The Danger at the Intersection of Street Harassment and Compulsory Heterosexuality

The first time I learned about street harassment, I was taught that only I could prevent it. This was about the same time that Smokey the Bear was telling me that only I could prevent forest fires and Captain Planet told me that the power was mine to save the Earth. The world was sure entrusting a lot to seven-year-old me.

The aforementioned logic about street harassment taught me that street harassers targeted only “sluts and whores.” This overwhelmingly male population that felt the need to humiliate women were never referred to harassers, assailants, or even bullies, but instead regarded as some sort of moral authority that reminded women when they were demeaning themselves. My job was simple: if I had the self-respect or dressed properly and carried myself with dignity, my friendly neighborhood Hemline Police and Cleavage Monitors would not have to encourage me to cover myself up with their lewd comments and unwarranted advances.

Sergeant Street Harasser says only you can prevent female objectification. Right... via Ms Magazine

Sergeant Street Harasser says only you can prevent female objectification. Right…
via Ms Magazine

My first incident with street harassment took place during a visit to the ultra-conservative Jamaican town my parents grew up in. I had entered the tumultuous, hormone-fueled pubescent era of my life, and my baby fat had begun migrating towards my hips and ass. On the day in question, I walked to a small corner shop with my cousins, and following the town’s standards of propriety, I was wearing a bright blue skirt that flowed almost to my ankles. I did not understand that I was being catcalled until my cousins pointed out the male attention. I was bewildered in part because I didn’t know why these men would want me to be interested in them, but mostly because I was following the “rules” by wearing a long skirt! One of my cousins explained to me that the color of my skirt made my butt fluorescent and implied that I should not wear such colorful clothing around my derriere if I don’t want to be hit on. Admittedly, there was a part of me that appreciated that puberty had my body interesting — plus, I hadn’t discovered that I was super gay yet — but I felt really ashamed of my failure to be modest. I went home and never wore that skirt again.

Ten years and countless obnoxious, absurd, often racist catcalls later, I fortunately have learned that street harassers are not trying to encourage me to dress with decorum, nor is it my fault if someone antagonizes me that way. Mostly, what I’ve learned is that I’m unfortunately not alone in this phenomenon. This year, Stop Street Harassment (SSH) commissioned a report wherein they found that out of the 2000 U.S. Americans studied, 65% of women surveyed had experienced street harassment. 23% of these women also said they hey had been touched sexually in these incidences of street harassment, twenty percent had been followed, and for 9% of participants, the harassers forced the women to do something sexual.

Interestingly, the SSH also studied LGBT-identified individuals. The SSH research has made me think about what it means for us queer women to be harassed on the streets. Although the SSH report suggests that there is not a significant statistical difference in what percentage of LGBT-identified women are harassed versus their heterosexual counterparts, I do think that street harassment impacts queer women differently. Street harassment is vile and unpardonable no matter the sexual orientation of the perpetrator or the target, and being attracted to men as a gender in no way means that one is inviting or justifying harassment. However, for LGBTQ-identified women, street harassment often demonstrates the additional violence of compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity.

What happens at this juncture of street harassment and compulsory heterosexuality? A higher percentage of LGBT-identified women in the survey reported experiencing daily harassment (7% of LGBT-identified women versus 1% of straight women), and I’m curious to know if researchers asked their subjects what happens in those moments of street harassment. The report does not detail the delegitimization of and attacks on our sexual orientations that these street harassers will use to suggest that we truly should be interested in them; the ways in which LGB women can be targeted not only on the basis of their disinterest in one particular man, but disinterest in men generally. When we have these conversations about street harassment, we don’t always talk about the unique experiences LGBQ women face because of the men who want to “fix” us. We don’t always talk about the men who take our queerness personally and the “corrective rapes” that sometimes follow these public assaults on our sexuality. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that many of the monsters that lurk on our streets specifically target women who do not conform to hegemonic standards of femininity. Furthermore, the attacks increase disproportionately when race is factored into the equation. 41% of Black and Latina women versus 24% of white women experience street harassment regularly, as noted in the SSH report. For queer Black and Latina women, racism and homophobia can triple the axes of violence.

Trans women by far face increased persecution in public spaces, and are harassed by both men and women both because of their womanhood and their trans status. Given the murders of Islan Nettles, Ashley Sinclair, Kelly Young, Cece Dove, Amari Hill and countless others murdered as recently as 2013, it’s important to remember that the harassment of trans women and especially trans women of color isn’t just a microaggression; it can easily become deadly. Certainly, cis and straight women suffer from street harassment, but the degrees of violence and victimization multiply with every added marginalized identity.

