Anything But Empty

"Let your words be anything but empty."

Catcalls and Creeps

I hung up the phone at 1:27 in the morning, my tiredness had disappeared, replaced by the surge of adrenaline that comes when I get so pissed off I can’t see straight. The sting of angry tears behind my eyes, a clenched jaw and the sound of my own heart crashing against my chest were all I was clearly aware of as the emotions of anger, bitterness, sadness and disappointment went through my mind, along with a train of impressive obscenities I wish I had been holy enough to pray away in that moment.

I had called my sister, Jessie, after seeing a string of angry tweets from her and her best friend, Meredith. I didn’t even say hello, I called her and the first words out of my mouth were, “What happened?”

“You mean at the lake,” she asked. Her voice not as lively or happy as it usually was when we spoke on the phone as she told me the story.

My intelligent, lively and confident little sister has been home for the summer and in a few weeks will return to Houston for her junior year at college. So, as her summer vacation comes to an end, she and her best friend planned a day at the lake to relax, go swimming, get some sun and enjoy each other before they have to separate again.

As soon as Jess and Mere arrived and began setting up their stuff, a man in the water started swimming toward them. Neither of the girls is particularly sensitive or easily worried, so they didn’t think anything of it until the man started to try and talk to them. The girls were polite, but short at first, as they put on sunscreen and blew up their lounge floats, and when the man continued to try and talk to them, they opted for completely ignoring him, in the hopes that he would move on.

The man attempted to get closer to them, getting out of the water. They continued to ignore him, taking their lounge floats into the water and lying out on the lake, being sure to stay near the shore to keep an eye on their stuff.

The man continued to harass them, ignoring their clear desire to be left alone. He continued to try and provoke conversation, asking if he could take one of their floats out on the lake.

“Hey girl, take off your sunglasses,” he demanded from the shore several times. “Let me see you, I’m looking for a girl.”

It was loud and noticeable, and went ignored by other people at the lake. The man then began to throw small pebbles at Jessie’s float, she turned to demand that he stop, only to be met with him making a kissing face at her.

Meredith started yelling at the man, clear and loud, demanding that he leave them alone. She was loud enough for people to turn and look, to notice, and, still, no one felt the need to intervene.

Finally, their day ruined, Jessie and Meredith swam to shore and began packing up their stuff. Again, the man followed them, continuing to watch them intently, and, apparently not satisfied with ruining their day began masturbating as he watched them.

Disgusted, Jessie and Meredith went up to their car and called the police.

This is why I started saying something when I experience street harassment. This is why I stopped just ducking my head, or smiling awkwardly and nodding, hoping that it would make them stop. Because if anyone actually is delusional enough to think it was flattering or that I liked it, I wanted them to know.

Because I want to be very very clear…

No, it’s not a compliment.

No, I am NOT flattered.

No, I am not playing hard to get.

No, I will not loosen up.

No, I will not smile.

No, I am not “unfriendly.”

I don’t like it. So stop.

It’s not okay, so knock it off.

I didn’t ask you, so shut up.

But this kind of harassment, trips people up. I am specifically addressing that form of street harassment when a stranger “compliments” your physical appearance because they do not know anything else about you aside from what they see. It’s confusing because often it starts off with a “compliment” (though “nice ass” and “great rack”, hardly constitute a compliment), it produces an odd mixture of feelings that come with hearing something that may be technically nice, or that would be nice if it came from the right person, but you don’t feel like it is nice. When a person expresses discomfort or ignores it, they can be labeled “rude” or “sensitive” or be told dismissively, “take it as a compliment and get over it.”

But here’s the thing. There is a difference, a HUGE difference, in a compliment and harassment, but unfortunately, you can’t always tell. Obviously, some catcalls and form of harassment can be identified by the tone, the environment (i.e. I don’t care how much you want to “compliment” a woman’s smile, do NOT follow her out to her car in an empty parking garage at 11 pm at night), and the actual words that are used.

But sometimes it’s less obvious, because the biggest difference in harassment and a compliment is the motivation. For example, blogger Emily Maynard shares her experience of street harassment, where the guy yells at her from his car that he thinks she’s “beautiful”, she ignored him and he then yells out an obscenity at her. The initial comment is not inherently threatening, but she makes it clear that it was unwelcome, and his response indicates the motivation behind the words.

Guys and girls (because girls do this too), if you want to know if you are complimenting or harassing, ask yourself what you’ll do if he or she ignores you. If you are TRULY motivated by a kind desire to build up that person, if they communicate to you that they don’t like it, you’ll care and you won’t press it. If someone ignores your attempt to make a comment about their physical appearance, even if it is good, then don’t say another word about it.

When a person offers a “compliment” that is ignored and then gets angry, and spiteful, and continues to try and provoke a response from someone who has clearly ignored or declined them, then it is harassment. The motivation is not to build up a fellow human and hope your words make their day better, the motivation is to let the person know that you see them, to communicate to that person that, in that moment, they exist for you to look at and their feelings about it are completely irrelevant. That your words are heard is MORE important to you then how the person feels about your words.

