Speaking of Women's Rights: (Don't) Walk This Way: Experiencing Street Harassment During Pride Month

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

(Don't) Walk This Way: Experiencing Street Harassment During Pride Month

By Alyssa Sappenfield
Rainbow flags generally dot the city of Seattle like freckles in the summertime, but they are even more abundant during Pride Month, when the support of the city can be felt just by walking down the street. As I celebrated Seattle Pride, I realized how nice it was to be in a city that openly welcomes and accepts a secret that I didn’t dare speak of for a long, long time. If I had been paying attention to myself and listening to that whisper I kept trying to block out, I would have saved a few years of self-doubt, shame, and careful pretending. The difference from then and now, especially here in Seattle, is something of a wonder. Even outside of this bubble, the country is changing.

Regrettably, things aren’t always rosy. Twice during Pride weekend, I experienced verbal street harassment specifically because I was holding my partner’s hand while walking in the city. Like myself, she is a queer, cis woman. The first time it happened, I blew it off, only briefly annoyed. It was something crude, said quickly, but I could feel his eyes lingering. I wasn’t paying too much attention though—my partner was saying something funny. A couple hours later, a second stranger decided to make sexual remarks just as we were passing by, again holding hands. He continued to comment, not too loudly but just enough to for me to hear, until we reached the intersection to cross the street. I didn’t say anything to either harasser. My past experiences with street harassment have made me feel less safe and very vulnerable in those situations, so my first instinct was simply to get away.

We walked a few more blocks and I began to feel less anxious. But then I saw a rainbow flag and grew angry. For a brief moment, I forgot the ugliness that others sometimes impose as a reaction to my sexual orientation. These remarks were a rude reminder that, even in a city like Seattle, equality is farther than some might argue. How dare this person comment on my relationship? Was it too much to ask to enjoy my day without a stranger’s sense of entitlement and lewd remarks? My relationship does not deserve to be objectified for their entertainment. The sense of pride that I felt walking around the city allowed me to drop my guard for one facet of my identity, and that acceptance I felt quickly diminished. But the experience also reminded me of how my queer identity intersects with my identity as a woman.

As a young woman, I am always aware of the possibility of harassment when I walk outside. Our bodies are sexualized and viewed as fair game, open to commentary and cajoling for a phone number or date. As a queer woman, street harassment tends to result in a unique kind of antagonism. Our sexuality becomes personal to harassers. Women walking with their same-sex partners are fetishized as some ultimate fantasy playing out in public. We become a novelty to gawk at or fix. I can’t count the times I’ve been disgustingly asked for a “private show” or told that I just need a man to show me what they think I’m missing. For more masculine perceived women, this can mean “corrective” violence for not conforming to hegemonic standards of womanhood.

My experience is not the only version of unwanted interactions. Oppression is complex and surfaces in different ways depending on the place and circumstances. The organization Stop Street Harassment (SSH) recently published a national survey showing that 65% of women and 25% of men surveyed had experienced street harassment. A couple of other key findings include: persons of color, lower-income people, and the LGBT-identified were disproportionately affected by street harassment overall (studies also show transgender individuals face particularly high rates of public discrimination); most people change their lives in some way because of the experience; street harassment happens in different degrees of verbally and physically aggressive forms; and it occurs in more kinds of public spaces than you might think.

Street harassment is harmful emotionally, psychologically, and to equality. It amplifies the violence experienced by marginalized identities on a daily basis, perpetuating oppression and preventing them from thriving. 

I’ve definitely policed my own behavior to avoid attention. I wish I had the courage and presence of mind to react differently. You can find tips for the future here.
Alyssa Sappenfield is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising third-year student at Lewis & Clark Law School. Alyssa received her Bachelor's from the University of Notre Dame in Sociology and Psychology, with a focus on social movements. She is obsessed with digesting culture and substantive equality for marginalized groups.