When street harassment becomes an occupational hazard

     Comedian Jessica Williams is shown taking a light-hearted but serious approach to explaining street harassment in an Oct. 2 'Daily Show' segment called '<a href='http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/5ndnit/jessica-s-feminized-atmosphere'>Jessica's Feminized Atmosphere</a>.'

    Comedian Jessica Williams is shown taking a light-hearted but serious approach to explaining street harassment in an Oct. 2 'Daily Show' segment called 'Jessica's Feminized Atmosphere.'

    When I was a freelance journalist from age 21 to 24, I thought I was very clever, educated, intellectual, good at my job, but it seemed most people preferred to focus on what I looked like.

    I stood on the sidewalk outside a Roxborough home on Leverington Avenue, solemnly nodding as I interviewed the homeowner. Her dog had been shot and killed in her back yard in broad daylight by a stranger as she and her toddler played inside, and I was covering the story for NewsWorks.

    A man walking by stopped to interrupt me and say “Hey, beautiful.”

    It was truly an uncomfortable experience. The woman and I looked at each other, shared an awkward pause, then continued our interview.

    This was just a slice of daily life when I was a full-time, freelance community journalist.

    When I watched the Hollaback video of a woman’s 10-hour trek through New York City, it reminded me of all the worst parts of on-the-street reporting and how I was made to feel like the fact that I am smart doesn’t matter. Even worse, the comments on that video remind me why I’ll probably continue to feel devalued, even though I don’t hear as many street hollerers because I now mostly sit at a computer for work.

    Inappropriate for the office — and my office is everywhere

    I was a freelance journalist from age 21 to 24, working over 40 hours a week for various organizations — many of those hours allocated to NewsWorks. My focus was community reporting in Northwest Philadelphia — mostly Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, Roxborough, Manayunk and East Falls.

    I covered a lot of ground, reporting and snapping photos at festivals, events in public parks, man-on-the-street interviews, zoning board meetings. I was always walking to a coffee shop to write or file a finished article. And everywhere I went, strange men shouted to me about my looks or asked me to get a drink with them. On many days this happened only once, but it was constant, every single day, no matter which neighborhood I was in.

    Being called out for my looks while interviewing people — even by the interviewees themselves (hey, it has happened!) — was especially embarrassing and degrading for me, because I was at work. I wanted people to see me as a professional, not a piece of meat.

    My editors and the photographers I worked with made me feel like a respected professional, but they obviously couldn’t help me deal with people who weren’t on WHYY’s payroll.

    In the workplace, unwanted attention is not OK and is considered sexual harassment. So why should the fact that my workplace comprised city sidewalks, parks and coffee shops change that fact? Don’t I get that right while at work too? An office building should not be a woman’s only safe haven from harassment.

    Dangerous assumptions

    As a community reporter, I needed to blend in with the community — to get people to see me as just another neighbor who they could talk to. My reporter uniform was usually jeans, ballet flats and a plain cotton shirt or sweater. And because I hauled around an SLR camera, laptop, notebook, flip cam and various upload and charger cords, I carried a pink floral backpack.

    I guess you would call it a young look. School crosswalk guards often directed me across the street, and people routinely asked if I was on my way to or from school.

    On these same days when it was assumed I was a child, men would tell me to smile or they’d ask me where I went to school. Strange men would make me stop what I was doing — usually work-related and time sensitive — so they could tell me I have beautiful eyes or call me some variation of beautiful, sexy, attractive. Not only was it unwanted and disruptive, it made me wonder: Why are men so interested in giving me sexual attention because I seem particularly young? It seemed like they were more apt to disturb me because they assumed they could more easily take advantage of me because of my age.

    But the assumptions about my age weren’t the only disturbing ones. I was walking down 15th Street near the Market East (now Jefferson Station) entrance with NewsWorks contributor Alaina Mabaso when a man shouted at us: “You girls are so beautiful. I wish I wasn’t black!”

    My jaw dropped, and I looked over at Alaina, whose face was twisted in horror. I knew from experience that he was baiting us: This guy wants me to talk to him and is using whatever method he can. By implying that I’m ignoring him because I’m racist, he wants me to respond with something like “No, it’s not because you’re black.” And then he’ll respond with something like: “Prove it, and go on a date with me.”

    The real issue was not race at all, but that he was a strange man on the street trying to get something out of us — power, sex, a date. But we said nothing, because we don’t have to prove we’re not racists and risk something more dangerous.

    Chipping away at self esteem

    In those shoe leather reporting days, I thought I was very clever, educated, intellectual, good at my job, but it seemed most people preferred to focus on what I looked like.

    I have no body image issues. I love my body type, my weight, my features; I’ve come to accept and even to like my flaws. But after dealing with street harassment day in and out, I started to feel insecure about my personality and my mind.

    Perhaps part of my insecurity was because I had just left a college environment where learning, being smart and having intellectual conversations were considered cool. But the more time I spent being hollered at, the more I worried that people saw me as a sex object instead of a smart, young, financially independent woman.

    Ultimately, I gained that self-worth back. My improved outlook definitely coincided with quitting full-time community journalism — a job that I otherwise loved — and not being exposed to that constant unwanted attention.

    I still get hollered at on the street. It still makes me feel uncomfortable, and I still wish it would stop. Just like a dog, behind a fence and visible from the street, doesn’t invite a random stranger to fire his gun, my body’s presence on the sidewalk is not an invitation for sexual harassment — whether I’m working or not.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.