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It’s Not a Compliment, It’s Harassment

“Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression” –Nelson Mandela


I was saddened the other day as I followed behind a woman on my way into a restaurant for lunch who had just been taunted by a young man from across the street. In considering a part of my own identity, honestly my heart sank even further when I thought of the realization that both the perpetrator and the victim in this case were African-American.  Because of the obstacles faced by African-Americans already, it stings that much more when I witness or experience oppression or prejudice among group members.

In my opinion, the display and approach the young man offered represented an acting out of the Black male as the Brute: a stereotype that was bought and disseminated hundreds of years ago that continues to persist.

In writing about some of his own experiences witnessing and speaking to others about street harassment in his article, “Ignoring Canaries in the Mine”, Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis writes:

“For Black men who have been locked out of many of the proposed social opportunities of American society, be it work, education, healthy living conditions, etc. power feels a bit foreign. This lack of power exists along with media that inundates us images of “success” that are far from our grasps. In response, many young Black men look for local spaces to have power over something. This power over usually crystallizes in our relationship to women in our community. As boys and men harass women who pass by and feen interest in women responding favorably to grotesque advances and comments about their bodies, it’s all too common to hear these encounters end with, “Fuck you then, bitch!” This last ditch statement reflects males attempt to salvage the “power” in the interaction. The catch is that the final statement not only fails to provide the harasser with power, it also further disempowers the harassed.”

In speaking specifically in the context of the African American community, I think Dr. Lewis did a great job of highlighting the issue. However, in agreeing with him, I would also say that street harassment is an ill perpetrated by men which crosses racial lines and devalues women in the human family all over the world.

So what is Street Harassment?

Street harassment is something that many women are all too familiar with, and can encounter on a daily basis.  While SH is one term to define it, I am sure that many men have seen (or maybe even participated in) these actions before.

Holly Kearl, founder of  Stop Street, an organization that works to “raise awareness about the global problem of gender-based street harassment and illustrate how it is a human rights issue that impedes gender equality” speaks of street harassment as being:

“Catcalls, sexually explicit comments, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation and assault. 80 to 100 percent of women worldwide face sexual harassment in public. In many countries, including the United States, this is called “street harassment,” and in other countries it’s called “eve teasing” or “public sexual harassment.” Street harassment is bullying behavior but instead of being treated as such, it is often normalized as “the way things are,” treated as a minor annoyance, a compliment, or women’s fault. In reality, it is a global human rights issue and it must end.”

This Video directed by Nuala Cabral, entitled: “Walking Home” highlights some of the experiences women can face on a daily basis being harassed in the street. (Contains Some explicit language)

We know it. We’ve seen it. Women continue to experience it. No matter how we slice it, street harassment demeans women. Women of the world should be able to go to public places without being physically or psychologically poked and prodded like a piece of meat.

In thinking of the woman I saw, I am sure that this was not the first time she had been harassed, and would probably not be the last. Although the incident happened very quickly, I believe that it had a lasting effect.  Yes, she might have escaped with her physical being in-tact, but I can only imagine the mental scars left on her psyche as a result of this and other random encounters she may have received in the past, just for being who she was.

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In my previous post, I talked a little about how in thinking specifically about my social identity as a male (excluding race), I am generally not concerned about my safety when walking at night. However many women must be concerned about traveling in groups, with a trusted friend, etc out of fear of being assaulted by men (generally speaking). By devaluing women verbally, street harassment can contribute to situations that make it ok (in the perpetrator’s mind) to escalate into a physical confrontation, specifically if the advances are rejected.

How many times does she have to tell you?

Allies are needed to fight against every type of oppression. We must use our privileges to level the playing field.  Just as people of color should not be solely responsible for ending racism, just as people in the LGBTQ community should not be solely responsible for ending homophobia, women should not be solely responsible for ending sexism in its many forms.

As a whole, I believe men need to do better. We shouldn’t have to imagine them in the place of our mothers, partners, daughters, sisters, aunts, nieces, cousins, and all of the other special women in our lives in order to recognize this as an issue. They should not have to have some attachment to us as men in order to be treated with respect. Rather, we should recognize the inherent respect they deserve as human beings regardless of if we know them or not. We must work to counter the societal notions that reduce them to mere body parts, or simple objects to be used purely for male pleasure.

Although I have not yet become a father, I understand the importance of teaching young men, and even more specifically in terms of my passions and salient sphere of influence, young African-American men to respect women from an early age.

