When ‘hello’ becomes harassment

Many people are unaware that what they’ve faced or what they’ve done is a form of street harassment. Almost every woman or member of the LGBTQIQA community has a drawerful of street harassment stories. Let me be clear about what I mean when I say “street harassment:” I don’t mean a single smile or “hello” directed at a stranger (this is the South, after all). I mean going out of your way to make sure someone is aware of your presence and that you are paying attention to them.

Street harassment is always unwarranted and unwanted, regardless of someone’s attire or what time of day it is. Here’s one of my personal accounts:

Last summer, I was walking home from a hair appointment and decided to stop at Burger King. I was leaving the parking lot, maybe two blocks away from home (a big deal in the ‘burbs). A man in a white car pulled up beside me to see how I was doing and asking for my name and number. I said “No, thank you” and sped up. Five hundred feet later, the same man pulled up, closer this time, trying to convince me to give him my number because that was supposedly “all [he] wanted.” I ignored him and practically ran into the yard of a nearby house, where I knew he wouldn’t be able to follow me. In that moment, I thought, which of these houses can I find safety in? What if no one’s home? What if he gets out of his car? How can I defend myself?

That is street harassment.

Although this incident was not physical, street harassment can go that far. It can be as simple as requesting that someone “give you a smile” or commenting on someone’s body for them to hear you. It can be as extreme as making a physical pass at someone or touching yourself when an “attractive” person is in your vicinity.

If someone continues to speak to you or approach you after you’ve made it clear that you are uninterested, that’s harassment. If someone calls a slur out at you, that’s street harassment. If you call someone an expletive after they’ve denied your out-of-the-blue pass at them, that’s harassment. If someone grabs you to tell you how great you look today, that’s harassment. If you tell someone how great of a time you can show them in the bedroom or elsewhere, that’s harassment. If you comment on someone’s perceived sexual preference or gender identity (i.e. “Is that a girl or a boy?”), that’s harassment.

Be aware of what street harassment is so that you’re not a part of it and can help stop it. When you ask a woman to smile and she refuses to or ignores you, don’t call her a bitch. You might be the fifth person that day to make her feel uncomfortable when she’s just trying to get where she’s going. And even if you’re not, no one is required to comply with the requests made of them by people on the street. Street harassment is not a compliment; it’s an invasion of someone’s privacy.

*This article originally appeared in the Opinions section of The Signal on Nov. 5, 2013.*