The Dad Game, and how I deal with street harassment

It’s Friday night in Allston, and I’m out with friends wearing a variation on the outfit 60 percent of the women in this neighborhood are wearing. My friends and I notice a leering man sporting a combover that falls somewhere between “hilarious” and “disgusting.” He’s presumably celebrating his recent Medicare eligibility. As he sets up a pick up line, I send a sideways glance to my friend and we grin. As we pass, I double take and squint quizzically in his direction. Before he can finish his generic-yet-nauseating quip, I ask my favorite one-word question as earnestly as I can.

“Dad?”

His face, pock-marked with liver spots, flashes white and then slowly reddens. Suddenly, he becomes painfully self-aware. We have a winner.

My friends and I explode with laughter, triumphant. This is the Dad Game.

A deviation of a favorite activity developed by a few of my male friends, the Dad Game transformed into my rendition after one-too-many instances of street harassment, on Friday nights but also on mid-day subway rides, walks home from work and trips to restaurants. I specifically specialized the clientele and changed the intonation: As opposed to a loud, violent, walked-out-on-you-for-a-pack-of-cigarettes roar, my “Dad” should be more of a puzzled, innocent, self-parodying query.

For those who don’t spend their tuition money on Gender Studies classes and their free time reading Feministing, street harassment is an event that’s almost unavoidable: instances of verbal or physical abuse in public settings, or behavior directed at passersby that makes them feel uncomfortable. Street harassment comes in the form of obviously vicious behavior – such as anti-gay jeering directed at couples – or, to the dismay of a significant percentage of my straight male friends, sexualized comments directed at strangers. That’s right: cat calls.

Here’s what I’m sick of hearing:

“Can’t you take a compliment?”

Nope. Not if it makes me, or anyone else, uncomfortable. See, when you shout out “hey, gorgeous” or “nice ass” or anything in between, you are “sexualizing space.” In other words, you are creating a setting that has an undeniably sexual atmosphere without getting consent from the other parties involved. Maybe “nice ass” is what that person’s rapist said to her. Maybe that person doesn’t like to think or talk about sex (temporarily or at all – asexuality is often forgotten or pushed to the wayside in our culture, but it is a constant facet of many Americans’ lives). Maybe that person is just having a bad day. Really, the point is you don’t know anything about that “nice ass.” Regardless, you’ve yanked that person into your fantasy, whether they wanted to join you or not.

“If you’re not looking for comments like that, why are you wearing that outfit?”

Does it matter? This one really gets to me. Are you seriously telling me that the people we should appease are the individuals who are tormenting random people on the street? The message you send here is that my fear or discomfort is unimportant in comparison to the desires of the harassers who want to sexualize you. It’s sort of like saying “Your body as an object is more important than your thoughts as a peson.”

“Does it really happen that often?”

Every day. Every single day. It happened the day my boyfriend kicked me out. It happened the day my Godmother died. It happened the day I was groped at a party. It never seems to stop.

Every single time I mentioned – in fact, about 75 percent of the time, in general – if that harasser had asked me if I wanted “a compliment,” I would have said no. But that person didn’t ask, and as soon as that person said what he or she said, I felt worse. I felt everyone’s eyes on me. I felt a desperate desire to cover up, to hide. Because what keeps this time from being the time someone turns big talk into non-consensual action?

The first time, I was on the T – an ironically unsuccessful attempt to avoid walking home alone at night. The green line was packed at 12 on a Saturday, and I was squeezed between a man and the side of the car. He leaned over and whispered in my ear.

“My favorite part of riding the T late at night is getting to grind with pretty girls.”

Here I was, trapped against Creep of the Year 2012, and I couldn’t even scream or cry or run away because what? It’s just a compliment!

He would have been a perfect candidate for the Dad Game.

See, I play the Dad Game because if my claims of discomfort are going to be seen as self-centered, delicate or overly sensitive, if my harasser is going to be seen as innocent by the mainstream public, then by God I’m going to take matters into my own hands. I play the Dad Game because I know my harasser should be the one embarrassed, not me.

But the Dad Game doesn’t work on a large number of harassers – many of whom are not necessarily male. It doesn’t work for a large number of victims, who might not be harassed by “complimenters” but rather overtly violent, threatening thugs. I think specifically of those transgender individuals who tell harrowing stories of street harassment I can’t even begin to comprehend. I empathize as best I can and hope those stories become more part of the public narrative.

I think also of those who cannot stand and shout, embarrass or ridicule those attackers, for whatever reason. You should not be expected to do anything.

But if it applies to you – and the statistics suggest it might – I recommend you try out the Dad Game when the moment strikes. The more often we can make them the butt of the joke, the funnier it gets.

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