I found this story in the Post on an upcoming hearing on street harassment on Metro irritating for a couple of reasons.

One, the use of scare quotes around the phrase “street harassment” in the hed.

Two, Dana Hedgpeth opened with, “A man walks up to a woman on a Metro train and tells her she looks good in that skirt,” which implies that street harassment is more about interpretation of compliments than it is about threatening behavior.

And three, Hedgpeth made room for this inane comment from Metro transit police Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik, “Someone telling another person: ‘You look good. Can I have your phone number?’ — you may not like it, but I can’t arrest the person.”

Uh, thanks for that newsflash.

Here’s an actual example of the kind of harassment groups like Holla Back/Collective Action is trying to fight, posted weeks ago, which means Hedgpeth could have easily included it:

I was sitting on the metro and a man came onto the train car that I was on and walked up to me so he was standing directly in front of my face and started doing pelvic thrusts into my face and asking me to “do something.” I didn’t say anything and continued to stare out of the window the whole time until he stopped – about 30 seconds later he moved on and walked to the other end of the train where he continued to harrass other women who started yelling and him and then he started acting like he was a boxer and “fake punching” the women. The other metro riders did nothing, so I went and hit the emergency call button to the driver. The metro was stopped and off loaded at Braddock. I never had a chance to point out the offender by the time the metro driver found me to talk. All the women moved into a different train car, then the metro resumed. They thanked me for doing something.

Several weeks later, the same man recognized me on the metro as I was getting off the metro at King Street, he was getting on the metro, and as we passed each other as I was exiting he grabbed my by the arm and said “hey.” I hardly had time to put two and two together but the entire series of events was absolutely rattling to my sense of safety. He remembered me.

Maybe that would complicate the women-who-can’t-take-a-compliment narrative, though. It’s fair to say there’s a gray area when it comes to street harassment. Two different women could have completely different reactions to the same guy, depending on mood, taste, whether they’re running late, the weather, or what they had for breakfast.

The thing is, street harassment is more than just the initial comment. It’s when the person who thinks your skirt is “nice” or wants your phone number immediately starts berating you if you don’t give it to them. Sometimes they insist on telling you what sex acts they’d perform on you (or make you perform). Sometimes they follow you, or block your path, or invade your personal space even though you’re clearly uncomfortable (these things have happened to me, and to just about every woman I know). There should be an easy way for women (or anyone!) to report intimidating behavior to Metro police and be taken seriously, not just told that they may be interpreting it the wrong way.

In the macro, harassment is an ongoing issue for women in public spaces that can’t be fixed by police. A lot of it is just plain rudeness that isn’t really actionable—like when dudes call out to tell you they wish they were your bicycle seat—but treating harassment and intimidation on transit as a serious problem could help make people think twice about their bad behavior.

Pavlik, by the way, says that Metro doesn’t get very many sexual harassment complaints. But, as Amanda Hess noted a couple of years ago, that certainly doesn’t mean harassment isn’t happening. Last year, when I blogged about a really annoying street harassment incident, the comments were flooded by dudes explaining to me that this is just how men have to interact with women. That reaction is supposed to explain away the behavior, but really just makes it harder for lots of women to speak up in situations where they feel unsafe. It’s really shameful that Metro Transit Police would take up the same line.

Photo by tiph via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 License