Is ‘Street Harassment’ Ever Acceptable?

Some time ago, Ebony Magazine’s Jamilah Lemieux started a doozy of a trending topic with#BlackPowerIsForBlackMen. The hashtag addressed black male privilege and the ways some black men can be ignorant of the difficulties that sometimes come with being both black, and a woman in America. One of the issues that came up as folks responded was the cat calling, the excessive use ofpick up lines, and the overall street harassment in which some black men sometimes indulge.

I found this bit of the of the larger conversation particularly interesting because some of the tweets elucidated – in a very real way – how annoying, offensive, and sometimes scary this can be for women. I’d understood this for a number of years, but the visceral response I had to some of the tweeted examples was pretty powerful.

Of all the various mating rituals in which men and women partake, I think no greater gap in understanding exists than in that of what is and isn’t acceptable or desired when it comes to interactions between strangers on the street.

For many men, the idea of saying, “damn girl, smile?”, or “you really wearing that dress…” or any of the other things we come up with is simply a way of letting you know we’ve noticed you and that we appreciate whatever it is you just did to our day. For many men, it never occurs to us that some of these statements might be disrespectful, demeaning, objectifying or just rude. We often don’t even realize that we’re probably not the first, or second, or third, or fourth person to speak to you that particular day. This is the pathology of male privilege.

As a young, single lad, I was never big on catcalling or trying to stop a woman on the street. And though I’ve always considered myself a supporter of the goals of the black feminist movement, I didn’t avoid catcalling because of this. I avoided it simply because I felt like the success rate was prohibitively low. I’ve seen barbershops full of men, including those with capes around their necks– half way through a one caesar, empty as everyone rushed to the door as an attractive woman walked by. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a guy try to stop a woman as she’s passed him on the street, or how many times I’ve heard a dude go for the “pssssssssssssstttttttt” or the “yo ma…”. I can, however, count on one hand how many times I’ve actually seen these tactics work.

So while up from puberty through my college years, it was the low batting average associated with catcalling that prevented me from ever really incorporating it into my life, as I got older, I started to understand why, beyond it being a losing proposition, it was also just wrong– 99% of time.

Still, I can’t say that I’m absolutely certain that attempting to start a conversation with someone to whom your aesthetically attracted is inherently wrong, or if it’s more a matter of men erring in how we go about it. Something seems wrong about encouraging a blanket prohibition that would bar men and women from ever attempting to bridge the gap of unacquaintance that exists between strangers on the street.

A few questions:

1. Is it ever acceptable for an interested stranger to address you on the street? If so, can you give some examples of the circumstances or situation that might make that ok? If it’s never acceptable can you help understand your thoughts on why it is not?

2. If you will, can you give us an example of a street interaction that was either disrespectful, scary, offensive (or all of the above) and let us know what about it was particularly off-putting?

3. How much (if at all) does the attractiveness of the man catcalling play into how you respond?

4. If you have an example of a time when a stranger said something to you on the street that made you more interested in getting to know him, peaked your curiosity or  at least caused you to crack a smile, please share it. 

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