Street harassment is still street harassment – even if it wears a smile on its face and asks for my phone number

November 27, 2009

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve mentioned street harassment here, either directly or in passing. The most recent specific occurrence that I’ve blogged about (link here) happened one lunchtime, not far from my workplace and really brought home to me how exposed and vulnerable I was (am).

To clarify, by street harassment, I mean – broadly speaking – being the subject of unwanted attention from passers-by on the street as I’m walking around. In my own personal experience, it’s always hate speech and its aim is to erase my identity as a transsexual woman at the same time as it provides entertainment for my tormentors. It happens to me a lot – two or three times a week, on average. I consider it to be a highly specific form of transphobic violence. But the – I don’t know what the right word is – encounter(?) I had this lunchtime makes me wonder if I need to start adding nuances and subtleties to that definition.

Ironically, this happened probably only a few metres from the site of the episode I mentioned before. A van belonging to a well-known frozen food chain store pulled up alongside me and the driver asked me for directions. I did my best for the guy and next thing I know he’s telling me I’m beautiful and asking me for my phone number. That’s never happened to me before – it’s always “Is it a man or a woman?” or something similar – and I’m still feeling confused/freaked out by it an hour later. On the one hand, yes it did make me feel good, momentarily – and a bit flustered; embarrassed, maybe – but after the way this week’s gone, such flattery was… well, almost persuasive. It suggested that I was being passed as a cis woman, with all the transmisogynistic subtexts of authenticity that brings (including my own internalised stuff), but I won’t deny it was a definite ego stroke.

So, was it street harassment? Well, it wasn’t something I was looking for, any more than I was looking for hate speech from the scaffolders that time before. But is being called beautiful really such a Bad Thing™? In a sense, no, it isn’t. In another sense, given my own low self-esteem and general vulnerability, well, hmm. I’m not so sure. I guess that, in the back of my mind, I’m very aware of just how quickly those kind of exchanges can turn nasty that any sense of feeling flattered evaporates in a very short space of time.

Overall, I have to say that I’m coming to realise just how little trust I have for cis people (especially cis men) these days. As a transsexual woman who is so rarely passed as cis, for my own self-preservation I cannot lose sight of the fact that street harassment is still street harassment – even if it wears a smile on its face and asks for my phone number.

4 Responses to “Street harassment is still street harassment – even if it wears a smile on its face and asks for my phone number”

  1. Dawn Says:

    I have to say that my response to street harassment, even the supposedly flattering kind, is much different.

    To give some background, I’m a 24 year old woman. I’m Hispanic, but I appear completely white. I’m pretty average looking. I don’t wear revealing clothing EVER and am generally very covered up- mostly because of my aversion to getting any kind of attention on my physical presence. I’m shy and quiet. I don’t make eye contact with people on the street. I live in Philadelphia.

    And yet, whenever I go out without a male companion, I am harassed. Generally at least three times an outing. Often it is just men saying things half under their breath “hey baby” and such. Other times it is more invasive- speaking to me directly, yelling at me, asking me questions, and not leaving me alone.

    I feel completely humiliated by this kind of attention. I feel like it calls attention to my sexuality in a way that I haven’t consented to, and as such, requires me to respond from that place (if I respond at all, as I generally try to ignore these remarks). It makes me feel as though I’m a walking sex object for these men, which just turns my stomach. I don’t want to identify in that way, I don’t want to be acknowledged in that way, and I have done nothing to present myself as if I would want such things.

    None of this is to say that I don’t like when strangers talk to me. I love it when strangers talk to me- especially because I’m so shy and quiet. But I like it when they talk to me about *something*, anything- the quality of the figs at the market, to ask for a recommendation by an author whose book I’m holding, directions to the nearest market, etc. Just not remarks that make me feel so utterly exposed.

    (BTW- I’m new to your blog, so hello! I’ve been enjoying your posts!)

  2. Helen G Says:

    Hi Dawn – welcome, and thank you for commenting.

    I’m sorry to hear you receive so much unwanted and unwelcome attention and I guess that, for me, today was the first time I’ve ever received comments that relate to my sexuality – as I mentioned in my post, the harassment I experience is focused on my identity, not my sexuality. But it is still objectification in both cases, and that’s the problem, just as much as the sense of entitlement that supports it.

    The point is, of course, that any and all women, trans and cis, should be able to walk freely, at any time of day, without having to run the gauntlet of personal remarks from passing strangers.


  3. Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sexgenderbody and HollabackNYC. HollabackNYC said: RT @sexgenderbody Street harassment is still street harassment – even if it wears a smile and asks for my phone number […]

  4. For me flattery (by unknown men in the street) can sometimes be as annoying as downward insult, specially when it’s really about flirting or more bluntly being asked for sex (and it can turn to insult quite easily after a “no”…)

    Though, being trans I guess I find the “is that a man or a woman?” kind of harassment more hurtful, as it echoes with internalised transpobia, self-blaming because I don’t pass and so on.

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