In LGBTQ spaces, we do talk about the verbal and physical attacks queer people face and the disproportionate number of trans murders. However, I want these issues to feature at the center of mainstream conversations about street harassment. We need to put street harassment into perspective, especially for LGBTQ women. Street harassment is not a concerned suggestion for us to dress more modestly, nor is it a mere inconvenience. When street harassment functions as a way to enforce compulsory heterosexuality, it’s violence and it can be murder. Harassment is an epidemic for all women, but for those of us additionally marginalized because of sexual orientation, race, gender, and/or gender presentation, we have even more to fear. The streets are what connect us to our communities and community members. They should not be sites of oppression and until we honestly confront the dangers different individuals face on their streets, we cannot figure out how to make these spaces safe and end street harassment.

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Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at ElixHer.com

Helen has written 33 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. Thumb up 11

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    I think this article is a good overview, but when we are speaking of street harassment of “LGBT women,” it’s so necessary to be specific. For example, the way that a trans woman gets street harassed is different than how a lesbian or bisexual woman gets, assuming that both the lesbians and bisexuals are binary and gender conforming in their dress. In the street harassment of a trans woman, it’s about far more than heterosexism. In fact, that may be the least of her worries. Similarily, when gender non coforming lesbians or bisexual women (butch, AG, studs, bois) are being street harassed, there is a very overt desire to fuck us into remembering that we are “just women.” That threat is different for binary queer women. Finally, even trans men who do not “pass” are read as just butch women and therefore street harassed. It’s just a very layered issue that I don’t think is treated as such in this article.

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      I’m really confused by your comment. The article breaks down the layers from ‘all women’ to ‘LGBQ women’ to ‘trans women’ and also addresses the escalating types violence at each layer. The layers even have their own paragraphs. :/

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        I think LGP is talking about the root of the violence – where violence targeted towards trans women who are perceived as non passing is probably rooted from breaking gender norms and homophobia, cis women and passing trans women are harrassed to remind them that they exist to be fucked, to be constantly sexually available to men.

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      I agree with your criticism. I also think that the article did a fair job of proving its point and backing that up with appropriate evidence. There needs to be more studies published that investigate this complicated issue (“layered” is exactly right) with regard to those who have been left out of those studies’ sample-pools. Or, at least, the media needs to highlight existing studies as well as the ones that don’t factor race/non-binary identifying/etc. as much, if at all. I found this through Google Scholar: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1743923X06060028 – which may address what you’re looking for, but I don’t have access.

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    Totally on board with this article but just wanted to note that, while you cited “LGB” women as having “disinterest in men generally,” that’s often not true of bisexual women — we do like men (at least potentially).

    However, I think the larger point may still stand. Disinterest in men is a problem, but interest in women is a problem, too. Because if a bi woman could be with another woman, then she doesn’t need a man, and that in itself is a threat to the power of men in her life and could make her seem to need “fixing.”

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      There’s also another angle in that people, particularly cis straight men, sexualize bi women and associate them with promiscuity. Both of these could have to do with why bi women have much higher rape, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault rates in general than straight and lesbian women.

      On the street, though, harassers aren’t necessarily going to realize whether someone is bi or lesbian. Bi invisibility and all that. Unless I’m with my male spouse, I figure that I – butch, maybe wearing my rainbow ring or a t-shirt for the LGBTQ organization for which I volunteer weekly – am being read as lesbian.

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    I’m curious as to how many of us who are street harassed lie about who are partners are to our harassers. I’ve commonly lied and said I had a boyfriend when being street harassed, and though usually it doesn’t get the dude to go away it makes me feel a little safer than if I were to come out to this complete stranger.

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      I once made the mistake of telling a guy who wouldn’t stop harassing me that I was gay. His response was, “that only makes me want you more.” Still makes me sick to think about. It’s a no-win situation.

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      In the past, I have also used the “I have a boyfriend” line, and often ended up feeling even more weird and gross than whatever the initial advance made me feel. I began to turn over why that line always feels extra unsettling. By saying “I have a boyfriend” I’m implying that the only viable excuse to end the unwanted attention is to put another (albeit, very imaginary) man in the mix. It’s also important to unpack why the F I feel like I need to justify my disinterest in the first place. It’s strange, but if I’m being completely honest, my natural inclination IS to feel like I have to come up with a justifying reason for my disinterest. Wait a sec brain… what?! I don’t need to give my harasser an excuse. Now I just say “I’m not interested.” If they push… eye contact, “I’m just not interested.”

