I imagine most of us would agree that in many, many places in the world, it’s tough being a woman. In China, some women are forced to undergo sterilization by the government, without their consent, to comply with the “one child policy.” In the US, a woman’s work is (on average) 23% less valuable than that of a man, even when it’s the exact same work. In South Africa, a woman is more likely to be raped than to finish high school. In Kenya, I spend much of the time in my “girlchild empowerment projects” imparting what I would consider to be fairly basic ideas: You are valuable. You are talented. Your successes are meaningful. You have choices. Your worth can be defined as more than the size of your dowry and the number of sons you bear, if you’d like it to be.

In light of these and countless other injustices in which women are subjected to unimaginable physical, sexual, and economic violence, “street harassment” seems like small potatoes. Which seems worthy of actual ire: “sex-selective abortion as an indicator of how girl-children are valued in society” vs. “a creepy guy says creepy things.” But injustice is injustice – even in light of “bigger” issues, I need to bring this up. It speaks to the same attitudes of disrespect that play into larger, systemic discrimination.

Having traveled somewhat extensively, I’ve been subject to street harassment in all sorts of places. It’s not limited to my region of Kenya, or Kenya itself, or Africa, or the developing world. You can find it anywhere women can be seen as less-than or solely as the objects of (heteronormative) male desire. So, in other words: most everywhere. In my village, it’s not usually too too bad, because most people recognize who I am and have a vague idea what I’m doing; it’s generally taboo to mess with a respected medical professional. But even the next town over … crikey. Ask any female volunteer, and they’ll have a story for you. And it’s not just here. I’ve definitely experienced it more often in Kenya than in some other places, but in every virtually country I’ve ever been, there’s always been SOME jerk out there, acting out either towards me or towards my friends.

I’ve touched on this topic before, but it’s on my mind, so we’re going to talk about it again! The other day, I had lunch with a friend. I walked to the bank, then to a small shop, then caught a ride to the public bus station to go home. Here is a compilation of the “charm” to which I was treated on this brief outing:

“Hey lady, I like the way you walk, you are too sexy!”

“Ciao bella ciao bella!”

“You are so beautiful I love you!”

“Tssst! Tsssst! Lady, you look SOOOOO NIIIIIIIIIICE!!”

“I love the way you move! Hayaaaaa!”

“You want a love friend baby??”

“OOOWEEEEE MAMA!! NJOO NJOO! [Come here! Come here!]”

“Hey baby you ok baby? Baby come here and talk to me. JUST COME. YOU WILL JUST COME HERE.”

I wasn’t dressed particularly provocatively (would I have “earned it” if I had been?) It was in the middle of the afternoon on a crowded street, not some seedy alleyway after dark (would I have been more to blame if it were?)

I feel no more comfortable saying “all appearance-based attention is bad because STREET HARASSMENT” than I do saying “all sex is bad because RAPE.” When you add that magical ingredient, consent, it can be one of the best parts of life. Who hasn’t felt a flush of pleasure when you catch the eye of the cute guy across the bar and he does that awkward glance-into-his-drink-and-smile move because he got caught looking? What’s nicer than a partner kissing you on the nose and saying “You look hot in _____ (those shoes, that dress, this necklace, my arms, nothing at all)”? Everyone likes to feel attractive. There’s a difference between wanted, welcome attention and verbal harassment. Welcome attention makes you feel beautiful and powerful. Unwelcome attention makes you feel uncomfortable and threatened. Even assuming the most charitable of intentions – that these men (and it’s usually men harassing women, though not always) are genuinely attempting to be complimentary – it’s atrocious to go through life assuming consent until emphatically informed otherwise. And for some street harassers, it’s not about being flattering; the reaction – positive or negative – is itself the reward.

We have organizations out there to raise awareness. We have international support groups aimed at confronting harassers and empowering recipients. One enterprising gamer created an app called “Hey Baby,” designed to give men an idea of what the experience of being a woman having to deal with endless attention is like. As far as I know, none of these projects have taken root *here.* My corner of Kenya is so jumbled and confused in the way it views women and their public presence, and there are so many other “big fish” issues to be dealt with first (domestic violence is still seen as a “private matter,” girls as young as 11 being forced into survival prostitution by their parents, etc.) that I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Nothing will change in ANY of these sectors until we can start reframing the way the culture sees women. But it’s an issue. And as some point, it will have to be dealt with.

It may require a major societal shift in consciousness, though, so I’m not really holding my breath. I’m not sure there’s a country in the world that’s truly managed it yet. We – the global “we” – have a long way to go.

I remember reading an advice column a year or so back and being so infuriated I could barely breathe. A woman was writing in that she had to walk past several construction sites on her way to work, and was subjected to a constant barrage of whistles/comments. She felt deeply intimidated and uncomfortable. The response was, essentially, “OH HONEY! You will MISS IT, trust me!!”

First of all, the idea that harassment limits itself one age group or standard of beauty is fallacious. Sexual intimidation and violence transcend age, appearance, and context. Second of all, there’s a difference between the author craving that kind of attention as validation and the letter writer not wanting it. If I offer you an ice cream cone, that’s nice, right? If I say “TAKE MY ROCKY ROAD, BITCH!!” and smash it in your face, that’s less nice. Do we see the difference?

Finally, let’s address what the author is explicitly asserting. As someone who is often the subject of street harassment, let’s say there is a period of X amount of time when you’re “hot,” then you’re suddenly totally fug and no one will ever want you again. A day will come when my lustrous honey-blonde locks turn to white candy floss, when my skin assumes Sharpei-like qualities, and my breasts sag so low I can wrap them around my neck like a macramé scarf. Those rapscallions so eager to hoot and drool will have moved onto nubile young targets – who, as of this writing, probably haven’t been born yet. On that day, will I “miss it”?


No, I will not miss young men leaning out of moving vehicles with such clever commentary as, “HEY BABY, I AM CURIOUS ABOUT YOUR PUSSY!” (True story.)

No, I will not miss older men using crowded public transport as an excuse to “accidentally” cop a feel or try to grind against my hip.

No, I will not miss being followed by drunken young men saying “I love you, I love you, I will join you in your home, we can just talk at first, but I love you, sexy lady, I love your body.”

No, I will not miss laying a beautiful outfit on my bed and wondering whether its most flattering aspects – a tucked waist, a scoopy neckline, bared shoulders – are worth the deluge of extra attention it will bring.

No, I will not miss the cultural condescension that as a young, straight woman I should inevitably be enjoying this attention, that these guys are just complimenting me, and why do I have to be so uptight about this stuff? Aren’t I always snarking on about cultural notions of body image and physical acceptability? Isn’t this accepting and positive? Are ALL feminists such killjoys?

Yes, I will miss the beauty of my youth. But no. I will not miss feeling threatened, harassed, intimidated, or just plain irritated. I will not miss having my whole existence reduced to a single sexualized image for public consumption.

Not even a little.