Those of us who are adults should be mindful of the ways we present ourselves as well in terms of how we communicate with women. The young men are watching. As I ask myself “what will they see in me?” I hope my male readers are asking themselves similar questions.

Grace & Peace,

From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins



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I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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16 Responses

  1. LovEternal says:

    This is a very thoughtful post. I can relate to this because I still have emotional scars from this kind of harassment when I was younger (and thinner!!). People don’t realize how humiliating it is to be on the receiving end of this type of harassment. And then to be further harassed for not responding to that nonsense by being called a “stuck up bitch”, “no one wants you anyway”. Very hurtful messages for a teenage girl to receive. This behavior continued on in my undergrad years. I was AFRAID to walk down the main mall to the Union where every one met up to eat lunch. Some girls liked the attention and were positively reinforced for being receptive to it. Those who chose to ignore it became targets. This had a profound impact on my own self image and body image. I hide behind extra weight now because I no longer get the attention. A part of me does not want to be “seen” as an attractive woman. I don’t want the negative attention that comes with it. But, for health reasons I am trying to get rid of the extra weight and emotional baggage that comes with it. I have to learn to accept who I am, and who I will be once the extra weight is gone. The dark side of “beauty” is not addressed enough. This goes both ways. I have heard women making disrespectful comments to attractive men. They want to be respected by women just as much as we want to be respected by men.

  2. Thank you for your comment, and for sharing some of your experiences. Your story highlights an example of how street harassment can impact women. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, more men (myself included) need to find ways to speak up and speak out to help women and begin to work at healing some of the scars. I hope one day, you will be able to find the confidence and positive self perception you seek. The complications of this issue span much further than I was able to convey in my words here, but I hope that it can trigger conversations which can be applied through actions for change and advocacy.

    Thanks again,

  3. “Just as people of color should not be solely responsible for ending racism, just as people in the LGBTQ community should not be solely responsible for ending homophobia, women should not be solely responsible for ending sexism in its many forms.”

    This is a beautiful quote. I’m going to have to use this sometime.

    Great post!

  4. Feel Free Mark, Thanks for reading!

  5. Beqi says:

    Thank you so MUCH for this post. And it is a problem that crosses racial lines, as I am a white woman who has been harassed since the age of 13 across race and age barriers. All my friends of every colour share my experience, as well as a pretty hefty dose of anger and shame.

    It is not a compliment. It is a verbal assault. It is someone pulling me (however briefly) into a sexualized encounter against my will. I just want to get to lunch.

    It has happened to your mother, your grandmother, your sister, niece, daughter, granddaughter. Probably from a very young age. It makes us feel unsafe, angry, ashamed, and alone. It contributes to the way women distrust you even when you haven’t done anything.

    And if you do it, you are the problem.

  6. Most of it has already been said (well.)

    I’m going to respond to the concept in the Lewis excerpt on power feeling foreign to people belonging to some group that has traditionally been a minority in some way.

    Not to look past the specific circumstances of race, class, gender, nationality, etc etc – you can’t.

    However looking from a human perspective….back up a bit…..the process of coming closer to, of occupying one’s power……it is universal. Power over – no. Power to influence – maybe, in the right context. What I mean is occupying the space that IS power. With true power comes responsibility, you cannot have one without the other. They are part of the same thing. This does feel foreign – to everyone, I believe.

    Take the example of a neighborhood group that gets together on a weekend to clean up the alley and paint a mural over some graffiti. What a bold statement – to give up a precious weekend and apply that energy in some collective, organized fashion in such a way that the effect is “WE LIVE HERE.” That is power – !

  7. Thank you for commenting from Goldberg Productions. I really appreciated you acknowledging that we cannot look past issues specific to race, class, gender, nationality, etc.

    What I got from your statement is that people can feel powerless in many ways when we think of the intersectionality of race,gender, class, orientation, etc.

    I think that we can acknowledge that reality, while at the same time being able to acknowledge the powerlessness that can be experienced by human beings when considering specific parts of their identities because of oppression. ex. African Americans due to racism, women due to street harassment and other forms of sexism, and people in the LGBTQ community because of heterosexism.

    I think its necessary for us to be able to acknowledge the oppression in specific parts of our identities and those of others so we can be able to use whatever part of us is privileged in some kind of way to be an ally to people who are oppressed in ways that we are not. For example, I can use my identity as a male to be an ally to women in working against sexism, and I can use my identification as being a heterosexual in being an ally to those in the LGBTQ community in working against homophobia and other forms of heterosexism.