      Granted, this situation seems less suited to street cat calling or men making comments on my appearance or attire, and more suited to an unwanted advance at a bar or something similar. Street cat calling is difficult, it usually happens to me in passing, and often I’m feeling outnumbered or otherwise not totally secure. The outcome in this case is usually to just not engage, look up and straight ahead, and continue walking. Which is super frustrating but also often feels like a necessary survival mechanism. Gross.

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    It’s also really interesting how, within our community, gender presentation affects this. Like, female-perceived masculine-presenting people have to deal with harassment and slurs about their gender and sexuality, but female-perceived femme-presenting people have to deal with the extremely specializing, gross lewd stuff. It’s sad because it’s sometimes a gap in understanding between us.

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      This is really true. Most of my queer friends are femmes and I have noticed this difference a lot. And it has sometimes been a barrier to understanding – I have had femme friends assume that I don’t really get harassed, or imply that I can’t understand their position when they want to, say, take a taxi instead of public transit, to a club.

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    yes! I’ve been looking for this conversation ever since I noticed that I get sexually harassed way more when I hold my girlfriends hand in public than I do solo or with a platonic friend.

    A few weeks ago, I was doing just that and some middle aged guy (we’re both like 19) stopped his car and made prolonged eye contact with me and gave me a really creepy smile. This was not the first creepy thing that had happened in the last 5 minutes so I was really mad and I yelled “KEEP DRIVING MOTHERFUCKER” and he opened his car door and yelled “DONT TELL ME WHAT TO DO ILL PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE CUNT”

    That’s not explicitly homophobic and the circumstances are such that it totally could have happened to me solo but it just FELT different. I felt like I could just tell by the way he was looking at us that he was sexualizing us because we were a couple. That was the first time a street harasser’s ever violently threatened me too it was really terrifying.

    Just what Ive experienced as a part of a relatively femme couple. All of the other stuff about gender nonconforming women and trans women is also really fucked up/interesting. I wonder how lesbian sexualization feeds into harassment when it comes to butchier couples or butch/femme couples. Any experiences?

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      One day i was kissing my girlfriend at campus of my university, and in a moment a guy was yelling us. He was shouting thing as he’d like to raping me and my girlfriend and killing us. In my life i was never so scared like at a that moment. I was hassled before, but not at this level (killing, raping. What is wrong with you?).

      This is my worst experience with the harassment for be a lesbian. Ok, it’s not horrible, only fearful. But i still asking me: What happened if i reply to him?. But for fortune i don’t know answer.

      Hugs from south america.

      Pd: Sorry for my grammar and orthographical mistakes.

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      The only times I’ve ever been street harassed were when I was holding hands with my femme-presenting girlfriend, so there’s definitely an additional layer of fear and apprehension when we’re together rather than when I’m alone.

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    I think it’s important to talk about how street harassment affects lesbians specifically, especially gender non-conforming ones. I’ve heard a lot of people say that “looking gay” is a wonderful privilege because men leave you alone, but this isn’t true at all. Street harassment doesn’t stem from a genuine desire to flirt with someone, yelling obscenities isn’t a great way to get a date. It stems from wanting to scare and humiliate women. Men are more, not less, likely to harass a woman who “looks gay” because they have more reasons to want to see her scared and humiliated.

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    I feel like part of the reason a higher number of LGBT women said they experienced daily harassment vs. straight women is because the former tends to recognize harassment as such, while the latter might make excuses/not want to appear “dramatic” by pointing it out. Not that LGBT women aren’t under societal pressure to keep quiet as well, but all I’m saying is I get way more skeeved out when a guy leers at me than I think some straight women do. Women are often told to take this kind of attention as a compliment, and I think LGBT women sometimes have a harder time accepting this since they never/rarely want that kind of attention, even if it’s not predatory (except for queer women who sometimes date/are attracted to men).

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      I agree that this is a huge problem; there often isn’t really a strong consensus about what we consider street harassment and the fear of being seen as impolite is very real for many if not most women. I feel very comfortable playing the “we gotta go” girl for my friends, but I will admit when I’m alone I often hear that voice in the back of my head insisting that I have to ~give everyone a chance~ (because if I ever ignored one person who really did just want to say good morning that would make me a horrible monster, right? sigh).

