be a cultural thing, Washington DC is 90% black and they seem to have the most aggressive street harassers.

    It seems African Americans are just more forward about their sexuality then whites.

  • Teaspoon

    ...and MH moves from sexist mansplaining to racist generalizations. Not cool.

  • M

    ^^ Sadly, it's totally unsurprising. Eo did the exact same thing on one of the posts about prison rape, and also spends a lot of time talking about the "erasure" of heterosexual men's voice. Funny how these types all subscribe to the same sort of hierarchical value judgments that put straight white guys at the top, eh?


  • Michael Hatfield

    "…and MH moves from sexist mansplaining to racist generalizations. Not cool."

    Wow someone disagrees with you and you call them a racist.

    Different cultures have different standards for what is appropriate behavior, how is that racist? What did I say that was sexist? Oh yeah that's right you don't actually justify your accusations you just call other people names.

  • Carmen Delia

    "It seems African Americans are just more forward about their sexuality then whites."

    I've discussed this with black girlfriends starting in college and continuing to the present, and THEY have found that to be the case. My parents concede that in our Latin culture, men call out to women more frequently, too. Maybe I'll get my liberal-woman-of-color-feminist card revoked for agreeing with my loved ones and Michael Hatfield, but whatever. That's been my experience living in urban areas and dealing with harassment--it's been mostly men of color (Latinos, South Asians, African-Americans, Africans). White guys have definitely harassed me and groped me, but they weren't in DC (it was NYC & medium-sized cities in FL).

    It can be a matter of proportions of the population: if you have more people of a certain race or ethnicity, there's a greater chance that men of said race/ethnicity will harass you. If more people drive, then it's more likely that jerks will choose automotive harassment as their sexual-harassment option.

    RE: women who've expressed anger/confusion about guys harassing them when they're pregnant or wearing a parka: I've been similarly confused by harassment when I'm wearing a full-length winter coat. I've found that if I'm wearing pants/leggings and cover up my hips, booty and full thighs, I don't get harassed. Weird coincidence, but true. If I wear a dress, I'm generally left alone, though I'll sometimes get compliments from men and women.

  • Niveau

    "I live in a major city in Canada, and in my experience is has been uncommon. I’ve been yelled at a few times (and the comments have sun the spectrum from “my son thinks you are hot” to “bitch”), but no one has ever tried to touch me, and the comments are not the norm."

    Same country and experience for me, maybe even same city. It happens once or twice a year, tops, and even then it's not aggressive or particularly rude. And I wear a skirt and heels most of the time.

  • Maggie

    I used to live in Toronto, and I got harassed a lot. Probably partly because of the area I lived in, but it got so bad that I was scared to walk home from the subway station.

    Then I lived in Peterborough (about 80 000 people, 2 hours east of Toronto), and I'd get harassed there too.

    Then I moved to Ottawa, and I don't get harassed.

    It's odd.

  • erika

    Yeah, not sure what part of Philly the friend is living in. I think Philly is pretty well known for harassment in general-- in particular, people yelling from their cars at anyone, male or female.

    My new (not so) favorite thing is people driving slowly next to me while I bike and accosting me the whole time. I just started biking and once that happened I realized all my friends who bike are guys, and surprisingly enough, none of them have had this issue or thought to warn me about it. Cree-py. "Put that bike in my trunk. I'll take you home." YEAH.

  • DB

    8 years ago, i moved from Philly (south of South) to DC

    Harassment there? Yes. In DC, i've perceived far more and what harassment I've observed often takes to the more severe--same floor, higher ceiling.

    Harassments don't all have the same motive. Some people are just being assholes. Some people are actually trying to be pickup artists (of a low class variety). Some think they are supposed to boisterously express sudden extreme attractions. Maybe there are other kinds.

    To be harassed, one must be near persons willing to harass.

  • Jennifer S.

    I live in Seattle and have used public transit all my life, and have endured quite a bit of harassment. All of my high school friends who lived in the South end like me have had this experience, usually more, though I've talked to women who grew up in the more northern parts and have never really experienced it. Anyway, I've been touched but not really groped per se, but sometimes (mostly on the bus when you're already in close quarters) men would grab my hands or put their hands on my legs while talking to me. The worst experience I've had was waiting for a bus in the University District in the middle of a Saturday, when a guy sat down next to me in the bus shelter and started to make small talk with me. When I stood up to walk away he asked to hug me, and I think I let him, but then he wouldn't let go of me and kissed my neck before I could get him off me and run away. Uggggh.

    Anyway, it's gotten to the point where I'm a) pretty rude in public, and b) regard any strange man who tries to interact with me and isn't telling me I dropped my scarf or asking for directions or something as a creep. I wish I could chat up interesting looking hobos like my male friends, but it's just not going to happen.

