Let's talk about street harassment

You know that feeling when you LOVE the outfit that you're wearing, and you hair is cooperating for once, and you know your makeup is really on point, and you just feel good? You're walking down the street - maybe you're just going to work, or heading home from a movie, or just want to go for a walk because it's a nice summer day and that's something people do - when you feel the hair on the back of your neck raise. You look around, and there's a guy, standing there, staring at you. You quickly look away (don't make eye contact, it only encourages them), square your shoulders, and speed up a little bit as you walk past. And then you hear it. "Nice ass, baby." "Hey. Hey you. Girl." Or just a hissing between their teeth, or a whistle. Suddenly, that good mood is just gone.
Ruth Orkin - American girl in Italy, 1951
I've seen this photo a few times, and usually people seem to be laughing about it - "look at those virile men reacting to a beautiful women on the street!" All I can see when I look at it, though, is the discomfort on her face.
It can be hard to explain why it makes me feel so bad. I've told stories about street harassment to people who will laugh and tell me that I should be flattered, it means they think I'm hot; or tell me just to ignore it, guys don't mean anything by it; or shrug and say, "that sucks," their lack comprehension written on their faces.
What I hate is that it makes me feel shame. Yes, I like to dress up and look nice, and while that's definitely a thing that I do for myself, I also love a sincere compliment. This kind of harassment, though, makes me feel like I should not be wearing what I'm wearing, that I shouldn't be where I am. It makes me feel like I've done something wrong just by existing in public.
I have to admit, I don't react very well to this, largely because it makes me really fucking angry. Like, angry in the way where I know that I have had a heated argument with someone, but I can't remember exactly what I've said because it's all been lost in the haze of rage. I've definitely barked like a dog at a guy (because that is what he sounded like to me), confronted someone by asking if they think I'm a hooker (not because I have any issue with sex workers, but because they are, amongst all women, the only ones you might reliably assume would be interested in a proposition, made on the street, to engage in oral sex), and just straight up told more than one guy to stop talking to me, with varying levels of success.
At least, that's the way I might react when I feel safe - if I'm in a very public place where I can reasonably assume even the biggest asshole will not react with violence. If I'm somewhere isolated, or close enough to my home that I might be followed, I inevitably stare at the ground, pretend I've gone deaf, and walk, stiff-legged, as fast as I can to wherever I'm heading. Because the other thing that people don't get sometimes is the fear. Maybe that guy on the corner doesn't mean anything with his creepy stares and lewd comments, or maybe he's the guy that's going to hit you if you tell him off. Or maybe he's the guy that's going to follow you until you're isolated and drag you into an alley and rape you, and worrying about that kind of shit is why some women sound like paranoid basket cases to people who don't understand what it's like.
While I wouldn't say that I experience more cat-calling and street harassment while wearing vintage, it's definitely got a different tenor. Before I'd get the wolf-whistle/hey baby kind of thing; now, guys feel like they should come up and talk to me. Well, not me, exactly; my body, my clothes, my tattoos. I don't have any particular value as a person in the interaction, just my seamed stockings ("Are you wearing a garter belt and everything?" Seriously, what fucking business is my underwear to you?) or the cleavage that my "Nice dress!" is showing, or the red lipstick that a guy just can't resist telling me he loves. They stand too close, make too much eye contact, have a creepy way of talking that makes it clear that I have unwillingly been incorporated into the fetish video running through their brains.
On Saturday, I went and saw a movie, and on my way to the theater this guy, who was standing by a building down the street, went, "ooh, that's nice." I pretended I didn't hear and kept walking, but he started following me, yelling "You! Hey, you! You with the bike!" I had to lock up my bike, so I stopped and rounded on him. "What? What do you want?" "Your tattoo, the bird, what does it mean?" "It means none of your business. Stop talking to me." "Why you gotta be such a bitch about it? I don't have to talk to rude bitches." And then he finally walked off, still talking to himself about bitches and rude women.
"Hey! Hey, you! You acting like an asshole! Fuck off."
When I was telling this story to my boyfriend, even to my own ears this sounded trivial. It seemed stupid that I was so worked up over a 60 second exchange from some random dude on the street, but that fact is that this happens all the damn time, and it wears on you, and it makes you feel helpless.
I've seen some great videos of women confronting their harassers, and although it's satisfying to watch, it doesn't really feel like it changes anything. Most of the time, they don't seem to realize that they've done anything wrong, that women are not on display for their pleasure, and that women do not owe them their time or conversation.
I would love to hear stories from other women about how they've dealt with street harassment, and what we might be able to do to change it.
Organizations to know:
Stop Street Harassment
Cards Against Harassment