“Hey, girl! Smile for me,” the man demanded at the bus stop. I froze.
I wasn’t new to street harassment. I’d been experiencing it since I developed breasts around 12 years old. It never became easy, but I did know how to ignore a man.
But his words caught me off guard. It was the first time I was harassed on the street when my child was with me. I always assumed motherhood would protect me from men on the street. I thought that I’d become less attractive to them, or that they’d see my kids as a hassle, or assume I was in a relationship and leave me alone. But I was wrong. Being with my kids hasn’t stopped many men from harassing me.
It hasn’t even stopped them from being crude. I’ve been called a bitch for telling a man I was busy or had to catch a bus. I’ve been hassled into giving out my phone number and even once had a man snatch my cellphone out of my hand and call himself on it to obtain my number — as my daughter watched. I’ve even been asked if I enjoy performing particular sex acts with my children sitting next to me.
But it's not what they say. The crude comments and the seemingly polite all invoke the same fear inside of me. A "hey, looking good" or “smile" has the same potential to turn ugly if my response isn't exactly what the guy was after. Women have been physically forced to smile, harassed for saying no and murdered for ignoring advances that on the surface seemed like innocent compliments — at least to anyone who has never tried to ignore or reject them — but were actually demands for attention.
All he did was ask me to smile, and I froze. I knew the potential consequences of not giving this man the attention he demanded. I wanted to resist him, to make a stand like I had done many times before, when I was alone and before I became a mom. When it was only my own safety that was at risk. When I didn’t have to worry about my babies witnessing a strange man unleashing insults at me and threatening me with rape or murder.
So, I smiled a nervous smile and hoped it would be enough to make him go away. Thankfully it was. He walked away, and I was left wondering if I made the right call.
What if by smiling I’m sending the message that it’s acceptable for men to demand attention from women on the street? What if my girls end up thinking it’s just normal to respond to men even when not interested? What if my son starts to believe that demanding attention from women on the street is harmless because I appear unharmed by it?
It’s been years since that encounter. Since then I’ve smiled many more times, given out fake numbers and ignored men only to be threatened as my children watched.
I’ve also had many conversations with them about what happened. As my older son and daughter inched toward their teens, I began to express how I feel when it happens. They know that sometimes I just want to ignore it or tell the man to leave me alone, but I don’t because it doesn’t feel safe to do so. They know that street harassment is not all right. They know that my smiles are forced.
I’ve explained that although #notallmen are trying to be threatening when they ask a woman to smile, #yesallwomen understand the potential threat when approached by a man on the street.
And that’s the best I can do. It’s all I feel safe doing.
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