Black Women x The Streets x Harassment

This “Black men walking on the outside of Black women on
the street” business touched a cord here on my blog, and
opened up a really interesting discussion on race, gender
roles, Black men and women, and patriarchy. I plan on doing
a some follow up posts to address some of the issues that
came up. This post is one of them.

The issue that I want to address is how a woman’s ability
TO BE IN THE STREET is connected to her ability to participate
in public life, in Democracy.

Tonight I reread Cynthia Grant Bowman’s paper, “Street
Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women”
which was published in the Harvard Law Review. I am going
to provide some quotes from the paper then offer some

Street Harassment and Liberty for Women

The liberty of women, in this most fundamental sense of freedom from restraint, is substantially limited by street harassment, which reduces their physical and geographical mobility and often prevents them from appearing alone in public places. In this sense, street harassment accomplishes an informal ghettoization of women — a ghettoization to the private sphere of hearth and home.

If we can’t be on the street, we can’t feel comfortable in public, if we can’t feel comfortbable in public how will we participate in a democracy?

Working Definition of Street Harassment

Street harassment occurs when one or more strange men accost one or more women . . . in a public place which is not the woman’s/women’s worksite. Through looks, words, or gestures the man asserts his right to intrude on the woman’s attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him.

So, if I am on the street, and you are saying something to me, you are trying to FORCE me to interact with you. Patriarchy says that men, by virtue of simply being born biologically men have the right to dominate over women and children, in the home and the street. This street shit is patriarchy in action.

The Purpose of Harassment: “Know your place, Celie.”

The first function of public harassment is to reinforce spatial boundaries that drastically limit women’s “sphere.” It clearly stakes out public space as male space. Women who want to be outside their homes must do so at their own risk and with the full knowledge that at any time they can be publicly humiliated or “complimented.” Women are at all times subject to public scrutiny.

The purpose of men saying shit is to let me know that I am always on display and subjected to something popping off? Shit is tiring. It must be how Black men feel in terms of dealing with the police.

I Guess I am Suppose to “Play My Position”

Unlike men, women passing through public areas are subject to “markers of passage” that imply either that women are acting out of role simply by their presence in public or that a part of their role is in fact to be open to the public. These “markers” emphasize that women, unlike men, belong in the private sphere, the sphere of domestic rather than public responsibility. Ironically, men convey this message by intruding upon a woman’s privacy as she enters the public sphere.

I never tripped off of me not being allowed in the street as being connected to me needing to remain at home, as it is my “proper” place. But this makes sense.

Freedom, The Streets and Autonomy

Central to the freedom to be at ease in public spaces is the capacity to pass through them while retaining a certain zone of privacy and autonomy — a zone of interpersonal distance that is crossed only by mutual consent. If, by contrast, women are subject to violation of that zone of personal privacy when they enter public areas, that very invasion of privacy effectively drives women back into the private sphere, where they may avoid such violations. Thus, by turning women into objects of public attention when they are in public, harassers drive home the message that women belong only in the world of the private.

“… zone of interpersonal distance that is crossed only by mutual consent.”

Its bugged how I immediately notice how men treat me on the street when I am walking with another man. I also use to notice how they treated me substantially different when I was on the street a White man. And lets not start with being on the street with a woman.

Street Harassment and the Rape Test

Furthermore, rapists often harass women on the street and violate their personal space in order to determine which women are likely to be easy targets — a practice called “rape-testing.” Because potential rapists frequently select their victims by looking for women who appear vulnerable to assault, they may approach a potential victim and “test” her by a variety of means, including making lewd or insinuating remarks, to see if she can be intimidated. If the target reacts in a passive fashion to the harassment, the rapist may assume that she will probably not fight back, and he is more likely to rape her. Thus, the connection between rape and harassment is not just in the mind of the woman.

This rape test + harassment connection is real. Who knew that the ways in which we responded to a comment sent a signal to would be rapist?

From Friendly to Hostile to Bitch in 10 Seconds

Hey, why so serious, honey? Give us a little smile.” My sense of humor, he didn’t know, was temporarily out of service, so of course I didn’t give him a little smile. But in not smiling, I had again violated the code, provoking another seizure of silent suffering that became verbal. As I passed the sleeve on the street, it hissed a word at me, with the edge of anger to it, with a sharp rebuke in it: “Bitch.

This account describes a common pattern, in which the target’s failure to response results in escalation and a superficially friendly interaction is transformed into one that is transparently hostile.

I realized that one of the reasons why I was so insistent about my gentlemen friend’s insistence at walking on the outside is that I am already subjected to hella patriarchal social relations, in the streets, with men that I don’t know. My tolerance for taking that shit off of someone that I choose to be around was reasonable.

In some ways, I realize that I saw what he was doing as a further extension of what I have to navigate all the time. Because I be in the streets and I believe that women and men have a right to do so autonomously.

Am I saying that his wanting to walk on the outside is the same as street harassment? Of course not. Am I saying that both are patriarchal in that they are rooted in the idea that men, by virtue of being biological males have the right to protect and dominate women? Yes.