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    The image on your cover page about this article is my graffiti piece about my own rape. This piece was stolen by a woman at Hollaback Appalachian Ohio who has taken credit for crediting my piece. Hollaback Appalachian is currently selling photos of this piece about my rape–selling it without my permission, and all profits go to them. You know what’s another form of harassment? When someone steals your story. When someone profits from your pain. When you have to see your work credited to someone else again and again and again. I was raped. I did this piece. My name is Final Girl. To verify, you can see images of my piece during the time, last at night, when I created it at my website , and read more about how it was stolen here. Thanks for listening–and for believing me.

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    This is part of the reason I’ll be marching with Hollaback for the NYC Pride March. I experience some form of street harassment several times a week, and usually I’m alone and it’s daytime. And yes, there are layers to street harassment – cis, queer, trans, gender non-conforming, people of color… it all needs to stop. The line between speaking out and guarding my own safety, or denying access to information about myself in order to push back…these all ebb and flow for me, and I recognize that it’s the nature of street harassment in a sexist, racist, queer-phobic society that creates this thin ice, not me.

    But I do speak back fairly often. It’s because of people who came before me in my young)ish age that I can open my mouth, shut something down, or just use my voice to maintain my right to space and respect on the streets and keep living my life. It’s because of location privileges and so much more. It shouldn’t be that way. So I open my mouth, sometimes calmly, sometimes shouting, sometimes to just say “YOU’VE GOT IT WRONG!” But mostly, I do it, because I have the right to not be silent and to not shrink and be, most days, safe. I march and volunteer because we aren’t all safe, and there are nights and circumstances where silence means keeping my life. Those moments need to end for all of us.

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    I was driving w my (then) gf and we got pulled over by an officer. He asked me to lower my window then the usual happens (license & reg, ticket, etc.) so after all of this, he looks at the two of us w this seedy looking smile then he called on his partner to come to the window of my car. This butch officer (who now reminds me a lot of big boo) sticks her head almost inside of my window and makes a comment on how beautiful my gf is and the other officer chimed in, and they would continued to keep making comments about her to the point that we were both growing very uncomfortable. It wasn’t until that I lied and told the officers that we were in a hurry to meet up with my parents that they finally let us go.

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    I am never assumed to be a lesbian, no matter where I am or who I’m with. I’m not even “femme.” So then, it’s automatically assumed I want the d, which, um, no. I walk/bike/take the bus to work, and go through a pretty poor part of town to get there, so harassment is part of my everyday life. I always have earbuds in and almost always ignore the comments/catcalls, but about once a week I get cornered by some old creepy persistent dude and then I just say I’ve got somewhere to be and try to slide past him. I never, ever say “I’ve got a boyfriend.” or anything like that. I try to let them down gently, because they’re taller/broader/stronger and things have turned physical before and I’d rather that not happen.
    It’s weird, b/c my person is pretty butchy and either gets pegged as a lesbian or a teenage boy, b/c she’s got narrow hips and minimal boobage. I have childbearing hips and big boobs. She can’t relate to the super sexual comments that get hurled my way. But I can’t relate at all to the homophobic street harassment she gets. So we each have to deal with different shit. It’s real fun. I’ve just learned to walk really fast.
    I do feel really bad for the preteen girls who live in the shitty neighborhoods I pass through, who get sexual stuff hurled at them YOUNG. I do yell at the men who do that if I’m around, b/c that disgusts me like nothing else.

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    What I find confusing is that I get both lewd sexual comments AND unfriendly reminders that I’m an unfuckable dyke on account of my gender presentation. For a long time it was only the latter, so when I first started getting sexually harassed I almost wanted to ask these dudes, ‘aren’t you supposed to be telling me I’m disgusting?’

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    I am a cis femme woman, and have noticed the more femme I look, the more street harassment I get. It is depressing. I wish the harassment didn’t come with it, and I try to pull strength from my femmeininity to help me with any potential assholes who think heels and lipstick mean “talk to me”.

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    I wish I could remember which article it was I read recently that explained the whole “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” aspect of street harassment by pointing out that it’s really about men who feel it’s their responsibility to police everyone’s gender (which is why some of my femme of center male friends have experienced it as well), so if you are presenting up to this person’s expectations of femininity you will be “praised” for it, if you aren’t conforming (or if you are confusing them by being a feminine man) then you get “critiqued.” Either way there’s someone hollering at you on your way to work and it sucks.

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