    We are all implicated in some kind of way in that some parts of ourselves can put us in a position of privilege, while others place us in positions to be discriminated against. I think its about us (humans) working together to ensure a more just society for everyone.

    As a male, I can acknowledge that women experience street harassment because of sexism and a society that says it is acceptable to objectify them. Joining conversations about street harassment and finding out ways I can use my male privilege to work against it is are part of my efforts to be an Ally for women.

  8. Amy says:

    …even the people in the hood please recycle

  9. Cinnamondiva says:

    Love Eternal…I can relate. Looking back, I was a very pretty girl when I was younger. Because of low self-esteem, I didn’t see that. I was also very slender with nice curves.

    I’ve been subjected to sexual harassment throughout my life. I was raped at the age of 13…a very traumatic experience for anyone, but especially for a child who was still playing with dolls.

    I have been propositioned by strangers. I have been called a “bitch” and a “slut” when I rejected the advances of some men. I’ve had both men AND women make lewd comments about my body as I walk by. At nearly 30 years old, I still look like I could be in high school. I’m just over five feet tall and I have a baby face.

    I’ve gained weight and although some men have lost interest, there are still plenty more who see nothing wrong with staring at me in a way that is overly intimidating. And they aren’t shy about treating me like a sex object or a prostitute.

    There was one incident when a white woman slapped me on the behind in front of my father. She was drunk and she was with two men. The three of them just laughed about it. They talked about my hips and my ass like I was a piece of meat.

    I feel your pain. I, too, have been afraid to walk down the street because I knew that the minute I was outside the harassment would start. :(

  10. @Cinnamondiva, thanks for sharing your story here. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for you. As I’ve said before, women of the world should be able to go to public places without being physically or psychologically poked and prodded like a piece of meat. Neither should they have to hide behind weight, or dress a certain way in an effort to make themselves “invisible”.

    I talk about the importance of men speaking up and speaking out, has anyone ever had an experience of witnessing a male bystander stepping in to challenge another male perpetrator?

  11. Kaity says:

    Wow, this really speaks to me. It’s an argument I’ve made for years, and I remember telling my boyfriend and male co-worker about a particularly disturbing incident of street harassment that happened to me on my way to work and they laughed. I was almost in tears from the experience, and they just thought it was funny. Maybe how I told the story was funny, but it didn’t stop the feeling of annoyance and humiliation. They didn’t see how I could be upset by receiving a “compliment” on my ass.

    I’ve dealt with this B.S. for years, and in high school, I remember walking with my friend through her small rural town and we started counting how many honks we received.

    Street harassment is serious, and I’ve received it on all three continents I’ve traveled to thus far, and I guarantee the only continent I might be safe from it is Antarctica.

    I don’t like being seen as an object, and I think this doesn’t really end on the street – if you go to a club and you tell someone you don’t want to dance with them, they get offended and call you names or say it’s rude. It’s rude that people just come up from behind you and pelvic thrust! It’s rude that a man thinks he can just touch a girl anywhere he wants because she opted to dance with him.

    And I have never seen a male bystander speak up and say anything about how their fellow man is treating women. The worst part of this type of harassment doesn’t seem to go away when you say something or if you ignore it. Either reaction seems to prompt the perpetrator to become angry, say worse things, they get physical… whatever that particular person thinks the response ought to be to an “insult”. I want to say, “Well, sir, I am offended by what you said, but I don’t have the power or desire to beat you up, grab your arm, throw a bottle, etc.”

    Not sure if I am making a succinct point, but I am expressing a heartfelt gratitude to you for posting this, and I hope your message reaches some men who need to hear it.

    • No need to worry about whether or not you’re making a succinct point. I think you’ve raised some important points here just by sharing your experiences.

      It must’ve felt pretty invalidating to be laughed at while you were telling your boyfriend and coworker about your disturbing experience.

      In my view, any unwanted touching also constitutes harassment, and for some men, being socialized in a culture that objectifies women can cause them to feel as if they can just reach out and grab with no thought of the consequences to themselves, or the damage done to the women who are impacted by those actions.

  12. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but definitely you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!

  1. October 26, 2011

    […] “Allies are needed to fight against every type of oppression. We must use our privileges to level the playing field.  Just as people of color should not be solely responsible for ending racism, just as people in the LGBTQ community should not be solely responsible for ending homophobia, women should not be solely responsible for ending sexism in its many forms.” –Excerpted from (N.A.H.) Blog Post: “It’s Not a Compliment, its Harassment“ […]

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  3. August 21, 2012

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