My Space on the Sidewalk

Last Thursday morning dawned like any other day with its myriad of small irritations and moments worth smiling over. What made Thursday particularly significant to me was that I had a job interview at a chic lifestyle boutique.

I wanted to look competent and classy and avoid looking overdone. I chose a blue-and white maxi dress from my closet and tossed a loose cardigan over my shoulders; something I hoped would say, “I belong in your store. I could fit in here.”

Then I took special care with my makeup, going for soft, neutral colors. I wanted to look like the best version of me as if I did indeed wake-up like this.

I got to my interview a little too early, so I walked down the street towards a CVS to kill time. The sky was a crisp blue and the morning sunshine was warm on my back. My nervous energy was starting to dissipate, instead I was picturing what it would be like to work in this neighborhood.

Then, on an empty sidewalk in LA (that in and of itself being a small miracle) a tall man in black crowded into my personal space and muttered, ” ‘Sup beautiful?”

Society at large tells me that this is a compliment, that I should be flattered. Didn’t I just tell you I was trying to look good for my interview? However, in moments such as these I feel dirty, devalued, and most importantly inhuman.

There is a way and a tone to compliment another person on the street and then there is street harassment. I have had women and men alike tell me they like my outfit or that I look nice. They have made eye contact, smiled pleasantly, and, pivotally, have given me personal space.

In my experience, a large part of what makes street harassment street harassment is either the violation of personal space or the tone of the words that manage to invalidate the recipient’s personhood. We hear it often enough, but it is objectification.

Put another way, on that sunny Los Angeles sidewalk, I no longer felt like a human being. I felt about as valued and appreciated as the latest video game on a sale rack: you want the video game, stare at it openly in the store, and might go so far as to pick it up and touch it. The game has no say in whether or not it is purchased, played, and possibly broken. And that is what street harassment feels like. Granted, that is an imperfect metaphor, but it is incredibly difficult to articulate this feeling of having temporarily being denied your humanity.

I am not a thing to covet. That random man on the street treated me as though my physical appearance gave him the right to crowd my space. He made a conscious effort to get close to me, loom over me, and make me vulnerable. These efforts are in no way complimentary to me as an individual.

Was I wearing makeup? Yes

Was I wearing a dress? Yes

Do either of these answers validate a stranger’s behavior? Absolutely not.

I spent the rest of the day feeling as though that man had left his fingerprints on me somehow.

This specific man did not touch me, but in the past I have been groped, whistled at, catcalled, and followed in cars. These instances started happening when I was thirteen and walking home from school. Ask your mother, your sister, your girlfriend, your gay best friend, even, and I guarantee they will have examples of similar negative behavior at the ready.

At my interview, I smiled and answered questions and hopefully put my best foot forward. But I came home that night feeling awful, shaken, and teary-eyed. Not simply because of this one interaction but precisely because this is one anecdote in a long series of anecdotes. Why does this keep happening to me? To us?

I am not writing this post in the hopes of seeking answers. I am writing this post with the hope that if we keep speaking out about these instances of sexual and street harassment then we keep the dialogue open and active to better prove that what is happening out there is wrong.

I write from the perspective of a heterosexual woman, because that is the life I am living. But my perspective is not the only one that can speak to street harassment. Whether it’s a woman, a gay man, a lesbian, a transgendered individual, or, yes, even a man, street harassment and sexual harassment is never acceptable. That is the attitude we need to take together.

If you feel comfortable, please share your stories or participate in a discussion here with me. All I ask is that you be respectful.

Thank you for listening.