Say It

I Had To Teach My Son About Street Harassment

“I have tried to explain to him exactly what it is that the girls he knows are facing out there, and how important it is for him to never become part of that problem.”

Selinsgrove, PA -- A university student uses chalk to write an anti-street harassment message on the university's main walkway in support of International Anti-Street Harassment Week.
National Journal
Sarah Goodyear, City Lab
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Aug. 10, 2015, 8:27 a.m.

If you’re a girl grow­ing up in New York City, you learn about street har­ass­ment at an early age. The les­son is not op­tion­al. As soon as you ap­proach ad­oles­cence, as soon as your shape starts to change, men on the street start say­ing things to you. It’s a con­fus­ing and of­ten scary real­iz­a­tion that girls come in­to sud­denly: The simple act of walk­ing your body down the street is something you have to learn how to do all over again. With a game face on.

When I went through this learn­ing ex­per­i­ence, I was at­tend­ing an all-girls school in Man­hat­tan. We had an as­sembly where we were taught how to re­spond if men made lewd re­marks or flashed us on the street. I dis­tinctly re­mem­ber get­ting the in­struc­tion to walk out in­to mov­ing traffic rather than get too close to a man lurk­ing in a door­way and say­ing dirty things to you. Be­cause if he laid hands on you — if the har­ass­ment went bey­ond words — you might not es­cape in one piece. Bet­ter to risk get­ting hit by a car.

It’s a con­fus­ing and of­ten scary real­iz­a­tion that girls come in­to sud­denly: The simple act of walk­ing your body down the street is something you have to learn how to do all over again. With a game face on.

That was a long time ago, in a city that was far more dan­ger­ous than it is today. But des­pite the re­cord-low crime num­bers that the “new” New York reg­u­larly racks up, the city’s young wo­men still have to learn the same les­son I did: By the time you are 12, 13, or 14, de­pend­ing on how quickly you ma­ture, you can ex­pect reg­u­lar and some­times dis­gust­ing com­ments on what you look like and what men want to do to you. The is­sue is get­ting much more at­ten­tion now, thanks to groups like Hol­laback, but it hasn’t gone away — in New York or in pretty much any oth­er city where people ac­tu­ally walk down the street.

I am the moth­er of a 13-year-old my­self, now, but my child is not a girl. My child is a boy. And I have to teach him a dif­fer­ent les­son.

Let’s face it, par­ents of boys of­ten don’t see street har­ass­ment as an ur­gent is­sue, be­cause they don’t have to. Un­less they’re queer, ad­oles­cent boys and young men are likely not go­ing to be the ob­jects of such har­ass­ment as they move about the city. (LGB­TQ kids do face dan­ger­ous har­ass­ment reg­u­larly, and it can es­cal­ate in­to vi­ol­ence.)

Boys do tend to get par­ent­al ad­vice on how to re­duce the risk of get­ting mugged, or how to avoid get­ting in­to fights with oth­er boys on the street. I’ve giv­en my son those talks, for sure. But I’ve also giv­en him an­oth­er one that I think is equally im­port­ant: I have tried to ex­plain to him ex­actly what it is that the girls he knows are fa­cing out there, and how im­port­ant it is for him to nev­er be­come part of that prob­lem.

The oth­er day, on a call-in show on WNYC, anti-har­ass­ment act­iv­ists talked about how cat­call­ing — a re­l­at­ively harm­less-sound­ing phe­nomen­on — is part of a con­tinuum of be­ha­vi­or that can in­clude sexu­al as­sault. In the words of Holly Kearl of Stop Street Har­ass­ment, “dis­respect and lack of con­sent” are the com­mon themes of this con­tinuum, which in­cludes everything from in­sist­ing that a wo­man or girl smile on com­mand to grop­ing her when she’s stand­ing next to you on the train. And worse.

Wo­men draw eyes from a group of New York con­struc­tion work­ers — who didn’t har­ass any of the pass­ers-by — dur­ing a lunch break in 2010. (AP Photo/Tina Fine­berg)

My kid is a gentle soul and a gen­er­ally de­cent young man. I trust his in­stincts and his heart. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the need to be quite dir­ect and ex­pli­cit about his re­spons­ib­il­ity to be a young man who al­ways treats girls and wo­men with re­spect — on the street and every­where else. It’s his re­spons­ib­il­ity to be con­scious and em­path­et­ic about what wo­men deal with every day. We talk about it the way we talk about any oth­er duty he has to be a good cit­izen of the world, and while he oc­ca­sion­ally rolls his eyes when I get go­ing on the top­ic (yes, he is a teen­ager), I feel con­fid­ent that he’s listen­ing.

Be­cause par­ent­al lec­tures only go so far, I’m happy to re­port that he’s not just hear­ing this from me. The oth­er night, he watched Aziz An­sari’s latest stan­dup spe­cial, Live at Madis­on Square Garden, on Net­flix. The show has a whole sec­tion on street har­ass­ment and what wo­men have to put up with from guys. “Wo­men have to worry about creepy dudes all the time,” An­sari says in the show. “And it’s very un­fair, be­cause men nev­er worry about creepy wo­men.” It’s a kind of amaz­ing mes­sage for the comedi­an to be put­ting out there, as a guy talk­ing to oth­er guys.

When I asked my boy how he liked An­sari’s routine, he shrugged and said it was pretty good, but that a lot of it wasn’t as funny as he ex­pec­ted. Like the part about street har­ass­ment, he said. It was kind of ser­i­ous, and he hadn’t really been look­ing for ser­i­ous.

“I mean, I get it,” my kid said.

I told him I was glad he did. And hey, Aziz — thanks for the backup.

Re­pub­lished with the per­mis­sion of City Lab. The ori­gin­al ver­sion can be found here.

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