I could literally tell hundreds of stories about street harassment that I have experienced, one of the most intimidating was a look without any comments at all. I could also tell a few stories about being physically attacked by men who thought that it was ok to force himself on me. I don't think it is fair to try and separate street harassment from physical and sexual violence.
Now, when I am walking in nearly deserted school hallways, I always get that knot in my stomach if there is a man walking behind me. Although it isn't fair to men for me to always assume the worst, it is a much better option than assuming otherwise and getting hurt. This is how it works for me, and I'm sure this is true for many women; we hear about sexual assault a lot, it plays on television, we have been warned about how to protect ourselves since adolescence (if not childhood), we know people who have experienced it, and many of us have experienced it ourselves. Upon hearing comments, such as those depicted in the image above, I am reminded about my position in relation to men. And I am reminded that men are usually stronger than I am. And I am reminded that we live in a culture where the objectification of female bodies is normal. This is why I don't welcome street harrasment, even the most 'innocent' comments.
J (daughter) learned about street harassment when she was only 4 years old. Everyday, when she got home from Junior Kindergarten, we would walk 5 minutes to her brother's daycare and another 5 minutes home. And more often than not, I would get harassed while holding J's hand and pushing a stroller with a 2 year old inside. At first, she thought that people were honking because they knew me, but it didn't take her long to realize that I didn't know that many people. Some comments were difficult to explain, mostly things like whistles, "hey baby" and "want a ride?" but sometimes vulgar comments were made even when I was with my children. And this happens regardless of what I am wearing.
Daring to go outside while female does not mean that my body is public property for men to look at and discuss. It does mean that I have to take added safety measures, compared to most men that I know. It means that I check the backseat before getting into my car. It means that I don't use specific parking lots on campus when I have night classes (which sometimes costs me money). It means that I usually avoid going outside alone at night, and the odd time that I do, I learn rather quickly not to do it again (at least for a while).
And I am not being irrational, as so many people have suggested. This is a real fear, not just for me, but it has been written and blogged about by so many other women... the fact that the above comic exists means that it is something that is really affecting the lives of women. My suggestion for men is that if you want to approach a woman on the street, maybe try holding back and just smiling from a distance. If she maintains eye contact and smiles back, then consider approaching. If she does not, than she is not interested at the moment. That does not mean try harder, it means leave her alone.