“Hey girl, what's your name?” you hear a gravely voice call out.
The voice comes from a middle aged man pushing 50, who passes through the small alleyway where the building’s tenants keep their trash bins — a dark narrow space, regrettably adjacent to the entrance of your downtown apartment. You can tell he’s staring at you. While you offer a polite, yet timid smile, keeping your stare straight and firm, you hope he gets the message: “I don’t feel like talking to you. …” But he doesn't. That would be too easy.
“You look like you could use some fun, you're sexy as fuck,” he calls out again. “I asked you, what's your name?”
By this point you’re shaking, fumbling with your keys, and desperate to slam the door of your apartment firmly behind you. Eventually your silence and frightened expression finally conveys that you’re not interested, and the man tromps off, but not before defeatedly exclaiming, “Whatever, you’re ugly anyway.”
You reflect on the ugly encounter, particularly the man’s demanding inquiry: “What’s your name girl?”
It’s not a question most women want to, or feel obligated to, answer while walking home on Tuesday trash night after a 12-hour shift at work. Or while taking an evening stroll. Or grabbing a midday latte in the Old Port. Or really at any time at all. But it’s this kind of confrontation that many women inevitably face, simply for being out in public. And just because the weather’s turning colder, doesn’t mean sexual harassment in Portland takes the rest of the year off.
An encounter with a sexual harasser on the streets of Portland is undeniably creepy, upsetting, scary, and at the very least, plain annoying. There’s no need for debates or disputes: Women don’t appreciate unsolicited advances, gawking or what’s touted by some as “compliments.” Do men really expect to score dates by addressing a stranger as “baby,” and objectifying as soon as eyes lock for the first time? You’d be hard pressed to find a woman who’s found their sweet soulmate, or even a decent date, from a street-side display of male bravado concealed in the guise of “dishing out compliments.” The tempting, kneejerk reaction for many women that suffer through incidents of sexual harassment is to swear off all men as disgusting pigs. It’s tough to apply the #NotAllMen argument here, but on a case by case basis, it’s important to consider.
Because the purpose of this article is, not by any means to demonize Portland's male population or gender shame, but an attempt to explore the root causes of street harassment, and reject the claim that “boys will be boys,” and the problem lies in how provocatively women dress in public. How backwards is that? Instead this article will examine what it truly means to be sexually harassed. What are the psychological effects of such incidents? What should a women do after an uncomfortable street encounter to feel safe? And will there ever be a time where women and non-binary people don’t have to shape their actions around the uncontrollable desires of men, and have this discussion at all?
What is street harassment?
It should be understood that every woman and man have their own levels of comfort, tolerance and sense of humor during encounters with strangers. Everyone has their own definition of when the line from flirting to textbook sexually harassing behavior has been crossed.
The Sexual Assault Response Serves of Southern Maine (SARSSM) defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome requests for sexual favors, unwelcome advances, groping and any other verbal or nonverbal conduct of a sexual nature.” Harassment of a sexual nature can be labeled under two existing federal definitions; "quid pro quo" and "hostile environment.” Sexual street harassment fits into the “hostile environment” category, with the harasser making a public environment like a sidewalk, store, parking garage, etc., intimidating and uncomfortable. The term "street harassment" can also include homophobic, racist and transphobic slurs, as well as persistent whistling, staring and leering. It's important to note that the majority of victims of street harassment are either people of color or those in the LGBT community, according to statistics from the Stop Street Harassment Organization.
Why do men do it?
As frustrating and scary dealing with inappropriate behavior from a complete stranger can be, there must be a reason, a motive. Despite the feelings of disgust and fear women might experience after being objectified by a stranger, many often wonder what their harasser’s intentions were. We do live in a world where people say things just for the sake of saying them, perhaps in an attempt to maintain some social dominance, but are there any other reasons? A number of males that live in Portland were asked about cat-calling, and why they think it’s so pervasive.
Q: Why do you think some men feel it necessary to catcall or sexually harass women in public/on the streets?
• “Because they feel as if they need to assert themselves to have a presence to someone who captures their attention.”
• “Testosterone deficiency.”
• “I think men cat-call in order to feel powerful and in control of women. I think there is zero sexual intention behind it.”
• “I figure it's kind of like how people feel empowered after saying awful things on the Internet that they would never say in real life. There are no consequences. They have no investment in that person so they say what's really on their minds.”
• “It's just a weird time we live in where I feel like in this country we are really striving towards equality, but around every door there is belittlement: Brock Turners, sexism, catcalling, and men hushing women because 'we don't know what we are talking about.’"
• “I believe it’s to show dominance. Generally men in groups are bigger assholes than an individual man. It can also be seen as 'cool' being the bad guy.”
• “I'd blame it on the probability that they don't understand how it affects women, and the fact that they were probably raised in a culture that promotes macho behavior. It's basically a public display of dominance.”
Women can’t just 'suck it up'
But can’t women just “suck it up,” and learn how to take a compliment? That’s what many women have to hear, either from their friends, family, or the perpetrators themselves, in the wake of a degrading and frightful street encounter. But in fact, statistics from the Stop Street Harassment Organization show that only 3 percent of women that experience street harassment take it as a compliment.
“While I’ve heard the argument that street harassment is actually a compliment – you know, because we’re supposed to be flattered that strange men are screaming at us about our asses – it’s really a super-insidious form of sexism. Because not only do perfect strangers think that it’s appropriate to be sexual toward any woman they want, but street harassment is also predicated on the idea that you’re allowed to say anything to women that you want – anytime, anywhere,” wrote Jessica Valenti, author of He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut … and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know.
