“Those are some nice pu**ies”: Street harassment is NOT flattering

By YWCA Toronto volunteer Geneviève François-Kermode

Genevieve, author of the post, holds a sign that says "My body is not your property"

Street harassment: if you’re a woman, you’re probably well aware of it. In fact, you’ve probably experienced it more times than you can count. I know I have. Everything from the usual “Hey, beautiful” to men whistling at me from their cars, to the latest incident: a man in his 60s telling my friend and me “those are some nice pu**ies” (did I mention we are both under 20 years old – i.e. young enough to be his granddaughters?). The experience enraged me so much that I had to speak up. I am disgusted, angry, and most of all tired of street harassment.

Some people don’t think street harassment is such a big deal. My friends don’t always understand why it makes me so angry. “They’re complimenting you!” they’ll say. The author of a recent New York Post article agrees, titling her piece “Hey ladies – catcalls are flattering! Deal with it!” (click at your own risk).

Street harassment isn’t flattering, though. Obviously, there’s a difference between a guy respectfully telling you that you look nice today (though that’s not always welcome either) and the “nice pu**ies” comment hurled at me recently. But regardless of the content, street harassment is about people (let’s be honest, generally men) making unwarranted, uninvited comments about women, queer and trans people and their bodies. It sends a message that public space doesn’t belong to us, because men always have the unassailable right to comment on our appearances.

My friend who had the other “nice pu**y” that evening told me how the incident, and street harassment in general, made her feel. She told me that she felt as if she was constantly being judged. It made her feel like her body was not hers. And that’s exactly the problem with street harassment: it challenges what should be the human right of people of all genders to own their bodies.

Street harassment makes public space a minefield for women. We never know whether a man is doling out a compliment or asserting his dominance – or both. And we never know how to answer, because there is no safe answer. If we say “thank you,” they may take that as an invitation to follow us and continue the harassment. If we ignore or challenge them, they may respond aggressively.

Existing in public as a woman is always a balancing act of carefully avoiding unwanted attention and confrontation. We are not free to dress the way we like, or act in a way that actually reflects our feelings. We know that if we wear a skirt that is “too short,” we’ll be sure to get more unwarranted attention. If we’re in a bad mood because, say, a family member just died, we had a monster fight with a friend or partner, or we simply had a crappy day at work, a man will tell us to smile, honey.

After the incident with the 60-year-old man, I felt utterly powerless. Powerless and afraid. I was afraid to find out what worse incidents might await me, and I didn’t know how to conquer that fear. Should I just stop going out? Should I always invite a male friend when I decide to go out? That seems to be the only way to ward off this kind of attention – because in a potential harasser’s eyes, we already “belong” to another man. It seems ridiculous to me that there are no true means of defense for women against street harassment.

It got me thinking, what can we do to change this reality? Recently, I heard about a campaign called “Stop Telling Women to Smile” in which an artist from the Bronx, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, decided to make posters based on portraits of real women and quotes from experiences they’ve had with street harassment. The posters say things like “Stop Telling Women To Smile” or “Women Do Not Owe You Their Time Or Conversation.” She places posters in public spaces to raise awareness and challenge the assumptions that underlie street harassment. Fazlalizadeh is currently selling the posters and encouraging others to get involved with the project on her website. I think this is a creative and empowering way to face the problem head-on.

As awesome as this project is, I feel that new laws are necessary in order to eradicate street harassment. Recently, Peru amended their criminal code to make street harassment illegal, and I think other countries should follow suit. The law could be supported by integrating undercover police officers in high-risk areas such as public transit, which would make the consequences of violating the law concrete and hopefully ward off men from continuing.

Whether we create new laws, introduce public awareness campaigns, or adopt other measures in partnership with women’s groups like YWCA Toronto, I believe if we work together, we can foster a new social reality in which street harassment is simply unacceptable.