Hey Baby: On Insidious Street Harassment

12595414773_7808a952df_zNothing makes the bottom drop out of my stomach quite like a grown man calling me baby. Baby girl, baby doll, sexy baby, pretty baby. Hey baby. Come here, baby. These little words have the power to completely ruin my day. Suddenly the outfit that made me feel so cute and confident when I put it on that morning makes me feel vulnerable and scared. All the friendly strangers I had been making eye contact with on the street seem to be staring at me the way a cat stares at a cornered mouse. The familiar neighborhood I had been walking through starts to feel frightening and dangerous.

Men generally don’t understand why these seemingly complimentary words have such a negative effect. We live in a society where very few men even understand why it’s frightening and offensive to hear a guy yell, “nice tits” or “wanna fuck?” as you’re walking or waiting for the bus, and when it comes to something as seemingly innocuous as “baby,” most don’t know (or don’t care) what all the fuss is about. So a guy said, “hey baby.” What’s the big deal? It’s not like he touched you.

The big deal isn’t just the words themselves, it’s the underlying message. There’s no point to a guy yelling, “Hey sexy baby” at me out of the passenger window of a car as it speeds past. Even if I was into creepy misogynists and wanted to give him my number, I couldn’t. The car didn’t even slow down. But that’s OK, because he wasn’t actually hitting on me. The point wasn’t to proposition me or chat me up. The only point was to remind me, and all women, that our bodies are his to stare at, assess, comment on, even touch. “Hey sexy baby,” is the first part of a sentence that finishes, “this is your weekly message from the patriarchy, reminding you that your body is public property”.

“Hey baby” is the cashier who touches your hand just a little too long and winks as he hands you your change. “Hey baby” is the guy who sits just the tiniest bit too close on the subway when there are plenty of empty seats available. “Hey baby” is the guy in the coffee shop who just keeps trying to start a conversation even while you’re giving one-word answers and pointedly staring at your book or phone. “Hey baby” is too subtle to complain about. If you try, guys will say that it’s not a big deal or you’re just flattering yourself or they wish a hot chick would say “Hey baby” to them. What they don’t realize is that this is your third “Hey baby” this week. Yesterday that guy at the bar trailed his fingers down your spine, and when you looked at him he gave you a thumbs up and a smile communicating his approval of your body and existence. Two days before, you caught a guy at work unapologetically staring at your cleavage. Last week on the bus, a guy pressed his crotch against your ass, and though the bus really was packed, it seemed unnecessary and malicious.

These guys think that they’re special, that you’ll be grateful or flattered they singled you out for their little “compliment.” They don’t realize or don’t care that they’re just the latest creep in a long line of pervs yelling at women and people who are read as feminine on the street. Their “compliments” blend into a chorus of whistles and hoots and comments stretching back to the day you hit puberty. That guy saying “hey baby” isn’t just some guy. He’s every predatory dude you’ve had to be rescued from at a party, every creep who’s ever made you feel unsafe, every rapist you’ve ever heard about on the news or from your friends. “Hey baby” isn’t “hey baby.” It’s a threat, a reminder that no matter how many advances women may have made in our society, nothing has really changed. Men still feel entitled to our bodies and time.

Even the most “minor” street harassment is a tile in your mental mosaic of fear and distrust and vulnerability. Piece by piece, it builds into a picture of some larger violence always lingering on the edge of your thoughts. I’m by no means comparing a guy yelling, “Hey, sexy baby” to sexual assault, but the culture that makes this man feel entitled to comment on your body, on your existing in public as a woman, is the same one that makes men feel entitled to sex, and makes some feel entitled to take it by force. “Hey baby” is a symptom of the disease of rape culture.

I want to live in a world where I can walk down any street without being harassed, where I don’t have to do terrifying calculations about how what I wear in public will affect my basic safety. If I wear a short skirt, I need to wear bike shorts underneath so no one can try to slip their hand into my underwear on a crowded subway. If I wear a tight dress, I have to wear flat shoes so I can run away more easily. I want to live in a world where I don’t have to devote some of my brainpower to these types of thoughts, where I can think fully about whatever I want without wasting energy wondering if existing as a woman in public is a danger to my personal right to safety.

Some great movements dedicated to ending street harassment, including Feminista Jones’ #YouOKSis campaign, the Hollaback! Project, and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s Stop Telling Women to Smile street-art campaign, have recently begun gathering momentum. I encourage everyone to check them out and support them in any way possible. This is how we can make a change. No more harassment. No more fear. No more wasted time and energy. No more violence. No more Hey Baby.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Carrie Sloan licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Liat Kaplan is a Gender and Women's Studies major at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. She dreams of being able to eat as much ice cream as she wants in public without being sexually harassed. You can read more of her writing at liathkaplan.wordpress.com