You Talkin' to Me?: Street Assault

It happened twice in the same day -- and it hurt both times. I was on vacation on the East Coast, having a great time exploring an unfamiliar city alone, and considering what it would be like to live there. I stood on a busy street at noon, eyes searching for a place to lunch and rest my pavement-pounded feet, an endless sea of people parting around me on the sidewalk as smoothly as ripples of water streaming around a rock in a creek. Then an implacable knee rose up from that river of bodies, and rammed me as hard as it could in the upper thigh. I yelped and nearly fell, as much from surprise as from the shock of pain; no one passing by so much as raised any eyebrow. Later that night, I left a nightclub and headed back to my hotel. I'd almost forgotten about the earlier incident, even though my leg still throbbed. A little after midnight on a fairly crowded street, a well-dressed man approached, then passed me. As he did, he reached out, grabbed my crotch and squeezed it painfully, all without breaking stride. Once again, by the time I turned around to confront him, he had disappeared in a mass of people. At that moment, I decided not to move there. But judging by the anecdotes that Carol Brooks Gardner has gathered in her new book, Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (UC Press) this sort of behavior could have happened in Indianapolis. And if that's the case, then it follows that it could happen on any street in any town in America -- at least to a woman who has the audacity to walk alone. Gardner spent five years examining public places and interviewing more than 500 men and women; the picture that emerges is not a pretty one. Her premise is that the book is "not a statistical portrayal," but rather a "microcosm that represents the public harassment of women by men throughout the U.S." Although it's a problem that every woman I've spoken with knows about quite intimately, trying to get society to take it seriously is another story. Even though incidents of street assault such as my own are often prefaced by any number of gestures, shouts and whistles, women are usually advised to either shrug and walk on or recognize these episodes as complimentary, perhaps even precursors to romance. A recent Boston Globe column by Mike Barnicle mocks a new Minneapolis ordinance, a "no-ogling policy for construction workers." He mourns, "How sad. A handful of hard-working males pause from their busy day to appreciate the legs, gams, wheels, sticks, trim waists, excellent hair or whatever of pretty girls in summer dresses and they are treated like criminals. Mercy." While legislation may not be the answer, I suspect that what prompted this ordinance was an incident a bit uglier than hard-working males letting out the occasional wolf-whistle. I'd venture to guess that Mr. Barnicle has never had the experience -- like a friend of mine with a double-D cup -- of hearing "Hey! Cut one of those off and I'll eat for a week!" shouted in broad daylight on a public street. Most likely he's never had to walk an extra three blocks out of his way to work -- like one woman in Gardner's book -- in order to bypass a group of construction workers. "I don't want to go all through that, the hassling and the grief from the guys," she says. "I don't want to be reminded how they, men, have power over me, as a woman." The subtext of ogling, comments from strangers, pokes and pinches is power. Men have it, women don't. Popular etiquette doesn't help with its message that at least half the blame belongs to women: if they would only stay home, dress differently, not go out alone, or, for God's sake, smile and take these comments as the compliments they are. Never mind that all too often stranger rapes start off as street harassment. Never mind that agoraphobia (fear of leaving one's house) is overwhelmingly a woman's disease. Never mind that incidents of being harassed can shake women to the core, and affect their public behavior in profound ways -- and God help them if they have the effrontery to be a woman of color or a lesbian -- then they're really asking for it. The case histories in Gardner's book are vivid reminders that women are still powerless on the streets. Retaliation, or, for that matter, responding in any way can lead to an ugly escalation: stalking, assault, even rape. The catch is that it's also risk y to ignore the humiliating, never-ending appraisal of one's body by strangers. Oh, but it's just innocent flattery, implies Barnicle. Just boys being boys, a little harmless girl-watching. "Inevitably, this crazed, absurd, politically correct, totally overboard reaction will spread," he says. Wouldn't it be nice if -- rather than legislation -- what did spread was a little not-so-common courtesy from men who can't keep their comments and hands to themselves? Even a little respect?

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