In the past few weeks there has been a lot of buzz online about the recent street harassment video by Hollaback. Yesterday, I watched a recent segment that aired on CNN where a particular “mansplainer” stated that if every street harasser were hot “we” would not have a problem with a man “complimenting our beauty”. His analysis of the issue at hand was so basic and void of all intellectual nuance that I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes about half a dozen times in the course of that 8 minute video clip.
I then reflected on a recent conversation that I had with one of my co-workers in which I dared to say that: “depending on what is said, how it’s said, by whom it’s said and just what I feel that day I don’t always internalize a man saying ‘good morning gorgeous’ as street harassment”. And if I am being totally honest, his gesture may actually provide me with an extra pep in my step. My co-worker’s response was simple and blunt: “that’s rape culture”.
Now before I get burned at the stake allow me to provide some context. I am a self-identified feminist. I work at a rape crisis center. And—and this is a big ‘and’—I am also a Trans Woman Of Color (TWOC). I inhabited a feminine ‘male’-shaped body for 23 years of my life. “Faggot”, “sissy” and “gay boy” were daily epithets tossed in my face. Early on in my transition, back when I was visibly read as trans, I would constantly hear things like “that’s a man” or “look! That’s a dude!” over my shoulder. Being a brown-bodied person who grew up in the inner city I was exposed to the street more often. Growing up in a majority Latino community where street harassment is so prevalent that it is regarded as something that “men just do”, something that “it’s just part of life”. I was even conditioned to see it as reality that could actually be positive. I remember older women endorsing it. For example, when talking about “catcalls” they would say “when you get older you’ll miss it, trust me”.
Partly because of this and also because of harassment’s omnipresent force during my upbringing I grew accustomed to harassment— These days the street harassment I experience is often on par with the comments in the hollaback video since I am often read as cisgender.
I recognize my occasional aloofness to this kind of street harassment when it is directed towards me is a perpetuation of rape culture. I also recognize that it is pointless and unuseful to give street harassment a hierarchy. I know that, as a culture, saying this kind of harassment is ok but this other kind isn’t serves us no good in the dismantling of these systems. Still, I rationalize my indifference to the catcalls I experience on a daily basis by telling myself that “It’s different”. That the harassment that I experienced while growing up stemmed from a place of hatred and the comments I hear today stem from a place of desire.
When speaking to one of my girlfriends she stated to me “the fact that they yell ‘nice’ things to you now, solves your own personal problem but maintains the structure of the patriarchal system that leaves us all subjected to a male gaze that gets to determine which bodies are worthy of being out on the street—at what times, dressed in what way—and which ones aren’t”. I will never—and should never—forget the sting of the first time I was called a “faggot”. For that reason I work to bring an end to street harassment. All awhile not feeling offended by the comments I experience day in and day out. This has feed into me often feeling guilty for not feeling bothered. Because of what I do for a living and my identity as a feminist who is deeply committed to anti-oppression and social justice. I tell myself “you should be offended” yet more often than not, I’m not. In conversations with a few of my cis girlfriends I have come to realize that I am not alone in these contradictory view, that not all women are offended or bothered when faced with harassment in public.
Even so, the truth is I just don’t see the world in the same way that cis women do. For example: a few years ago a local non-profit run by a TWOC released a calendar featuring all local trans girls in lingerie. The criticism from women and feminists was that it was “exploitative” and “oppressive”. But here’s the thing, as a trans woman I was raised in a culture that told me that I was undesirable, and not sexy. I was told that men would only want a woman like me in the form of a transaction in the twilight hours of our urban street corners. I was told that no “real” man would claim me in the light of day. Because of this I see nothing more sexy and liberating than a bunch of trans women (most of whom were of color) owning their bodies and their sexuality saying “FU! I am sexy, I am desirable, I am loveable”.
My lens and identity as a TWOC is not one I can divorce myself from—nor do I want to, it is part of who I am. To say that my experience as a TWOC has not influenced my perspective around this issue would be false. Views around street harassment differ from person to person and vary even more when we take race, class, cultural background, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression into account.
The question is then how can we allow space within feminism and anti-oppression spaces for women like me. Women who state that although I recognize some behaviors as problematic in the greater system, I still internalize somebody saying “good morning gorgeous” to me on the street, on a day when—as my sisters would say—I’m feelin real fish as an acknowledgement and affirmation of my identity. An identity I fought for many years to achieve and be recognized. Women like me who know this is not something we need, but it certainly brings a smile to our face.
If it is true that oppression and privilege can co-exist within the same vessel, could it then also be true that a woman like myself—who strongly believes in a world free of sexual violence, who yearns for the day when we replace rape culture with a culture of consent—can also on personal level have a love hate relationship with street harassment?
By no means am I trying to rationalize or endorse street harassment. The purpose of this post is to start a honest conversation amongst those that are harassed, that this is a very complex and nuanced issue. That it is not as black and white as often we make it seem. Not all women are offended by what someone yells to them on the street. I feel guilty and slightly hypocritical for feeling good, but what good does that guilt do me? My friend went on to say “The tension you’re experiencing is at the heart of feminism is: How to be a woman that is sexy, free, happy, flirty, etc. without reproducing the structure of oppression and sexsim?” (One of my aha moments) Heaven if I know, does anyone?
As women we operate within the system and to truly dismantle these systems it is essential to recognize our role in the perpetuation of them. To truly power a culture of consent everyone needs to be a part of the conversation. That means those of us that on a personal level are indifferent and those that shut out or guilt trip those that are. Race, cultural background, gender and class all need to be part of the conversation—everyone needs to be part of the conversation.
If we allow the feeling of ‘guilt’ for feeling ‘good’ by something that someone called us on the street to keep us from acting out against street harassment it serves all of us no good and will only function as another system of oppression in the perpetuation of rape culture. We mustn’t allow that complacency to dominate our actions or give that complacency too much space in our lives and we must be well aware that that complacency IS dangerous. My girlfriend Juliana said it best “We must never EVER forget that while one of us is being called “gorgeous” someone else is being called a ‘faggot’”.