Reader Beatdown: Why Street Harassment Isn’t a “Bad Neighborhood” Problem
Chloe Angyal has been cat-called all over the world. She's been harassed on the streets of Sydney, Paris, Bali, and New York, in the suburbs and on her stoop, near taco trucks and on college campuses. In this edition of Reader Beatdown, Sexist reader and feminist writer Angyal writes that street harassment happens everywhere—and that claiming catcalls only occur in "bad neighborhoods" only helps to excuse the real causes of gender-based harassment.
"I guess it’s just the neighborhood, right?" said a fellow yogi as we left the studio one night last week. I had been walking toward the glass exit door of the building after yoga class, my hoodie unzipped to reveal a sports bra and bare midriff, when I saw a gaggle of men standing just on the other side of the door. A taco truck parks outside the studio every night—the scent regularly wafts through the windows as we strain to hold warrior pose—and the men had been partaking of the cheesy, meaty goodness.
Not wanting to invite their attention, I turned around and quickly zipped up my hoodie. "Whoops, I should probably do this up," I said to the girl behind me. "I’ve been cat-called enough already today." It was then that she offered the suggestion that the odds of experiencing cat-calling and other forms of street harassment were worse in this neighborhood than in others.
My neighborhood, Sugar Hill, is in north-west Harlem; it stretches from 145th Street to 155th street, between Amsterdam and Edgecombe Avenues. Most of its residents are Black or Hispanic, many of them recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic or West Africa, and despite slow gentrification, for the most part the area remains economically disadvantaged. Across the street from the yoga studio, a beautiful old public school with a carved bust of Minerva over the entrance stands abandoned, its windows boarded up or broken, plywood construction scaffolding wrapped around it to keep squatters out. There are homeless people on the streets, and on windy days, St. Nicholas Avenue, one of the neighborhood's main arteries, is strewn with trash. In other words, this is a “bad” neighborhood, the kind of place you’d expect to be catcalled if you’re a pretty, young white girl. That’s just the way things are, my fellow yogi seemed to suggest, in this poor, largely non-white neighborhood.
I have been cat-called and harassed on these streets almost every day since I moved here last July. It happens as I walk to the subway and in the grocery store as I buy beer and one day a few weeks ago, on my own stoop the moment I walked out of the house to go to work. But I have also been cat-called and harassed all over this city and all over the world. In Sydney, in Paris, in Bali, in “bad” neighborhoods and in “good” ones. So when my yoga classmate sighed in a “what do you expect from these people” sort of way, I knew that she was wrong.
The misconception that street harassment only happens in “bad” areas is a common one. People of both sexes tend to brace themselves, to keep their wits about them more than usual, when they’re in “rough” neighborhoods. But as Sexist readers noted last week, street harassment happens in almost every city in America, and not only in areas with higher poverty or crime rates. A person’s chances of being mugged are higher late at night are probably higher on St. Nicholas Avenue than they are on Madison Avenue. But a woman’s chances of being catcalled or harassed are probably much the same everywhere in this city.
At Duke University, reports sociologist and gender studies scholar Michael Kimmel, “the frats have these big benches (as in gigantic and oversized), and they face the major walkways on campus, and so the guys gather and hold up numbers rating the women walking by, or loudly evaluate them.” My mother remembers experiencing something similar when she and a few hundred other women became the first women to attend Yale as undergraduates in 1970: As the women walked through the dining hall with their trays, the male students would hold up score cards to indicate how attractive they found them. Clearly, the harassment that I endure on the streets New York doesn't just happen in rough neighborhoods or in foreign countries; it happens on the manicured green lawns and crisscrossing walkways of some of the nation’s most exclusive universities, too.
Growing up in Sydney, Australia, my first experience of street harassment was in Chinatown, as I walked to dim sum with my family. A few weeks later, it happened again, this time in the wealthy suburb where I was raised. That was my first lesson in the unpleasant reality of street harassment—like domestic violence, or alcoholism, it knows no socioeconomic bounds. And our willingness to believe that it does, our persistent cultural myth that it only happens in rough neighborhoods, makes it harder to eradicate than it already is.
The week that I spent in Bali, Indonesia, was my first exposure to a near-constant stream of cat-calling, street harassment and leering, usually from men twice my age. I was thirteen, and by the end of the week, I was too miserable to leave my hotel room. My mother, who has worked all over the world and knows a thing or two about dealing with street harassment, did her best to cushion the blow. When men would yell obscenities at me from across the street, she would pretend to misunderstand who their target was, giggling like a woman half her age and saying, “Oh, I’m so flattered!” During the summer I spent living in Paris, the cat-calling wasn't quite as bad, but I, along with several of my female friends, were groped on the Metro.
Jazmine, a classmate of mine who grew up in Queens, experienced the worse street harassment of her life when she visited Cairo last year. “Though I tried hard to be respectful, I found that every move I made on the Cairo streets was followed intently by devouring eyes . . . At first I was flattered by the longing gazes, but I soon became extremely self-conscious," she writes. Soon, though, “self-consciousness led to intimidation and I tried to hide from the stares and frequent marriage proposals that followed them." But it didn’t stop at leering and declarations of love, Jazmine says: The friend she was staying with had stones thrown at her by a gang of little boys because she dared to wear a t-shirt on the street. The staring, the jeering and the violence took their toll: When Jazmine came back to the US, she felt emotionally exhausted, worn down by the feeling of having been stripped of the ability to move freely and express herself in public. "I returned home a slightly broken version of the Jazmine I once was."
We are not unique, Jazmine and me. We are not alone. A look at Stop Street Harassment’s map—and a survey of their street harassment stories from around the country and around the world—suggest that Sexist readers were correct in their assertions that there are few places on earth where women can escape the stares, the comments and the obscenities screamed from speeding cars.
Street harassment happens everywhere, every day, and the myth that it can be avoided by staying in "nice" neighborhoods or developed countries obscures that reality. The myth allows us to blame women for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It allows us to tell ourselves that "it doesn’t happen here." And it allows us to dismiss anything event that contradicts that belief as a one-off, an aberration, rather than a reflection of the way our culture treats women in public spaces.
Street harassment is isn’t about where you are, but who you are. The overwhelming majority of targets of street harassment are women. We are women no matter where we go. So no matter where we go, we are harassed. For women, there are no "nice" neighborhoods: In Sugar Hill and on Park Avenue, in Sydney and in Paris, in Bali and in Cairo, we are always women. And until the world recognizes our right to move freely and without danger through the streets, we will always be harassed.
Chloe Angyal is a contributor at Feministing. Want to contribute to Reader Beatdown? Send your thoughtful essays and scathing criticisms to email@example.com.