In New York City, the rules for interacting with strangers are fairly clear: keep to yourself. On the train, loud conversations or taking up too much space will catch you serious side eye. On the sidewalk, people pop in their headphones and sidestep foot traffic to the beat of their personal soundtracks. That’s not to say that asking for directions or striking up a conversation is verboten, but there is no expectation of prolonged, in-depth interaction. The assumption is that everyone’s got somewhere to be.
Or are the expectations different depending on who you are? This week, an unidentified woman had her throat slashed as she walked home because she refused to engage in conversation with her attacker. In a separate incident, Mary Spears was shot and killed while attending the funeral of a family member after she refused to give her attacker her phone number. And that’s just this week.In September, the bodies of teenagers Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball were found on the shoulder of a Florida highway; the circumstances surrounding their deaths are unclear and the case received minimal media coverage. Who knows how many other incidents go unreported every day.
When I read about these cases, my initial reaction was disgust. The mental leap one must take from hitting on a woman to murdering her is not only appalling but also illustrates that, to the murderer, she was never a person to begin with. Her physique alone sparked a glimmer of lust that transformed into rage at the first sign of a bruised ego. There’s no genuine attraction there; it’s just a conquest. These interactions were never about the women; they were about the attackers. These women could’ve been anyone.
And then I shook my head with disappointment. Silly rabbit, the rules aren’t the same for everyone across the boards. On a regular basis, some men have no qualms about breaking those unwritten rules, as if there’s an exception for women. And while shooting a woman when she won’t divulge her number is extreme, asking for a woman’s number is in no way unusual. Instead, it’s said that women should be flattered when they’re showered with a litany of “Honey, Sweetie, Mami, Baby.” It’s a sign that a woman is beautiful, right?
Unfortunately, these are the most innocuous offenses on the spectrum. Women of color, lesbians, and trans women are even more likely to experience vicious and even life threatening forms of harassment. What’s even more infuriating is that justice is rarely served in these extreme cases. Just last week, the state of California banned the use of the “gay panic” and “trans panic” defense in court. To clarify, this defense has been used successfully in several states to acquit people who murder gay or transgender individuals based on the argument that they lost their faculties to a moment of “violent temporary insanity because of a little-known psychiatric condition called homosexual panic.” Frequently, the victim is blamed when she was simply walking down the street.
I won’t disclose my own experience with street harassment because it is neither extreme or unique. However, I do find myself wrestling with the way I choose to handle it. If it’s a quick comment, I’ll often just smile and ignore it, rationalizing it to myself that the man in question was just trying to be friendly. For a more persistent and creepy negative friend, I often smile and apologize, explaining that I have a boyfriend. And then I think about it: why do I respond in that manner? Why should having a boyfriend be the reason that creepwad needs to stand down, to back off, when my own disinterest should be enough? While in my own imagination, I let loose with a string of curses and tell that dude where to go, I hold back in reality. If I’m going honest, it’s because I can never gauge when a stranger is going to cross that line, when a switch will flip and some casual advances may turn into something more serious. I doubt Mary Spears anticipated her situation would escalate that quickly, either.
Ultimately, I feel that there are two important takeaways from these utterly despicable crimes. Since we live in an age of 140 character infoblasts, I’ll keep it brief with these two key points:
Intentions don’t matter; reception does.
So frequently, the excuse/fake apology surrounding sexism (or racism, or homophobia, or any -ism, really) is “Well, I didn’t mean it like that.” There’s this false belief that women just don’t get it, that they’re being too serious or, God forbid, bitchy. Let me make this abundantly clear: when the statement in question makes a person feel self-conscious, threatened, or ashamed, intentions are irrelevant. While I suspect that the man who murdered Mary Spears had bad intentions from the jump, this assumption that good intentions equate with a positive reception is completely bogus.
Women don’t owe anyone shit.
It does not matter if she’s wearing a bikini or a burqa walking through the middle of Times Square or down a country road. Women are not obligated to give out their phone numbers, to interact, to pay anyone any mind if they do not choose to do so. They do, however, deserve to be able to walk outside in without feeling uncomfortable, unsafe, or embarrassed.
My cynical side has little faith that street harassment can be wholly defeated, but people like Tatyana Falalizadeh give me hope. This Brooklyn-based artist’s project, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” posts portraits of women prominently in the street. Each portrait is captioned with statements like “My name is not Baby,” “My outfit is not an invitation,” and “Women do not owe you their time or conversation.” Together, these pieces create a comforting touchstone of solidarity and serve as a silent companion for women walking home alone.
Thank you, Tatyana, for plastering the streets with the words I am too nervous to vocalize. I look forward to a day when we no longer have to say them.