Every morning, I walk to my job through a rough section of town. Without fail, I will receive calls of “Morning, sweetheart” or “Smile, sweetheart” from one of the men passing time on the street. This is not always the same man, and the behaviour has a range of feeling – sometimes it’s “friendly,” other times it is aggressive.
So here is my dilemma. This interaction always feels pointed because it happens AT me – I am singled out for these phrases because I am recognizably female. I don’t want to be called “sweetheart” by strangers who don’t know me. And I don’t see sweetness as a necessary component of being female. My inner feminist is deeply pissed off every morning around 7:25am.
But… I’ve also been raised to be traditionally “polite.” I have a hard time with the feeling that I might be insulting someone. And I believe everyone has value, so the idea of being cold – even to someone making me feel objectified – doesn’t come naturally to me. Also, there is the element of socio-economic status; I am a lower-middle-class educated person on their way to work, passing people who are often socially ostracized and struggling with addiction. I don’t want to add to that problem.
My question: is there a correct response to this? When I ignore these men, I feel like a jerk. When I smile, I feel like I’m condoning behaviour I’m not okay with.
– Nice Girl
Dear Nice Girl,
As I’ve mentioned before, I think the best course of action is to tackle street harassment as a big, systemic problem, not one-on-one in the heat of the moment, where your own safety should be paramount. The correct response is whatever keeps you safe.
Your views on politeness trouble me. The person catcalling you is being rude. Responding with less than a warm smile doesn’t mean you believe the rude person has no value as a human being; it just means that they’re being rude at this very instant. It’s not that they are beneath response; it’s that they said something beneath response. If the Queen of England called you a slur from across the street, it would be fair game to ignore her, too.
And: intersectionality, girl.
If we’re to play this game, there are a lot of dynamics to consider. You’re lower-middle-class, employed, educated, and in good mental health; you assume – correctly or incorrectly – these men are not. What right do you have to make those assumptions? Are you white? Are they? What makes this neighborhood “rough”? Why does it belong more to them than to you? What advantages were each of you given and what traumas have each of you survived?
I appreciate that you think about these things. That’s a net positive, a path to good, empathetic citizenship.
In this particular situation, however, you know what the driving dynamic is. It’s gender. You present as a woman. Thus, men make demands of you (“smile”) and claim intimacies to which they have no right (“sweetheart”). They make you feel objectified and pissed off every day.
So maybe you have some privileges that they don’t. But in this instance, they are actively exercising one, specific privilege that they have and you don’t.
Let me ask you something else. Drawing back feels “cold” and mean to you, and doesn’t come naturally — but does politeness ever make you tired? Does that reflexive smile get a little more labored by the end of the day? Does it take something out of you, just a bit, each time you smile or nod or acquiesce when you didn’t really, fully, deep-down-in-your-heart want to?
They are sucking that energy out of you.
And that, too, is about gender. Raising a child to be “traditionally polite” sounds lovely, but you’re part of a broader culture that teaches women and girls to be agreeable and inoffensive, to the detriment of us all.
Which is not to say that you should stop being kind to strangers and initially giving them the benefit of the doubt, or develop a prejudice against men on the street. Be polite to everyone – up until they stop deserving it. And then save that energy for other, better, more deserving aspects of your life. You might be surprised by how much it can add up.
Am I too fat to wear leggings?