With Brooklyn’s spring thaw in full effect, I’m having lots of conversations with my girlfriends about warm weather activities: like long bike rides, picnics in Prospect Park, and, unfortunately, the inevitable uptick in sexualized street harassment. Just last week, I heard myself saying, “I want to be respected in the street no matter what I’m wearing. Even if I’m out on the Parkway in my mas costume. I want respect, dammit.”
The words coming out of my own mouth sounded absurd. What I said absolutely reflected the way I felt, but it smelled and felt like a set-up for victim-blaming. It feels normal, almost natural even, to have sexual epithets yelled by men or to be followed by someone who “just wants your number, girl.” In a society that thinks any level of female sexual expression is “asking for it,” I wasn’t sure how true my demand for respect would ring.
Having grown up black in Brooklyn, going to Eastern Parkway on Labor Day was an annual ritual for me and my homegirls. Spending six hours eating roadside jerk chicken and winin’ down de road was a natural way to end the summer. We would go to the parade and blend into the crowd, wearing our flags and old jeans.
The real stars of the parade were the masqueraders, who, shimmering with body glitter, were adorned in feathered and bejeweled headpieces, shorts, and swimsuit costumes. After a while, choosing to dance in one of the gorgeous, elaborate outfits instead of a Haiti t-shirt and cutoff jeans felt like a natural progression. Some friends and family thought rocking a two-piece in broad daylight was a bold move, but for me, walking into a mas camp and putting a deposit on a costume seemed pretty ordinary.
I was 24 years old the first time I played mas. I jumped up and got on bad in my outfit. I wined to the ground. I danced with men when I wanted to and danced alone when I wanted to. In the carnival atmosphere, I was in control; I owned my body, my sexuality, and whatever I wanted to do with either. To be entirely honest, male aggression was present—but it was generally policed by bystanders, and men backed off if a boundary was crossed. The environment was far from perfect, but I felt like my will and desires were respected.
The control I enjoyed on the Parkway is explained by Maude Dikobe in her 2006 article, “Bottom in de Road: Gender and Sexuality in Calypso”:
In a party, for instance, a woman may rotate her bumsie all alone, for the sheer pleasure of doing so, or she may back up against a partner’s front (or rear) to wine together. If a man (or another woman) approaches her from behind and presses against her gyrating posterior, he or she is wining on her. This approach may or may not be welcome – and the woman may request that her suitor back off... As Twiggy (Anne Marie Parks) explicitly states, “Doh Put Your Hands on My Property.” In other words, you can’t touch this!
But when I got off the parade route, all that power to safely reject male advances vaporized. Off de road, there was a different reality: I was an object for sexual consumption.
I met up with two friends, also black twenty-something, feminine presenting women. The attention I received would have been alarming if I had been fully dressed, as they were. But there I was, getting hissed at and ruthlessly accosted in my bra top and feathered headpiece.
A young man, slobbing down on a chicken bone, straight up walked up to me and told me I looked good enough to eat. An older man I knew only professionally wouldn’t stop staring at my breasts and called me later in the week just to tell me how nice I looked in my costume. I was stared at by a number of men and followed by enough that my friends had to walk me to my destination to make sure I reached it safely.
I experienced a disconnect when trying to understand how, in a matter of minutes, I went from enjoying myself to feeling concerned for my safety. It was as if I had traveled between worlds.
Carnival is, by design, a hypersexualized space. Brooklyn’s West Indian American Day Parade is derived from Mardi Gras festivals that took place in Caribbean colonies. On the final Tuesday before Lent, a Christian season of solemn reflection and prayer, people of African descent would celebrate a night of joy with an explosion of color, loud music, brash physicality, and African imagery.
This theme of freedom drives carnival culture. In particular, freedom before a somber six weeks, but also a general freedom from colonizers and the strict sexual rule of the Catholic Church. In these types of Caribbean environments informed by freedom, sexual harassment isn’t as welcome as it is in the United States’ arguably less free street culture.
Street harassment has become a normalized part of of the way we all experience our neighborhoods. In our everyday culture in Brooklyn, the widespread objectification of women turns sidewalks into runways, petri dishes, and display cases. We become things for show and inspection.
Every spring, those of us who are frequently harassed on the streets celebrate the return of sunshine, but curse the increase in street activity. More people on the street inherently means more opportunities for unwanted advances. Forget how we might be dressed, simply being outside is reason enough to be ogled, barked at, told to smile, asked to show our breasts, followed home, or even killed.
It’s no wonder I’d felt safer grinding on strangers during the parade than I did walking down the street steps away from the parade. I’d felt respected. I’d felt like a human being.
Of course, Caribbean carnival culture isn’t perfect: There are sexual ownership and depersonification issues that exist within it. Dikobe does a great job analyzing those concepts, and you should read her piece in its entirety here.
Instead, street harassment is such an accepted part of our existence that harassers seamlessly turn it off (or down) for cultural environments where it is less accepted, and turn it back up when they feel it is okay to do so—even if both cultures exist in the same exact public space. There is a mix of conscious and subconscious motions our men are going through when they commit these seemingly simplistic transgressions.
Which leaves me wondering: If the impulse to objectify and degrade women can be both conscious and subconscious, as people who want to transform culture and community, where do we even start?
Anthonine Pierre is the Lead Community Organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center and a founding member of its anti-street harassment collective, No Disrespect. No Disrespect is committed to transforming the culture of intrusions, intimidation, and harassment in Central Brooklyn to one of community-building and mutual respect. You can find her tweeting at @AnthonineP.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]