I think one of my favorite lines from this paper is: Central to the freedom to be at ease in public spaces is the capacity to pass through them while retaining a certain zone of privacy and autonomy — a zone of interpersonal distance that is crossed only by mutual consent.

Do you feel autonomous on the street? Why or why not?

Do women have the right to be autonomous on the street?

Why is it so much of a challenge for some Black men and women to accept that the way in which women are treated in the street has implications for all of us?

Racial Sexism?

Any thoughts on Street Harassment?

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  1. says

    Street harassment is very unfortunate and kind of crazy. I would be pissed if I couldn’t go for a walk and simply be without being harassed, catcalled, or interviewed.

    I became more aware after checking out an interactive show called CatCalled that was weird, funny and kind of corny. Initially I dismissed the show as womens’ issue, because it really did not affect me. However, I think the show was successful because it did open my eyes and I began to actually think more about the problem. Byron Hurt’s hip hop documentary definitely presented the problem in a clear-cut and colorful way.

    Hopefully more people realize that street harassment is simply not appropriate.

  2. says

    I feel bad that ladies can’t look good without getting violated in some way, but I really don’t what to tell you since even the meek fellas are gonna stare and sneak peaks.

    I also feel that there’s no handbook on sure-fire ways to talk to “that” girl so hollering, thru generations, has been found the most effective. We wouldn’t grab in the clubs and cat-call on the streets if it didn’t work.

    again, I think the problem isn’t with men really (we’re visual), its more the culture and environment (enough girls like it). I’m generalizing but I’m sayin’.

    This video is inexcusable though, this ain’t “don’t be a menace”.

  3. admin says


    Thank you for commenting.
    I responded below.

    Have you considered how there is a connection between the need to protect women and the possibility dominating women?

    I also feel that there?s no handbook on sure-fire ways to talk to ?that? girl so hollering, thru generations, has been found the most effective. We wouldn?t grab in the clubs and cat-call on the streets if it didn?t work.
    You are right.There is no handbook. I never thought about men being TAUGHT about how to talk to women on the street. #ummhmm

    However, how much of niggas talking in the street is about Talking to girls, than it is about BONDING with other men. Black men do this by themselves and in groups to pass time. They frequently bond with each other over OUR asses. A woman can walk by and two men who DON’T know each other will turn to each other comment on her ass/body. #ummhmm.

    again, I think the problem isn?t with men really (we?re visual), its more the culture and environment (enough girls like it). I?m generalizing but I?m sayin?.
    Men are visual. Negro HUMANS are visual. Miss me with that excuse making. My whole crew is real visual. In fact most of us are visual artists.So that ain’t an excuse Love.

    I am uncertain as to your conclusion that “enough girls like it”. You are generalizing, and I USE TO THINK that it must work on some women so dudes do it. BUT. I no longer think that.

    How many of us like it, and how many of us deal with it, because we LIVE in the hood and that shit is just a part of daily life that we are subjected to going from Point A to Point B?

    Especially after re reading Grants essay and seeing JUST HOW MUCH patriarchy I have to navigate in the street with strange MEN and with MEN I AM DATING. Uh. NO.


  4. says

    I kind of love the “men are visual” excuse. (read: sarcasm) As if women aren’t. But somehow we can control ourselves and not call men out their names, grab men we don’t know, grope them in a club without their permission, grill them about the 5 Ws and H when they’re just walking to the post office and so on and so forth.

    And I agree with “admin”, I don’t think *any* woman likes that kind of treatment; I just think women are taught to put up with it and move on. So maybe that tolerance gets interpreted as enjoyment, which are SO not the same thing.

    What we’re dealing with here is unchecked privilege and entitlement. Many (not all, mind you, but many) men act as though women’s bodies are public property, to be touched and used at will. And even “nice” things like insisting on walking curbside is a way of saying “I’m going to treat you differently for no other reason than your XX chromosomes.”

    By the way, who’s responsible for the culture and environment that encourages this kind of behavior if men themselves aren’t “really the problem”, and don’t have to take responsibility for their own actions?

  5. says

    I laughed when you called me on the visual thing, that usually gets me by these kinda arguments (mostly females in my fam, this is def used)

    I prolly do take coy tolerance as enjoyment since I usually hear about it when its not appreciated but if you’re giving me a number just to go on your way? I don’t get it & prolly never will.

    as for treating women differently because of chromosomes, well I treat everybody differently. Growing up in Boston, you find everyone is a sum of the stereotypes they were raised by. I don’t think its right but it sure does help get to the point in certain situations. I treat you the way I learned to get the best reaction from you.

    and for the best question posed by Danielle “By the way, who?s… …responsibility for their own actions?”
    Parents naturally, I’d go far as to say black women since most people I know were raised by just they momma. I was raised to be nice, protective, all that man shit by her and reinforced by my community. its how it is and always been. no real answer for that except for more conversation and education.

    Like most things, when you’re more knowledgeable, you ask more questions and will be looking for changes for the better IMO. This blog seems like a great example of that.*daps*


  1. Why do men whistle and cat call at girls?…

    More than a signaling mechanism to other men, it’s a signaling to women (and that woman specifically) of the patriarchy in play. In an equal (ideal) world, one could walk about without being forced into an unwanted interaction with a stranger. To quot…