Verbal Harassment is Not Harmless

Verbal Harassment is Not Harmless


Living in an urban area means you might not own a car. Not having a car means you have zero privacy. You walk to get groceries. To the post office. To a friend’s place. To dinner. You walk in the rain or snow or heat or nighttime.

Since you are in public, some people think it is appropriate to tell you what they think of you. That you’re beautiful. Or sexy. Or that you have a big ass. If you ignore these comments, you might be called a bitch.

This is practically a daily occurrence in the city for many women. From verbal harassment when trying to simply cross the street. To sexual harassment on a crowded train. This is harassment. It is uncomfortable, it is not safe, it is disrespectful, and it is hurtful.

What Happens When You Ignore the Problem

Let me tell you a story.

I have experienced a considerable amount of verbal harassment while living here. It is always uncomfortable and gross. I am never flattered by the “compliment”, as men refer to it. I am never grateful for the “attention”, as men consider it.

But nothing made me feel as unsafe as a recent incident.

I was waiting for the bus on a Sunday afternoon on my way to visit a friend. Initially I was at the bus stop alone but after a few minutes a man came up and was waiting as well. I was facing the direction of the bus with my back turned to the man.

After a minute or so I heard him say, “you’re beautiful.” I didn’t acknowledge this. My general tact is to not engage. I continued facing away from him and didn’t react.

So he continued:
Lady, you’re really beautiful.
I want to sing a song about you.

I still did not respond but was doing my best to will the bus to appear it. It did not. I continued ignoring the man. At this point I was already uncomfortable.

He kept going on undeterred:
You have a nice ass.
That’s a sexy ass.
I want to touch your sexy ass, lady.

We were on a public sidewalk. On the corner of a busy intersection at 5p on a Sunday. He was a safe distance away from me. I didn’t quite think I was in danger but I was very uncomfortable. And kept feeling grosser and grosser by the minute. Why was I feeling gross? All I was doing was standing at the bus stop. That’s all.

Since I had ignored everything up to this point, he decided to escalate:
I want to grab your ass.
I want to stick my dick inside you.

Then I was afraid. I turned around and yelled, “Please stop talking to me.”

He turned around and ran.

Because Unpredictable Behavior is Frightening

That was the most lewd harassment I’ve encountered. But that is not to say the common “you’re beautiful” “have a nice day, beautiful” “watch that ass” makes me feel any less disgusting.

Why is verbal harassment frightening? Because it is not socially acceptable behavior. It is unpredictable. If a person thinks it’s okay to say that to someone, what else do they think is okay. What other behaviors do they think are acceptable? What other types of attention do they think women want?

This incident happened in my neighborhood. What if I run into that guy at another time. When there’s less people around. What if he actually tried something.

When someone does not follow society’s rules, this unpredictable behavior is threatening.

It also means there are times I don’t want to pass a slow walker because I know I will hear a “sexy ass, mama” as soon as I do.There were times I didn’t feel safe riding my bike because cars would honk or people would yell out their windows, causing a distraction.

I’ve been followed home by a car trailing me slowly. The passenger making kissing sounds at me out the window.

It’s The Way It Is

And sadly women have to deal with it every single day in the city.

I am certainly not the first to address it or be bothered by it. Groups have tried to discourage it before.

But clearly those who engage in these so-called compliments do not see the problem with it.

Recently I found a quote about this written in 1978. Over thirty years have passed and absolutely nothing has changed:

On the subway home, I was doodling in my notebook, and as the train began to pull out of the station, I glanced up and saw a young man standing on the opposite platform. He waved and leered at me and licked his lips. I frowned pointedly, as always when this happens, and lowered my head and lifted my pen from my notebook so he could see it (a weapon?)

I’ve been thinking about my reaction to him. The frowning is a carefully acquired habit, something I’ve trained myself to do when men say anything to me on the street.