Before you even begin to make a comment about a stranger, especially about their appearance, ask yourself what is your motivation? I do get it. I like complimenting people, I like complimenting strangers. I like seeing someone smile when I tell them their hair is fierce or their shoes are awesome, enough so that a stranger wanted to tell you.

But my desire to do that does not trump someone else’s right to feel safe.

Ask yourself, how will you react if that person ignores you? Because even if you don’t get verbally abusive if you are ignored, if in your heart you get angry, or start calling that person “rude” or unfriendly, remember that you weren’t invited into that person’s life. The thought inherent to getting angry when a stranger does not respond to you is that your right to comment on their presence trumps their right to be left alone. It’s a stones throw away from feelings of entitlement and ownership to that person you are seeing.

Just because that person dares exist in a public space in front of you, doesn’t mean that they are public access.

Also remember, you don’t know where that person is at. You don’t know what they’ve experienced. You don’t know their story, and you are a stranger, you have not been invited into that story. You don’t know history, past wounds, or past hurts, so don’t assume that when a person turns down your advances that it’s all about you.

Remember, if a girl ignores a perhaps well-intentioned compliment, don’t take it personal. She’s not calling you a rapist. She’s telling you that you’re a stranger; she doesn’t know your motivation and doesn’t care to find out what it is. When a guy whistles or catcalls or yells at me from his car, 9 times out of 10, my thought isn’t “oh he’s going to rape me.” It’s simply that I don’t like that he thinks that I care, and it angers me that he thinks his opinion of my appearance was so valuable that I needed to know.

I get an overwhelming urge to flip him off and yell back, “No one asked you!”

Jessie and Meredith did say something. They didn’t jump to judgments or conclusions, but allowed the man to show himself as what he truly was; a disgusting, verbally abusive human.

When it became clear what type of man he was, they forcefully protected their boundaries making it clear in every possible way that he was violating those boundaries. When he ignored them, Jessie and Meredith became loud enough so that others at the lake would know what was happening.

When Jessie and Meredith spoke of what happened, they didn’t talk as much about the disgust they felt toward the perpetrator, instead they expressed deep disbelief that no one said or did anything.

This is why I try to intervene when I see it happening.

The person doing the harassing has already made it clear, they don’t care how the person they are harassing feels. Their pleas are easy to ignore. But when someone else notices and expresses solidarity, that is hard to ignore. That can make a huge difference in harassment.

Of course, you should be safe. This is not about “being a hero”, or “rescuing the damsel in distress” or “being tough” or “pushing for a fight.” It’s about seeing another human in distress and not pretending like you don’t see it. It’s about expressing to the harasser and the harassed that you are not okay with what’s happening.

It can be easy to ignore street harassment or verbal harassment, because it’s easier to write it off as not particularly damaging or harmful.

But it is.

It can ruin a day at the beach with a friend.

It can make you feel sick or nauseous.

It can make you feel ashamed or embarrassed.

It can be triggering of past trauma.

Or maybe it just pissed you off because someone saw you as less than human and that your boundaries just didn’t matter.

I am proud of Jessie and Meredith. They stood up for their boundaries, they didn’t let someone trounce all over them, and they raised hell.

For some people, for some personalities, for some environments, for some stories, this is less of an option. So I want to be there when I see it, and I want to stand up for their boundaries if, for whatever reason, they don’t feel like they can.

I am also angry that this happened. I am angry that the words my sister spoke over the phone, “Nothing like this has ever happened to me”, are no longer true.

I am angry that no one said anything when they saw it happening.

I am angry that this isn’t even the first story I’ve heard THIS week of something like this happening to a woman.

I am angry that a normal, functioning human being would even begin to think this was an acceptable way to treat people.

That’s why I speak up, that’s why I don’t ignore it, that’s why I don’t pretend it’s okay. In case it isn’t clear, in case ignoring it just makes the idiot think I’m shy or “unfriendly”, so he can go on to the next girl and do the exact same thing. So for me this looks like turning around and saying “no.” And maybe, even for a little, he’ll stop and consider what that means.

Dianna Anderson provides very clear and concise guidelines and suggestions for how to decide if your comment is complimentary or inappropriate.

Note: Not all situations are safe for confronting someone who is harassing you on the street. In a dark ally, or alone on the street, is not the best time to try and be a voice for social change or try and talk sense into someone. If you are alone, I do not recommend engaging in a verbal altercation with someone who clearly has no respect for you, I would recommend removing yourself as best as possible and going somewhere with people
Also, there is a difference in street harassment and relationship/domestic abuse. While I think both require intervention, the intervention may look different and will often be more complicated in relationship/domestic abuse. In any case where you witness physical abuse, appropriate authorities should be notified and it should be reported.


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