I learned French in bars getting hit on by weird men. Also: in subway cars and public parks, in internet cafes looking for apartments, and shopping for cheap kitchenware at outdoor flea markets. At first, I didn't understand anything they were saying to me, but eventually, I picked up patterns. Ça va ("What's up") was innocuous—usually fine to ask the person for directions or even a metro ticket. Vous êtes charmante ("You're charming") was best ignored. Anything resembling "tu suces" (not to be confused with marché aux puces, a landmark near my apartment) meant I should walk away as fast as possible.
When I moved to Paris, I had a hunch that not knowing anyone would force me into the kinds of awkward situations where I would naturally pick up the language. I was right. But I didn't predict it would turn my day-to-day existence into something a lot like that Hollaback! video, except it wasn't edited together for dramatic effect. My first day in the city, I actually spent ten hours straight walking around different neighborhoods, with two suitcases and only the vaguest of plans. The next few months were similar. Until I could build the components of a private life—job, friends, an apartment—I spent a huge portion of my existence in public, and consequently, getting hit on by men in a language I could barely understand.
Last week, the internet erupted in debate about what it's like to be a woman in public, and the verdict was overwhelmingly negative. In the video that went viral, actress Shoshana Roberts walked around New York, in her words, "shoulders hunched... with a serious face and not making eye contact," silently submitting to a barrage of unwanted comments. (As many first pointed out, these comments appeared to come mostly from black and Hispanic men; it was later revealed that the white men were edited out of the video.) There have been viral street harassment videos before, but few generated as much debate as this one, perhaps because, rather than showing a woman confronting her harassers, the Hollaback! video encapsulated the experience of being passively under what seems like a sustained attack.
I relate to this experience, as many women do. But as much as my first few months in Paris looked like the Hollaback! video, my lived experience of them was different. Actually, it was largely thrilling. My life prior had always been comfortable and safe, and when I showed up, I was riding an 18-year-old's adrenaline high of having just told her horrified parents she was buying a one-way ticket to a foreign country. My average day looked a lot like this: hand out a resumé to a tourist hellhole of a restaurant who might not care that I only spoke English, scurry to a one-off babysitting gig, and drag my suitcase to a Craigslist sublet. At night, I went to parties alone that I read about on the internet. If I wanted to talk to someone, I chose between the random strangers (almost always men) who approached me and were typically willing to speak to me despite the fact that I could barely participate in conversations.
These interactions started, for the most part, as standard street harassment fare: sexual invitations couched in various degrees of creativity and politeness. Sometimes, they were worse—insults, verbal abuse, and once, a groping. But, occasionally, they also turned out to be interesting. Two men who introduced themselves with a Vous êtes charmante showed me how to play a didgeridoo months later. I learned about the only store in Paris that sold peanut butter (a sorely missed item) from a dude who insisted on badgering me about my bread and cheese lunch as I ate on a park bench. None of these interactions turned into lasting friendships, but that doesn't mean they weren't useful or thought-provoking.
Eight years later, now living in New York City, I still talk to men on the street, and I still find the experience interesting. When one of them says "hey," I often say "hey" back, before I've determined whether or not the greeting has a sexual undercurrent. That doesn't mean I'm nice to everyone, or that I never respond with silence, a "fuck off," or a police report when I feel they're fitting. It does mean that I'll occasionally find myself talking on the subway with a guy sitting next to me while a female friend watches on uncomfortably. Or, when a construction worker asks me how my day is going, answer and ask them the same question, because I want to know. In Paris, I talked to strange men because it was the only way to break out of linguistic and social isolation. Now, I do it because I'm curious. I'm not going to learn a new language, but I might get a window into another person's thoughts. If they're not good thoughts, I can walk away.
What's fucked up about public dialogue is that, for many women, it's one-directional. Today in New York, I'm still not always comfortable initiating conversations with men, even if I might take the chance of responding to them. Meanwhile, women hardly ever engage each other in random public conversation, one of the more overlooked ramifications of a culture of street harassment. As a result, we're obligated to assume based on past experience that the vast majority of conversations we have with strangers—whether they turn out to be enlightening or creepy—start because someone viewed us as sexual objects. For many women, that's a good enough reason to label any uninitiated public comment from a man—including those ambiguous "hellos"—as harassment, and call for their annihilation.
It's a murky area to navigate. Yes, it's unfair for women to bear the burden of evaluating any comment or gesture from a man for potential risk, a feat of mental calculation that's time-consuming and anxiety-inducing. We shouldn't be obligated to do this every time we walk down the street. But, I personally find that doing so can be worthwhile. Sometimes, it's even empowering. For so much of history, women were excluded from engaging in any dialogue in public spaces. When I choose to say "hey" back, I'm claiming my right to public speech, as well as to explore unknown experiences.
In a way, it's a little like deciding to move to Paris on a whim. And, like that choice, it can sometimes get you into trouble. But what's especially awesome about saying "hey" back is that, unlike moving to Paris, when things go badly, you can say "fuck off" and walk away. And that feels pretty empowering, too.
[Image by Tara Jacoby]