I suppose that every woman has to decide sooner or later, if she lives in New York, how she’s going to deal with rude gestures and verbal assaults.

What Can We Do About It?

Sure, I may not be able to change a man who is set in his ways thinking he is just “complimenting women”. But we can teach young boys that this is not acceptable. We can provide examples of socially appropriate situations to compliment women. We can teach children appropriate talk to say to each other. To say in public. To say to strangers. To teach that words can be hurtful even if that’s not your intention. To teach that certain words can make someone feel uncomfortable. To teach how to be respectful of everyone.

This is disrespectful behavior. It’s disrespectful of me as a person. Disrespectful of my personal space. It makes me feel uncomfortable. It puts me on alert. What else could this person say? What else could this person do?

How Do you Handle This?

I would like to pose a question to other New Yorkers. How do you handle these situations? Usually I ignore and don’t engage as that just makes things worse. However, in the incident above, it was worse because I ignored it.

I try not to move or leave as to not give control to the other person or give them a reason to follow me. I try to think about public places I can go to if I need to.

I never let this affect where I am going or what I’m wearing. It’s not fun enduring it but I will not let a stranger control my life in that way. I should not have to change my behavior.

I hate that I have to do this.

It’s Okay It’s Not Okay

I don’t want to over-dramaticize this. Or make it seem like NYC isn’t safe. It’s not that. Things happen here and everywhere. But this is something considered harmless that happens all the time.

Verbal harassment is not harmless.


8 Replies to “Verbal Harassment is Not Harmless”

  1. It is certainly not harmless. I’ve never lived in NYC, but even growing up in my super small town I had to deal with comments from the carfulls of men who would slow down as I walked home from school and ask for my name. This was when I was in high school, and I was super ill-equipped to deal with it. I still feel uncomfortable thinking about it.

    Good for you for yelling at that guy. I feel like the biggest problem is that it’s so unexpected. I mean, it happens, but I am never prepared for it. On the street or at work (especially at work) I just get shakey and red-faced and angry, but don’t know how to make it stop.

    1. I am so sorry you have to deal with this, especially at work. You make a great point that it’s unexpected. In social situations or at a bar you can prepare yourself for these types of interactions. But when you’re carrying groceries home, you’re just not prepared for it. The best solution I can think of is to do all you can to teach children about respecting other’s so hopefully they won’t engage in this behavior later in their life.

    1. It’s terrible that we have to be practically fearful just walking home from anywhere. Very frustrating especially when many don’t see it as a problem at all.

  2. My experience with harassment has improved drastically since I moved to New York. Where I’m from, I’d not walk a mile after dark by myself – overall, I feel pretty safe here.
    Just the other week, though, I got of the train at a stop that wasn’t mine, to “escape” this guy sitting across from my while starting at me and making rather suggestive gestures every time I glanced up. And I admit looking over my shoulder to be sure he didn’t come after me.
    It’s sad that women still have to deal with this sort of behavior – no man ever has to feel a discomfort like this.

    1. I am curious where you were living before you moved here.

      I’ve definitely switched train cars before to get away from verbal harassment. One man actually called me out on it when we both got off at the same stop. That certainly didn’t make me feel any safer.

  3. You handled that situation a lot better than I would have. To be honest, I would’ve probably walked off tor taken a taxi instead, which is not the smart thing to do because that give the “complimenter” the power, and some of them may actually feed off it. I like what you said about not changing your live or the way you dress for these men, I’m just not as brave as you.

    It’s sad how misguided these men are. If any of them had to go a week, or even a day, in a woman’s shoes, where women everyone threw cat calls and inappropriate and unsolicited “compliments” their way whereever they went, then they would know how degrading and distressful these “compliments” really are. But perhaps some of them know how it makes women feel, and they get a rise out of it. Ick

  4. This happens every day, it’s disgusting. One compliment my friend and I received post workout makeup-free: “Spread your cheeks.” I don’t think he was asking for a smile.

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