New York City – a place where anything is possible. One goes there to fulfill dreams of stardom, to make millions, and to see and be seen. However, if you are a woman in the city, the ‘being seen’ aspect takes on a whole new meaning. While it might a place for hope and opportunity, New York is not the land of the free for everyone. In fact, about 50% of its population is being marginalized everyday on the its streets. Yet, no one seems to be doing anything about it.
As I walked down the streets of the meatpacking district, with a male friend who had recently moved to the city, he espoused how free he felt living in NY. As an Australian, of Costa Rican descent, he described feelings of never fitting in in his birthplace. ‘However, in NY,’ he said, ‘I feel right at home. Everyone can just be themselves here, no judgements, and no one interfering in my business.’ Yes, it seemed ideal. Lucky him. Having spent the last three days wandering around the city by myself, being constantly harassed by men on the street, I was feeling anything but free. Instead, I was feeling frustrated, closed off, and pissed off.
My first morning in the city, I learned very quickly not to make eye contact with anyone, let alone say, ‘hello’. I woke up feeling fresh and excited, ready to explore the city. I wandered out of my rented flat in Greenwich village. As I made my way down a near-empty, early morning street, I came across an older, Indian man, wearing a turban and a big, handle bar mustache. As I approached, I said, ‘Good morning.’ Having lived in London for the last 13 years, this is what is expected when you see someone on the streets in a situation like this, no matter the gender or age. It’s the just the courteous thing to do. His lecherous tone, as he replied, ‘Good morning, baby,’ while looking me up and down, gave me a shock. Since when did a polite ‘good morning’ turn into a sexual proposition? I also glanced at his turban again, and wondered if this was how a religious man was supposed to behave.
During those three days of walking around the city, I was subjected to much sexual harassment, which ranged from ‘lookin’ good baby’ as he passed, stopped and turned around, and continued staring at my ass, to ‘You know you’re hot. You know it.’, being screamed in my face. While some people might think these are harmless compliments, they weren’t. Is a compliment supposed to make you feel like piece of meat? Sometimes they were sly about it, like stepping into my space and softly grunting in my ear; a disgusting encounter, that only the two of us knew about. The worst part was not being able to do anything about it and feeling helpless. As a social experiment, I even started changing what I wore, in order to attract less attention.
One day, I went out with my hair in a ponytail, make-up free, wearing clothes I normally would never be caught dead in, like khaki shorts and tennis shoes. It didn’t matter, the harassment still happened, which made me more convinced that these interactions weren’t about appreciation, but more about power. That day, full of frustration and anger, I went into a clothing shop on Broadway. The two shop assistants and I got to talking, and I mentioned my experiences. I knew that I couldn’t be the only woman in the city that this was happening to. They both agreed that it happened to them all the time. One told me she had to change her route to work to avoid the harassment from the French Africans selling fake Gucci bags. The other one told me that this section of the city was relatively tame, compared to where she lived in Brooklyn. This was startling, as it revealed that there was not a certain demographic responsible for this treatment of women. The perpetrators were from all ethnicities. Apparently, harassing women is an equal opportunity activity.
While New York is, obviously, one of the most exciting and beautiful cities in the world, I felt relieved to be back in London, a place where a woman can walk around in peace. She can wear what she wants without comment. She can even walk by a group of construction workers and won’t hear a single whistle. What I don’t understand, is why this is happening to the women of New York. In my opinion, they’d be the least likely people to put up with this. I should know, not only can I count many as friends, but I interviewed 25 of them as part of the research I did into the flirting culture of New York. I found them to be eloquent, intelligent, confident, and independent. So why are they putting up with this? Or, better yet, why is the society allowing some men to subjugate half of their population?
If you’d like to read more about my findings, please read The Flirt Interpreter: Flirting Signs from Around the World