October 8, 2009


"Just in case anyone is still confused about why it’s “such a bad thing” to just say hello or pay someone a compliment . . . A whole lot of women have had exactly that experience of being called “pretty” and then told we look “mean” — or bitchy, or cunty, or slutty, or whorish or, in fact, ugly — ten seconds later if we don’t give the dude the attention he wants. I daresay most of us who live in cities have had it happen more times than we can count. Ergo, we have learned not to trust people who approach us that way."

-- Kate Harding

I took a break from writing about street harassment because I was getting sort of hysterical about the whole subject. After reading things like "cunt can't even take a compliment" in response to my posts, I started to have an even harder time coping with these incidents. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and most of my friends don't understand because they are men, or they don't live in the city. So they don't understand why "compliments" feel creepy and threatening. But recently there has been a lot of discussion on this topic at Shapely Prose (starting here), and I can see that a lot of women really do relate to my experience.

Two weeks ago, I was coming home by myself on the train. It was late and dark and I was alone, and a man approached me. Nobody else was around, and I was scared. He told me I was very pretty, and he would like to take me somewhere.

A panhandler near my campus has started to harass me whenever he sees me. It started like this: When I walked past him, he would yell "You are gorgeous" or "Hello beautiful" and then "God bless you -- you're very beautiful." I never gave him money, but he kept yelling at me. Eventually I started to respond very coldly: Saying "hello" very tersely, or ignoring him altogether and scowling a bit -- communicating that his attention is unwelcome, and that I'm annoyed. So, he has started to yell things like "Hello beautiful, look at you beautiful... you are still very beautiful..." in an aggressive, taunting tone.

And, like Kate, I have experienced, "Hello beautiful" followed by "Hey fuck you" when I don't respond, countless times.

So my experience is that strangers who call me "pretty" do not respect me or my boundaries. Some of them are scary and threatening -- others are just assholes who feel entitled to attention from women-- others are clearly enjoying the fact that they are making me uncomfortable.

And maybe one of these strangers is a truly nice guy who genuinely wants to date me. He doesn't mean to push my buttons. He doesn't know what it's like to be a young woman in the city. But I still have a right to decline to talk to him, because for all I know he is just like most men who have called me pretty out of nowhere.


  • I've had this conversation over and over with men and women in various settings. My impression is that men, on the whole (but not always), don't understand what it is to live your life as a prey animal. I like this analogy: being female out in the world is alot like driving a car. You go out on the busy freeway every day and you're not afraid, but you are aware every moment of what is going on around you and you know that your benign morning drive can turn fatal in a heartbeat. That doesn't mean you stay home or you avoid rush hour traffic or that you are frightened to drive, it is just a way of being in the world to stay safe. Those "hey beautiful" comments are like someone swerving into your lane. It might be no big deal or it might be the beginning of the end.

    I now work in a men's prison, and what people on your site think is overreacting is how we're trained to behave in my work setting. That "hey beautiful" from an inmate toward a staff member can get a guy more time on his sentence. That's not overreacting, it's a recognition that it was THAT sort of behavior that for these men led to rapes and murders. Reality bites, but ignoring it is unsafe. Living with that reality is foreign to people who have no experience being targets 24/7. To be female is to be a target on some level, everywhere, all the time.

    By Blogger Mamabeek, at 10/9/09, 2:07 AM  

  • Mamabeek, those are great points and it's very interesting to hear your perspective as someone who works in a prison. I'm a little uncomfortable with anyone getting more prison time for a comment. But at the same time, I agree that shouting unwanted comments about a woman's appearance, and expecting her to be "nice" about it, is part of rape culture. So I can see the point, especially when you are dealing with actual rapists who are harassing women in prison.

    By Blogger Di Di, at 10/9/09, 7:37 AM  

  • It's not how I'd have it, but it's prison policy. I'd get fired if I let it go. That sort of comment is considered to be objectifying and disrespectful and therefore against prison rules. Even if the guy who said it really meant to be complimentary, if I ignore it or encourage it then there are any number of other inmates watching who may mentally note that I'm easy prey. It applies to male staff, too, though the language is different. Objectifying is the first step in a process of dehumanizing another human being and allows you to treat that person in all sorts of negative ways without feeling badly about it. I don't think every person on the streets who shouts an unwanted 'compliment' is a rapist or a murderer, but how can I know which is which?

    By Blogger Mamabeek, at 10/10/09, 6:42 PM  

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