(The Root) —
"When a guy asks for your number on the street and you say, 'I have a man,' and he says, 'Your man doesn't let you have friends?' How do you put an end to this convo? Apparently I'm answering wrong, because when I do it opens up dialogue, which results in me just walking away and sometimes being called a 'bitch.' " —A.D.
I've been in your shoes — like a lot of woman, especially black women. I say that not to comfort you but to point out how pervasive street harassment is. The tactic that has consistently ceased the extra conversation and kept me safe is to answer, "Nope, my man doesn't let me have friends." I also always keep moving.
I can't guarantee that this will stop a guy from calling you a bitch, especially one who feels so comfortable prying into a stranger's personal business and relationship dynamic. But saying no and walking away increases the likelihood that the conversation ends, and you will remain safe.
Oddly, there's been some pushback in some feminist circles about this approach, particularly because women are passing the buck to an unseen and controlling male protector to get out of a harassing situation. In a September story that went viral, Alecia Lynn Eberhardt wrote for Luna that saying, "I have a boyfriend" or the like instead of stating the truth — "You're harassing me and I'm just not interested" — was the wrong approach.
"We're not teaching men anything about the consequences of their behavior (i.e., polite, real conversation warrants a response while unwanted come-ons do not)," Eberhardt wrote. "We're merely taking the easy exit and, simultaneously, indicating to men that we agree, single girls are 'fair game' for harassment."
She has a point. Sort of. I cringe inside every time I need to say, "I have a man" to get some guy to leave me alone because apparently my steady gait, lack of eye contact and unsmiling face don't convey "I'm not interested in you." The fact that for a street harasser the demeanor of a woman comes second to "respect" for a man who isn't even there irks me. It says a lot about how highly too many men think of each other and how little they think of women.
I'd really like to follow Eberhardt's advice to be blunt and tell most guys to kiss off. In complete frustration, I did try something similar. I'd moved to a new neighborhood, and there was a guy who used to start up with "hey, baby," "how you doing, baby?" "you look good, baby" as soon as I turned the corner every single day.
One day, I hit the corner and he started up. I kept walking, then stopped, turned and said something akin to "Can you stop? If you want to speak, my name is Demetria. Just say hi."
He looked at me blankly, rose from him seat and said, "What? You want to fight me?" And squared up.
"What? No," I told him. "I want you to stop bothering me."
He stood there looking at me. I stared back, wondering why his first inclination was to box. After a few seconds, I finally walked home.
That story actually has a "happy" ending. I assume that guy told everyone on the block I was crazy because no guy in my neighborhood talked to me for almost a year. (When he finally spoke again, he was — and is always — polite.) I still don't recommend that, though. When I told my then-boyfriend what happened that night, he was livid at me for putting myself in harm's way and convinced the man would retaliate for being embarrassed. My ex was right. I've been manhandled, stepped to, threatened, cursed at and spat at by harassers for much lesser "offenses."
I agree with Eberhardt that men need to be educated on how to speak to a woman and how to better read nonverbal cues that a woman is not interested. But the block isn't the place for a "corner summit" or a teachable moment. Even in more allegedly enlightened spaces or where dialogue about deep topics is expected, too many men just don't, can't or won't get why street harassment is an issue.
There's been lots of chatter about this subject online lately, and I'm saddened (and disgusted) by the number of men who think street harassment is something women blow out of proportion. Or worse. As one man put it, black women complaining about street harassment is a "crock of bulls—t," a conspiracy of sorts by black feminists to take down black men. Another man told me on Twitter that single black women, given their marriage rates, should be "grateful" that men acknowledge them at all. (I blocked him.) Sigh.
Until guys en masse do better — and there are some, such as The Root contributor Jozen Cummings, who are advocating for harassing men to change — women should do whatever is necessary to avoid the real threat of harm when encountering street harassment.
As defeatist as it sounds to say this, when you've encountered a guy who isn't taking an obvious brush-off for an answer, it's about survival. Nurse your bruised ego about having to lie about a controlling significant other until later when you're safe again.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She answers your dating and relationship questions on The Root each week. Feel free to ask anything at firstname.lastname@example.org.