Too sexy for my shirt

It's spring, a time for many men to sexually harass women on the streets in the crudest of terms. Should there be a law against it?

Published May 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I am a spectacular beauty.

It's May now, and I walk the streets of the nation's capital free from my shrouding winter coat, making it impossible for male passersby to concentrate on their conversations. Cars slide to a precipitous halt at the mere sight of me, fishtailing as their brakes lock. Heads swivel on necks made suddenly rubbery by the merest glimpse of me. Eyes goggle. The glint of my ankle bracelet, the hint of a thigh as my skirt blows around -- it's unfair, really, and I know I need to stop showing off "them fine legs." At least that's what the helpful truck driver yells after swooping to a stop in his deuce-and-a-half mere inches from me. My perfume, mingled with the inchoate sorcery that is moi, produces a fragrance so entrancing, so beguiling, it can only be called eau de Debra and it drives men to lunacy. How could they not sniff and snort with orgasmic pleasure, lips loudly smacking, nostrils piggily flaring, lest I fail to notice their gyrations? What good are offerings made to a goddess who notices not?

So by all means, come a little closer. After all, I am woman and therefore a natural wonder. Like a waterfall or a pretty stand of trees. Feel free to waylay me. Block my path to inform me that you heartily approve of my "tight-ass" dress. Thank God that's settled. And don't forget to thrust your pelvis at me while you address my breasts. We beauties like it. Why else would we dress "that way"? Don't just scream at me from the far side of a four-lane road (across which I am apparently supposed to jog so that our destiny can be fulfilled at the bus stop named Federal Triangle). Come up from behind and whisper intimately, preferably Ebonically, in my ear. Mais oui, I'd love to "get witchou" ce soir, cherie. And you, Mr. Businessman. Come right on over and "accidentally" rub your penis against my "gorgeous ass," as you put it, as we wait at a light. Then look at me expectantly, waiting for the nooner which will no doubt now ensue. I can take a compliment.

And you, in the beat-up Pontiac: Should I cruelly refuse to answer your catcalls of love, by all means get out of your car and dog me for three blocks expressing your pain. I have now become a "fat, fucking skank," not a beauty, but I understand. You have every right to be angry. And don't worry. No one will intervene. But don't ask me for spare change while you're at it: Panhandling is strictly regulated and the cops will be all over you.

I am a vision. I must be.

God, I love spring.

"It was spring for me, too," chuckles Northwestern University law professor Cynthia Bowman. "That's when I got the idea for the article." Well, that and Thelma & Louise. It was 1991, two years before her controversial article ("Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women") would appear in the Harvard Law Review and cause a national sensation. Already interested in the subject of sexual harassment, she saw that infamous movie and came away struck by the audience's approving blood lust when the movie stars blew up the pig truck driver's rig. An article was born when she ran afoul of her own pig truck driver shortly thereafter. She was captive at a red light with her windows rolled down to enjoy the beautiful weather when the two men in the next vehicle laid into Bowman with a stream of sex talk and ridicule that crushed her. The confluence of events made her realize that she'd been repressing a lifetime of such incidents. Canvassing her friends, she found that she was far from alone. Hooray for Hollywood; the professor decided to fight back.

In her article, Bowman labels street harassment a grueling, humiliating and frightening fact of women's lives "that has not generally been viewed by academics, judges or legislators as a problem requiring legal redress, either because these mostly male observers have not noticed the behavior or because they have considered it trivial and thus not within the proper scope of the law." It's certainly the case that many men haven't noticed it. When I discussed this article at our staff meeting, a male colleague asked, "Are you saying that when you leave this office, say to go to lunch, you'll be harassed?" He was shocked.

In her first-of-its-kind academic article, Bowman proposed an anti-harassment ordinance, featuring a $250 fine, "but, if I had it to do again," she said, "I might leave that out. It was an afterthought. Everyone fixated on the ordinance, but that's just the kind of thing you do in a law review article, you propose a remedy. I just wanted to stimulate discussion of how the law too often ignores women." Stimulate discussion she did. She was denounced from one corner of America to another as the epitome of political correctness and feminism run amok, then held aloft as an icon by legions of pissed-off women who wanted her to go even further. "I was astonished by the response," the rueful professor said this week, tired from grading end-of-year exams.

She wouldn't have been astonished if she lived here in D.C. "Women who've lived lots of places tell me it's worse here than anywhere else," says Denise Snyder, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center which offers training in dealing with street harassment. Quantifying an essentially untraceable phenomenon is extremely difficult, but it's certainly true that street harassment is a historically controversial topic here. In 1990, a summer series of three Washington Post articles on street harassment -- one journalistic, one essayistic, and one op-ed -- caused a firestorm.

But it wasn't until 1993, the year of Bowman's law review article, that war broke out, first locally, then nationally. Washington Post writer Phil McCombs wrote "StareMasters: Every Day at Noon They Sit and Watch Their Dreams Go By," detailing a benign week of girl-watching at a construction site. The letters-to-the-editor pages and phone lines at the Post were so clogged with responses that the paper's ombudsman had to weigh in. D.C. Men Against Rape staged a protest at the construction site and national columnists took sides. ABC and CBS called. Maury Povich even wanted to fly McCombs and the construction workers to New York for a show. "Don't they have construction workers in New York?" he sensibly mused in a follow-up piece.

Filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West believes D.C.'s street harassment is among the worst. "My hard-on about street abuse formed when I lived in D.C.," she said. By the time she was living in New York, she had become so fed up she made a documentary about it, "War Zone," in which she confronts men who harass her. The original was shown in 1993 and caused the same kind of explosion that Bowman's article had. The sequel debuts Friday at Chicago's Facets Cinematheque. Some of the men she confronts become quite abusive. "When we oppose street harassment and speak up, we make them suddenly self-conscious, we make them give up a privilege. They don't like it."

Indeed they do not. And on this issue, women's anger crosses ideological lines. Amy Holmes, a policy analyst with the conservative Independent Women's Forum and a widely featured political commentator, frequently fights back. Recently harassed by a small group of men as she left her office alone at 10 p.m., they cursed her when she ignored their "hey, baby"s. "I was so mad, I whirled around and yelled, 'That's why I don't talk to guys like you!' I've even flipped some of these guys off, and I'm a polite, normal young woman. It's just gotten so bad." So bad in fact that TLC, a popular R&B trio of young women recently recorded a song, "No Scrubs," about the losers who hassle women on the streets.

Why do they do it? We're not talking about gallantry, or playful flirting or simple, unfrightened compliments. Why the abuse, the privacy invasion, the intimidation? Why do the construction workers on my block, for instance, make sudden loud noises with their machinery as I pass so they can laugh when I jump? I don't ask them. I'm afraid of escalation. When I lived in San Francisco, panhandling/drug addict/psychotic bums supported by asshole tourists congregated in my North Beach neighborhood and figured out my name and apartment. Remembering them tapping on my windows, I go to a different neighborhood and ask street harassers why they do it.

"Aw! There y'all go, there y'all go!" one man goes off. "Always complainin' when you should be happy. We like you, get it? We human men. We like your bodies. We like your ... your ... okay, I'll say it and it's your fault because I don't even talk like this -- we like your titties! We like titties. We men. We like women, ain't no fags round here."

"Can't please a woman these days less you ready to go to jail," opined one man, fury twisting his features and making his nostrils flare.

"It's a compliment, alright, jeez," another said, eyes rolled heavenward in disgust. "Why is it so wrong to tell you that you're pretty? How much time you spend getting dressed this morning? How much makeup you got at home? Huh? It's for me, right? For men."

And if I don't care what random men think? "Maybe you're gay. Maybe that's all the problem, right there?"

His buddy, a quieter type who, alone among the five, had said nothing as I passed, added tentatively, "I'm a human being, too. All you have to do is say hi." And if we don't want to? He thought for a minute. "Why not just say it?"

"It's a big miscommunication," Hadleigh-West says. "What they think they're sending is not what we're receiving. They say they're trying to tell us we're attractive, desirable, sexy. We feel assaulted." Says Snyder, "Men claim they do it to meet women. That's bullshit. There's a power dynamic at work with street harassment. It's at the base of any sexual harassment. They don't really think they'll get dates that way."

Adrian Davis, law professor at Washington College of Law at American University says street harassment has to be understood as on a continuum with sexual assault and stalking. "Women's impulse is to react. We want to respond when insulted but we fear assault. Sexual harassment in the workplace tells women they can't have an 'economic personality.' Sexual harassment on the streets prevents women from being able to fully enjoy the public sphere. If you leave home 'inappropriately,' i.e. to work or without a man, you are disciplined with sexual harassment."

As does Bowman in her article, Davis points out (rightly, in my experience) that women are much less likely to be harassed while with old people or children or, of course, a man. If I'm so devastatingly gorgeous, why is this never pointed out while I'm with my fianci?

"Because they know it's wrong," says Snyder flatly.

Does it matter that this is most often pointed out to me (in graphic detail) by black men? Courtland Milloy, in one of those three 1990 Washington Post pieces, lamented the "black men who [make] the district a living hell for their sisters." Many of the female letter-writers made the same claim. Julianne Malveaux as well has written about her own abuse from black males and the "contempt" some of them exhibit for black women. "We are at the low end of the food chain for them," she writes. So, yes, it matters if only because 95 percent of the harassment I receive comes from them. If that's group loyalty, I can live without it.

This summer, the New York chapter of NOW's anti-violence committee is planning a campaign against street harassment. "A lot of street harassment comes from men working on the streets -- movers, delivery men. If a woman can identity the company the harasser is working for, NOW will send them a letter describing the incident and asking them to take action," says Joanna Perlman of NOW.

Holmes disagrees with this tactic. "It's not a legal or employer problem. It's a social problem and that tattletale approach will only exacerbate the problem. We need to ask why these guys feel entitled to say these things, why men have forgotten to be civil and gentlemanly. The people who witness these incidents, men especially, need to speak up. We need social pressure. If the police or companies are the enforcers, people can tell themselves that harassers will be ticketed, it's not their responsibility."

I won't hold my breath until the people of America rise up and shame street harassers. I'll just keep hiding behind my sunglasses and Walkman until winter comes again and I can disappear into my big, shapeless coat.

By Debra Dickerson


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