My Name Is Not 'Ma': Why Street Harassment Is Everyone's Problem

Portrait of young woman with brown hair
Portrait of young woman with brown hair

If you've ever walked down a NYC block it is likely that you've heard "Hey yo, ma, can I holler at you for a sec?" or " Damn, ma, you're fine," or "God bless you, ma," or "But why aren't you smiling?" as if women walk around all day smiling for no reason at all. If you haven't been the victim of catcalling, then consider yourself lucky, but the reality for many women is that they've experienced some form of street harassment.

We are disrespected almost every day by men who feel they have a right to talk to us, approach us, or even go so far as to touch us without permission. Men, who believe we should feel flattered because they've noticed us or given us a compliment. From the time a woman walks out the door of her home in the morning, be it walking to the corner bodega or to school, she is forced to dodge the unsolicited advances from men just to keep herself safe and we are taught do so from a very early age.

By the time a young girl hits puberty she is faced with having to deal with unwanted sexual attention and harassment by her peers and older men alike. As she gets older and enters womanhood the harassment continues, and instead of educating boys and men on how to treat women, women are taught to accept and deal with it. It's the reason we cross to the other side of the street when we see a group of men together. It's the reason why we'll speed walk like we're preparing for an event at the next Olympic Games when a man approaches and begins walking alongside us. We've been taught to ignore it while our male counterparts haven't been taught anything at all.

Women are not afforded the opportunity to express their feelings when confronted with harassment. Why? Because a woman who defends herself or vocalizes her discomfort risks the chance of the incident escalating by either being verbally abused by the harasser or even experiencing a possible physical threat. Because you know, "You wasn't all that anyway, b*tch." The thing is, women have a right to defend themselves and express when they feel disrespected or harassed. They have to push back against these types of men and let them know it's unacceptable, because if we don't the behavior will continue. Men have a responsibility to stop this behavior too.

A couple of months ago, poet and friend, Elisabet Velasquez penned an essay about feeling unsafe in public spaces after being sexually harassed by another poet at a poetry event. In her essay she says,

It is almost impossible to call out a behavior without calling out a perpetrator. People who exhibit dangerous behaviors need to know that their actions are perceived as dangerous in the general community. They need to be made aware that their behavior is not okay. If they do not know, how can we expect them to change?

Harassment of any kind is never cool. We must be firm in our stance against predatory behaviors. We must be clear when we say that harassment and misogyny will not be tolerated; that we must by example eliminate the patriarchal system that has allowed this type of abuse to exist for years. We must teach our sons, brothers, uncles, fathers, cousins that it is never OK to impart their sexual desire for a woman when it is unsolicited. We don't want your compliments. It's not flattering or pleasing. All women want is to no longer fear for their safety in public spaces, or have to worry that what we wear, or what we say, or how we look is an invitation to be disrespected, harassed, and violated. All we want is to walk down the street and feel safe.