    I also contest the whole "but don't lump in innocent flirts with sexual harassment!" complaint. There are obviously some situations where guys are just being hurtful (i.e. yelling things at you from cars) and situations where they genuinely are trying to get into your pants, but my experience of those situations aren't that different. 95% of men who flirt randomly with girls in public are totally inappropriate, like 30 years older than them or something. Even if they would genuinely like to marry me (yes, I've heard that one) or whatever it's still unwanted sexual attention that makes me less comfortable in public. Besides, there are worlds of difference between someone who wants to talk and someone who's just talking to you because you're sitting 6 inches apart and she can't get away. When I'm flirting with someone, I make eye contact and smile. I've had 20 minute long conversations with guys where I haven't smiled at all or spoken in anything other than a monotone because I don't want to take the risk of getting them mad and I'm just trying to kill time until my stop. Some commenters would probably file that under "just flirting," but the experience is as uncomfortable and threatening to me as a lot of more direct harassment...

    Thankfully, I'm 23 now and the harassment has actually dropped off a lot in the past couple years. It's really, really, refreshing. Most of what I get nowadays is guys asking me what I'm reading. (Hint: They're not interested in what I'm reading. One time I told a guy I was reading Mansfield Park and his response was, "Jane Austen, huh? Those books have... a lot of dresses... right?" Then he complained to me about how he hadn't been able to meet any women since moving from Italy until my bus came.)

    uh, for demographic purposes, I'm a relatively thin white girl. I'm ok looking but no super model, and I don't regard these incidences as any kind of compliment.

  • Angela

    I live in Edmonton, Alberta, and I get harassed constantly.

  • Betty

    I dress weirdly but modestly most of the time. I've lived in several countries in Europe, Canada and several cities in the US. I've been street harassed in every single one of those places. I've been street harassed in every city I've visited as a tourist. Let me say that again. Every. Single. One. Including Philly.

    From the age of thirteen I have been harassed. I have been harassed while wearing a short skirt and heels. I have been harassed while wearing baggy sweatpants and a hoodie. I have been harassed while wearing a winter coat. I have been harassed even though I don't shave my legs or under my arms and I have been harassed when I die. I have been harassed with long hair and with short hair. I was harassed before I developed breasts and after.

    I have been harassed while with my parents which was dismissed as something people do in the middle east. I have been harassed with teachers on high school class trips which was dismissed as something people do in Europe. I have been harassed walking down the street in America, which is just something boys do because it's summer. I was harassed in the UK and it was dismissed as something the lower class does. But I've been harassed the most by young, middle to upper class, white men.

    I've been harassed by boys of every race, colour, class, religion, and nationality. You know what the common denominator was? They were all men. It's not a city thing, it's not a race thing, it's not a cultural thing. It's a "your body is in public so I feel I have the right to comment on it and put my hands on it" thing.

    I'm a cisgendered, ablebodied, white (though I am asked constantly where I'm from and have been mistaken for pretty much every race by people of that race), curvaceous (which is totes a metaphor for being easy doncha know. Skinny girls are out of your league but the ones with an ass will fuck you. Amirite?) conventionally attractive female (but with piercings! and a funny dress!) and you know what: I am not here for your fucking entertainment.

    I will add that I am very willing to talk about the way I dress (I go steampunk or goth a lot of the time). I will tell you about the subculture. I get told I look like someone else a lot, and that's totally cool, I would make a great spy. I will chat about just about anything, because I am a friendly person. I will talk about my earrings (all 15 of them) and piercing in general, and I will look at your tattoo, and I will listen to your story about your grandkids, or your dog, or your girlfriend or neighbour or what the hell ever. I love talking to strangers, it's genuinely awesome. I do not love being shouted at, touched inappropriately, told I have "blow job lips", asked for sex, offered money for sex, asked if I am pierced anywhere else. I do not like being whistled at. I do not like being shouted at out of cars (also, dude, Doppler Effect, I can't understand you). I do not want to kiss you. And when I turn you down, politely, I do not like being called a bitch, a dyke, a racist, a classist, etc. etc. It's not because you are XYZ or because I am XYZ, it's because you're an entitled dickhead and I am not your fucking entertainment.

    And now I feel better, because that's something I've wanted to say for a long time.

  • Betty

    Apparently I have been harassed when I die.


    Whoops. I believe the word I was grasping for was "did"

  • WER

    wow, i live in philly and that is not my experience at all. i get harassed almost daily, in center city, west philly, where ever. it's not as bad in nyc, where people would comment graphically on different parts of my body, but it is still pretty relentless here, and i'm ftm trans, my friend who's cis and pretty femmey says she gets harassed multiple times everyday.

  • Jeanne

    My experience in DC has been similar to the email-writer's experience in Philly... I've had very few problems with street harassment in the 12+ years that I've lived here. But I grew up outside NYC and then I lived in Cleveland for five years, and street harassment was a huge problem for me in both places. It subsided when I came to DC, for reasons I have yet to figure out (and I've thought about it *a lot*). I have no idea why certain people have trouble in one city but not another; all I can say is to those fortunate women who've found a place where they don't get bothered are very, very lucky!