Street harassment encompasses a wide variety of inappropriate behaviors. Therefore, for the sake of discussion, I will focus on a single commonly used phrase “Hey why don’t you smile, beautiful?”
This innocent sounding statement is packed with negative implications:
1. Your are not happy.
2. You need to smile to show you that you are happy.
3. You are subject to the appraisal of strangers based on your appearance.
4. You are subject to comments from strangers about your appearance.
5. You are being told what you should do (smile) by strangers.
6. Strangers can impose themselves and try talk to you any time they choose.
This statement puts you into a box. If you smile to show you are happy, then you are “obeying” a command of a stranger. If you don’t smile, then you are an “unfriendly” or “unhappy” person. If you make a comment such as “stop harassing me”, your mood reflects your verbal irritation and you feel “bitchy”.
If you express anger in the form of retaliating with name calling such as “Shut up asshole!” you risk escalating the situation. In addition, in most situations anger is not a desirable emotion and involves losing control. Therefore, it tends to be suppressed. Anger also requires that you confront the person. Confrontation requires more intimate contact with the person. The reality is that you want less contact with the person.
As a result of all these negative connotations, the easiest course of action is to ignore the comment as “if you didn’t hear it”. In this case, you are pretending the incident “didn’t happen”. While this form of denial works occasionally, it fails when you repeatedly encounter the same situation.
You are now in a situation where you are unhappily aware of the problem, but you have no effective solution. This situation leads to unwanted stress, anger, feelings of powerlessness, apathy and more, or attempts to deepen your efforts to ignore the comments. You look down when approaching men, you wear head phones with music playing, and you become conditioned to be non-responsive to when you encounter unwanted situations.