There are usually no bruises, blood, or physical boundaries broken during these encounters, but instead harsh words and anxious tensions. As a result, many women attempt to brush these experiences off. Some are even brave enough to bite back against a harasser by saying “go fuck yourself.” However, on top of feeling unsafe in the moment, an experience with street harassment can also have long-term, negative ramifications for a woman. Getting catcalled or harassed on the streets can change a woman's attitude on whether or not they choose to leave their home after dark, it could deter them from taking a shorter route home from work strictly out of fear of being accosted. According to a study done by Cornell University and Hollaback, 85 percent of their 5,000 women-strong sample size said that they take a different route home to avoid street harassment. Repeated interactions can dismantle a woman’s level of confidence and even lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicide. It's not just annoying, it's psychologically damaging. The point is, it shouldn't be this way. Women should not feel like they have some unspoken curfew, or some obligation to constantly be the subject of desire and scrutiny by strange men.
Suggested by the opinions conveyed earlier from various males in the Portland area, there's an obvious recurring theme of male dominance and power over women in these harassment situations. Susan Fineran, a professor of women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine, explains from her years of research, why street sexual harassment occurs.
“Mostly from what I have seen is, it's just men who think treating women in this manner is okay,” Fineran said. “So it's sexist behavior or homophobic behavior if the women don't respond to the harassment (in other words ignore the men catcalling them) and the men start calling them lesbians. There may be some uninformed men who think women like this behavior, but I can't imagine after all of the publicity of some high profile sexual harassment cases in the workplace that men would think street harassment is okay.”
Street harassment is difficult to identify and punish because the effects of it haven’t been studied extensively past workplace or peer-to-peer encounters. What is known anecdotally, is that these occurrences make women feel helpless and uncomfortable. Most of the time this leads to women feeling unsafe in their own community which, with valid reason, can evolve into fear, anger and frustration, furthering fueling mistrust and misunderstanding between the sexes.
“I think for women who need to be outside commuting to work in public areas that after a while it takes its toll on them,” said Fineran. “They may end up changing how they travel places if they know there's a group of men who harass them regularly, or that no matter where they walk, run, that they get harassed when on the street. They may stop going certain places or doing certain things ... in other words women's movement becomes restricted by street harassment.”
One of the most confusing/troubling aspects of street harassment is what women can realistically do about it after it happens.
Most of the time, it's not the words or the tone that pushes the situation to become alarming, but the vulnerability, intent, and the possible escalation of what could happen next. Nobody knows what a strange male is capable of. Street harassment can, and does lead to further violence and abuse.
Checking in at the Portland Police Department with Lt. James Sweatt yielded this information: More than 100 cases of street harassment have been logged in Portland this past year. However, this number is likely to be higher because it's unknown how many incidents occur and don’t get called in. Some women don’t feel comfortable sharing their story, and so many cases go unreported. Sometimes women are even hesitant to share their experience on social media because of the pervasiveness of “victim blaming,” in today's culture. This may be one of the reasons why the local Facebook page, Calling Out Street Harassment in Portland Maine, has been dormant since April. Women feel like reporting their incidents won’t lead to any conclusive outcomes, and might results in further vitriol slung at them online by meninists.
However, the cases that were reported in Portland often did result in postive and meaningful outcomes.
“In May 2014, my best friend and I were sexually assaulted verbally by a taxi cab driver outside of a prominent restaurant in the West End of Portland,” explained a female Portland resident who wishes to remain anonymous.
“It was one of the worst experiences of harassment that I have ever witnessed or been a part of,” she said. “The incident led to court hearings and eventually after a few months, the cab driver was suspended and fined. About a year later the taxi cab business was defunct. I would never wish this type of experience on anyone. And I am so very proud of all of the humans that supported us and rallied with us to ensure that this man was punished for his actions.”
“Yes, I have been harassed on the streets of Portland since then and yes, I still feel the need to be on guard. Not nearly as severe, but in the end, you still feel that you are now an inanimate object solely there for the purpose of someone else's objectification and not the living human being with emotions that you truly are. In general, as a woman I feel that confronting said offender in a non-violent manner needs to be done more often. Don't ignore it. Don't shrug it off. And most of all never let anyone tell you it doesn't matter.”
What can be done?
There are some existing global and national websites that have done a terrific job in calling out the cat-callers. “HollaBack!” was inspired after the Puerto Rican Festival in New York, where hundreds of women were groped by men a decade ago. “Stop Telling Women to Smile” is an art series that addresses gender based street harassment in cities.
Some public transportation providers have websites where women can post pictures of their harassers on the page of the bus or train company to alert authorities and fellow passengers. Although Portland's Metro system doesn't have a section dedicated to perp photos, their website is openly available for complaints against other passengers. It may seem sometimes pointless, but taking such action has resulted and sometimes will result in arrests for sexual assault if the person is still on the bus and can be apprehended.
Sexual harassment in public could be labeled under Maine Law as disorderly conduct, which is classified as a class E crime, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to six months in jail.
Fineran suggests taking pictures or videos of the perpetrators and posting them on social media.
“Colbert and Jon Stewart have covered these behaviors on their shows and there are a lot of YouTube videos demonstrating this behavior where women record men and then ask them why they felt they could harass a stranger on the street in this way,” Fineran said. “Most of the men have no explanation and/or become angry at the surprise confrontation.Realistically, there isn't much women can do other than continually speak out against it and get articles out on how it is boorish, sexist, unwanted behavior that women hate.”