The calculus of femininity (1/3)

Picture of a woman standing on a street at night. She is wearing a vest and tie, a short skirt, and a long... jacket.

~Bummmmm baduhdadum — baduhdaduhdaaaduuuhdum~

Let’s talk about street harassment.

Consider this a content warning for sexual content, strong language, and, of course, men harassing women on the street.

Here’s the post I started two weeks ago:

So I was going to write a post about how much I like sun-dresses; I went for a run on Wednesday and it’s been warm out, and I felt good about myself, and all my pants need to be laundered anyway, so I wore a dress to go to my writing group. Dresses are great! While I am pretty much a shirt + trousers person most of the time, I have a couple of dresses that make me feel really awesome and I really enjoy wearing them, as I was enjoying wearing this one. (I think it really needs a belt, though, otherwise it makes me look a little like a Hobbit wearing a sack. A very flowery sack.)

And then a guy on the street was hassling women.

He was ambling along in front of me. I saw him step out in front of a woman, the way a sports player would step out in front of someone to block them getting to a goal, you know — wide-legged stance, hands out, a lunge as much as anything — and then straightened up again. I had my headphones in, but I could hear him saying something like “Heeeeey!” to her. She smiled at him and kept walking.

The smile dropped off my own face. I walked past him, and sure enough, I thought I heard him saying something, so I turned down my music. I didn’t look back; I didn’t engage. The only thing I heard clearly was “That’s a nice [unintelligible]! Yeah, twins first time!” Repeated several times.

Was he talking to me? Was he implying what I think he was implying — that he was just so damn virile that he’d knock me up with “twins first time”? I thought about how I ought to turn around and confront him: it was daylight, there were other people around, I’m a black belt, he didn’t actually seem threatening, just douchey, and in l’esprit de l’escalier I knew just what I’d say. “Excuse me, did you say something? Were you talking to me? Can I help you with something or are you just hassling women? Why do you think it’s appropriate to talk behind my back like that?”

I didn’t turn around. I just walked faster and listened for the sound of pursuing footsteps.

When I came home after that and told my roommate Elisa about the experience, she said, “That’s the most surreal street harassment possible.” I started to worry that maybe I’d misjudged. Maybe I thought too highly of myself in my flowery sack, and he hadn’t been talking to me at all, and how dare I think I was such hot stuff that a random dude on the sidewalk would want to tell the world about how he was going to bang me, it’s not all about me, right, he was probably just minding his own business–

And then I remembered that he physically lunged in front of another woman who was walking along minding her own business, and I felt less crazy.

Here’s what happened today Monday:

It’s too warm out for pants, but I didn’t want to wear shorts, so I pulled on my favorite skirt — a frilly, knee-length petticoat-style skirt (with pockets!) — and a shirt, and Elisa and I walked over to Kaladi Bros. Cafe to make the most of our Labor Day. (We both do a lot of freelance work; there’s no such thing as a day off.)

On the way back home, we passed a couple guys out on the sidewalk getting started on a Labor Day evening barbecue. As we went past their basement apartment, talking to each other, a third guy popped up out of nowhere, putting his head over the divider between the apartment’s “porch” and the street.

“Heyyy ladies we’re gonna have a real good barbecue here, you should stick around” — at this point we had both stopped talking entirely; I think Elisa stopped in mid-sentence. We kept walking — “you don’t like barbecue?” He was calling after us at this point. “You don’t like grilled meats?”

We walked in silence for a few more yards, staring straight ahead, and then both burst out with variations on the sentiment, “What the fuck?


The title of this post comes from my own personal experience with street harassment, which is emphatically not the same as that of many of my friends but I suspect is similar to many other women’s experiences. For me personally, I am much, much more likely to be the target of unwanted male attention on the street if I wear something very feminine, something that shows off my figure more than my usual shirt-and-trousers outfits. In the last year, I’ve been approached or cat-called while wearing:

  • High-heeled boots
  • Short shorts and a T-shirt
  • My floral halter-top dress
  • Today’s high-necked shirt + floral petticoat skirt

Now, I’ve also worn all these items of clothing or similar ones and not been cat-called — a phenomenon I’ll talk about more in a later post — and I’ve occasionally been hassled while wearing my usual clothes, but in general for me, there’s a pretty direct correlation between wearing clothes that emphasize my femininity or show off my body, and unwanted attention.

That’s where the title of this post comes from. When I get dressed to leave my home and walk somewhere, I have to calculate in my head what’s most important to me: that I wear something that makes me feel comfortable, attractive, powerful, or just cool enough for the heat, or that I get where I’m going without any unwanted encounters. If I wear jeans and a button-down, I’ll probably be fine, but I might sweat through my shirt. If I feel like particularly hot stuff on a given day, I get to make the choice: do I flaunt what I got and risk a guy trying to step into my path to talk to me, risk attracting the attention of a man twice my size who won’t take kindly to me ignoring him, risk the peculiar kind of shame that comes from being cat-called? Or do I pass on feeling like I’m a hot, powerful, attractive woman — a feeling I don’t always have, not by a long shot — and hide away under baggy clothes so that I can get where I’m going unmolested?

The more I think about it, and the more I write about it, the angrier I get. I’m trying to put into words as clearly and bluntly as I can what it’s like to make these decisions, to weigh up my options. Do I dress the way I want or do I dress the way that’s safe? Do I embrace my femininity or do I embrace my armor?

A woman holds a sign reading I'M A HUMAN BEING.Is this coming through loudly enough? By presenting a feminine exterior, I become more of a target. When I increase the level of femininity I display, I also increase my vulnerability. Female = target. Female = target.

That’s all there is to it. A woman’s body — a woman herself — is considered, at least by a sizeable subset of the population, to be fair game for comment. Anyone who displays the fact that their body is a woman’s body therefore makes themselves fair game for comment, for solicitation, for anything at all. That’s what I’ve gotta live with.

You know what else makes me really, really angry?

The fact that for a lot of woman reading this, none of it will come as news.

It is not news to us that walking around and having the audacity to be obviously female in public makes us targets. It’s just everyday life. It’s the calculations we make each day — do I walk down this street? Do I make eye contact with that guy coming down the sidewalk? What do I have on me that I can use as a weapon? Is he looking at me? Is he talking to me? Should I call a cab? Can I wear this pencil skirt?

And some days the scale tips one way, and some days it tips the other. Some days I wear a skirt and nothing at all happens.

Some days a guy wants to give me twins and a guy wants to talk to me about meat and a guy wants to take my picture and a guy wants me and I just want to get to my coffeeshop and I wonder why I ever wore a dress in the first place.

Guess I kind of brought it on myself, huh?

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2 thoughts on “The calculus of femininity (1/3)

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