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When I was an 18-year-old freshman in college, I was running around some side-streets in a hilly neighborhood when a black SUV pulled up next to me. The driver rolled down his window and started a conversation.

“Hey, how are you?” he said. Friendly enough. He was driving slowly to match my running pace. I kept focusing on what I was doing—-I was out of breath, kind of busy, and didn’t feel like talking—-but I responded neighborly out of politeness. “I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m doing good. So do you live in the neighborhood?” I really wasn’t interested in having this conversation. But I looked over at the guy, and he was a cop, in uniform, and I felt like I was required to be extra polite. I informed him that I did live in the neighborhood. I kept a steady pace and he kept the SUV slowly rolling up next to me.

Things quickly got weird.

“You look like you work out a lot,” he told me. Arm hanging out the window. SUV slowly trailing me. It was the sort of comment that made me deeply uncomfortable but that I felt I couldn’t really argue with. He was big, easily 20 years older than me, in a big car, and a cop. I was 18, new to the District, and inexperienced. So I just kept my eyes on the road, hoping he’d get the hint. He didn’t. I tried lose him down a side street and he turned with me. There was no one else around. “Where do you live? I work out, too. Let’s work out together. You look great. You really do.” And on and on and on.

At no point did I respond like I was interested. I don’t hide my emotions well, and it would have been written all over my face that this man was scaring the living shit out of me. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest, my breath thinning, my face flushing with heat. What if he followed me all the way back to my dorm? What if he stopped the car? What if I tired out and couldn’t run away? What was I supposed to do—-call the cops?

If you’re reading this story, you might have some different questions for me: Like, what if you were just overreacting? He didn’t say anything explicitly threatening, did he? Why don’t you learn how to take a compliment?

Last week, I wrote a post praising Hollaback DC for raising awareness about the problem of street harassment in the District. And one commenter was concerned about what behaviors constitute “harassment” these days. He pointed to a recent post on Hollaback where a woman reported the following incident:

Out of nowhere, I hear “Yo, gorgeous!” and I turn in the direction where it came from. I see these two losers in a red and yellow truck smirking at me. Gross.

The truck pulls up further in traffic, and I catch up to it and snap a photo with my phone. . . . When I told them that they needed to do their jobs and not hit on women, they didn’t care. They continued to smirk and giggle. Passers-by made a comment about me and giggled, and I don’t know if they were laughing at me getting harassed or laughing at me giving the harassers an earful, but I just didn’t care. I felt like these harassers just ruined what was a good afternoon.

Commenter Stewart is skeptical:

I understand that everyone has their limit but one of the recent entries on the HollaBackDC site has me scratching my head. A woman claims her beautiful Spring-like day was “ruined” because a couple of guys in a truck yelled “Yo, Gorgeous” at her and had the temerity to keep looking at her too?

Really? Your day was “ruined” by that? Seriously? No lewd comments, no name calling, no following. “Yo, Gorgeous” is what passes for sexual harassment now? Geesh.

LeftSidePositive counters:

Stewart, I’m glad for you that you’ve clearly never had to be treated like a piece of meat, and that your appearance is not treated like public property to be commented on and stared at by total strangers. How lucky for you that you don’t have your privacy invaded, and how fortunate that you’re insulated from common human empathy.

Stewart replies:

Think what you want but I have plenty of empathy. And I have heard some horror stories about male harassment. In my humble opinion, this isn’t one of them; it’s not even in the same universe. But like I said in my first post, everyone has their limit. I guess the women I know have thicker skins than the woman who wrote this particular piece. Not that that’s right or wrong or good or bad, it just is what it is and reasonable minds can and will disagree.

LeftSidePositive writes:

Stewart–—because someone got killed today, would that make it okay for me to punch you in the face?? “It’s not even in the same universe.”

What’s more, there is a LOT of power in being continually reminded by minor slights that add up that you are perceived as less than equal or public property.

And, no, you don’t have a lot of empathy. You think you can brush aside something that was upsetting or frustrating to someone just because you don’t think it was important enough.

Amanda Hess writes:

People do have different limits, triggers, and past life experiences. These things all affect what level and type of harassment they can handle before they speak up about it. Perhaps you weren’t previously aware that some women can feel threatened by something as simple as “Yo, gorgeous” followed by aggressive staring and open laughter. I don’t have trouble understanding this reaction; I experience this all the time. But you were left scratching your head.

Well, the great thing about Holla Back D.C. is that now you know that some women are upset by this, and that they do feel harassed by it. So, instead of denying this woman’s experience by insinuating that she’s too sensitive, why not take this as an opportunity to consider why this behavior might have been perceived as threatening to this woman? Why not consider the ways in which you personally might not fully understand this specific type of threat? Why not ask yourself why your female friends don’t discuss this low-level type of harassment with you? Is it because you would dismiss them as overly sensitive?

About the severity of the harassment: I’ve heard some horror stories about harassment, too … and they usually have much more long-lasting effects than just putting a damper on one day in a person’s life. That doesn’t mean that that one day of stress isn’t significant enough for one woman to talk about her experience on a blog.

Julia writes:

Agreed, having someone yell “hey gorgeous” out their car window doesn’t seem like a big deal. And if it happened to you, you might still not think it was a big deal. But I can’t even count the number of times a stranger has yelled out a comment like that AND THEN FOLLOWED ME. Usually when I am alone, in a big city, often at night. So when you hear “hey gorgeous” you might think, ‘oh a complement’. but when I hear the same line, I think, “oh I hope I don’t get followed home today.” And trust me, it happens on a quasi-regular basis, even after I explicitly tell the man to stop.

Exactly. When I got followed by the cop in the SUV, he didn’t start by saying anything half as explicit as “yo, gorgeous!” He eased in, got me talking, and because I responded to him, he refused to let go. So he followed me. In his car. On an empty street. I eventually lost the guy by steering toward a pedestrian-only footpath and running for my life. Every time a guy hollers out a “compliment” to me on the street, I have to weigh whether responding politely is going to get me a new stalker. So don’t tell me that I’m overreacting.

As for the woman who responded impolitely to the call of “Yo, gorgeous”—-at least someone is taking her concerns seriously. On Hollaback, a commenter suggested that the woman call the name of the company listed on the side of the truck and report the employees. She did, and the company’s general manager responded positively to her concerns. “He said that he’s 99.9% sure of who the offenders were by the description I gave, and that ‘extreme action’ will be taken against them,” she writes. “He apologized profusely for their actions.”

Photo via _STANGSTA_, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0