What’s In a Name?: The Legacy of Street Harassment and Everyday Sexism

When I was growing up, I fervently disliked my first name. I can’t quite explain why. Perhaps it had to do with the numerous times that people mispronounced it, or the fact that I honestly thought that “Sophia Lorenzi” would be a much more poetic and dramatic moniker. As I got older, however, I learned to embrace my name as a wonderful gift that my mother had given me. Lucia is from the Latin word for “light,” and I can’t think of a more apt description for myself, as someone who is curious, creative, and stubbornly optimistic.

During the process of learning to accept my name and to enjoy hearing it spoken by others, especially by those who I loved the most, I also learned that there was another process of naming that I had started to face: the ways in which I was spoken to and addressed by people who saw me not as a person, not as Lucia, but as a sexual object.

 “Hey, sexy.”

“Hey, baby.”

“Hey, gorgeous.”

These names—adjectives or nouns turned into imposed identities—have been hurled at me from across the street, whispered into my ear by abusive individuals, or spoken to me by men who were little more than acquaintances and wanted only to sleep with me or objectify me. I was no longer myself, but was being claimed, written on, territorialized by the naming practices of street harassment and male entitlement. And it didn’t just stop there. The re-naming of women is often followed by attempts to solicit sexual favours, to imply sexual availability, to taunt, terrify, and to try and tell women that they are nameless, faceless, and powerless.

 “Hey, sexy….wanna fuck?”

“Hey, baby….why don’t you smile for me?”

“Hey, gorgeous….nice ass.”

I became very confused. It had always seemed to me that pet names (honey, sweetie, darling, dear, baby, sexy, beautiful, lover, depending on one’s relationship to a person) ought to be an indication of familiarity and affection, trust and mutual respect. It seemed that to call someone something other than their given name ought to be an indication of an pre-existing relationship, and of intimacy. It seemed to me that it ought to denote shared vulnerability. And yet, it wasn’t. I felt dehumanized. I felt ashamed.

This troubling re-naming practice doesn’t just manifest itself in the ways in which street harassment and catcalling dehumanizes women by suggesting that their identities and personal lives don’t matter, because they are objects to be targeted, identified, and (potentially) consumed or used. It also extends to the ways in which individuals in relationships only use these names when they want or are engaging in sexual acts with a person, when you’re only “baby” in the bedroom, “sexy” in the sack. I’ve been there once before. I’ve been the girl who is kept a secret, the girl who is good enough to sleep with but not good enough to acknowledge or hold hands with in public. It’s humiliating.

It’s this incongruity, the strange melding of affection and violence (or affection and cruelty, affection and coldness, affection and indifference, etc) that can be so difficult to reconcile. It’s unsettling. It feels unsafe. At times, it has made me question whether or not I will ever be seen for any more than my body. It makes me start to question myself, and wonder if because I dress a certain way, or look a certain way, that that’s all I’m seen for, in spite of the creativity and intellect that I nourish and cultivate. It makes me wonder if people see ME at all. While I may embody sexiness at times or a particular heteronormative aesthetic of femininity at times—especially considering my love of fashion, modeling, and photography—those things are not who I am, and nobody has the right to make those things my identity, or to reduce my value to my presumed sexual availability. I,  Lucia, may feel or be or look sexy, but “sexy” is not an outright replacement for my legal name.

Naming practices and acts of address are powerful, and they are deeply political. One need only look to histories of colonization, in which names are and were either “Westernized” or erased entirely. For instance, consider the recent incident involving Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, who stood up to an AP reporter who refused to learn to pronounce her name and call her “Annie” (Wallis’ upcoming role) instead. Think about the how the term “slut” is part of a deep history of the sexualization of racialized women, and the precarious politics of the attempted reclamation of that term. Think about how women who suffer sexual assaults are referred to only as “Jane Doe,” or, in the case of victim-blaming, as “that whore, that walking mattress, that skank.”

I want to be very clear: I am absolutely not suggesting that there ought to be a radical policing of language, nor do I want to assert that “sexy” or “beautiful” as adjectives should be completely erased from conversations with and about women.  Given how often women are shamed for confident, assertive displays or articulations of their sexuality, I think that it is important to recognize sexiness and beauty of all kinds. I think it’s important for women to be able to use those words in order to describe themselves without being shamed or seen as objects. I consider myself to be sexy. I consider myself to be someone who embraces her sexuality. I enjoy it when people recognize it in a positive and kind way, whether they are acquaintances on Facebook or friends or otherwise. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with exchanging a knowing glance or a smile with a stranger. Flirting isn’t off-limits.

But I also think that an awareness, especially in interpersonal relationships that take place in private (whether online or offline), in dating, and in flirting, of the histories of oppression that many women have faced with regards to certain naming practices, is equally important. I believe that it is important to recognize that women all have different experiences with street harassment and sexual assault, and that treading lightly at first, finding different phrases to express a thought, or being up front in asking if it’s okay to use certain language is thoughtful, valuable, welcomed, and necessary. I can’t be the only one who thinks that asking for consent and having discussions about things is a super-mega-turn-on. I’ve had male friends and acquaintances who have asked me. It’s wonderful.

Having read through the various stories featured on the @EverydaySexism Twitter account, having followed the #streetharassment hashtag, and doing the research that I do regarding sexual violence and sexuality, I know that while many women have different experiences of naming practices, there are a large number whose experiences have been similar to mine. Sometimes, you never know when that “hey sexy!” hollered at you from across the street is going to turn into someone grabbing you, following you, or assaulting you. I was stalked on my old university’s campus several years ago, and I can tell you first-hand that what seem like “compliments” that women should just “take lightly” from strangers can quickly escalate into terror.

While Shakespeare suggested that “rose by any other name” may still be a rose, a woman by any other name is often made to feel that she is not still a woman. She’s made to feel like an object. And that’s not okay, because as we know, such practices of harassment and dehumanization often lead to other forms of violence. It reinforces an environment where it’s seemingly okay for those things to happen. It’s really fucking not okay.

I still struggle all of this myself, and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for any woman other than myself. However, I wish so badly that those words I’ve called, those names I’ve been assigned, could become precious again, saved for the mouths of people I feel safe around, and loved by. But they’re not. And I can’t pretend that “words can never hurt me,” because sometimes they still do. I can’t pretend that it sometimes feels strange to hear those words from a partner or a lover. I can’t erase their history, and I won’t, because as so many of us know all too well, the line between terms of endearment and terms of endangerment is a very fine one.

For more information and stories about street harassment, visit:

Hollaback! A Non-Profit and Movement to End Street Harassment

Michael Laxer’s Rabble.ca article: “Sexual harassment on the street: taking misogynist hate speech seriously.”

The SFTUCatcallers Tumblr

2 comments

  1. “It also extends to the ways in which individuals in relationships only use these names when they want or are engaging in sexual acts with a person, when you’re only “baby” in the bedroom, “sexy” in the sack”

    So this is where I run into problems, because I have been criticized for this before. I don’t tend to call my romantic partners by names that highlight their physical attributes because a) those are (usually) not the most salient detail for me, and b) I think it’s kind of rude. At the same time, I know how much I enjoy feeling desired, perhaps even bordering on objectified, during sex. I imagine, and I don’t think unfairly, that people generally enjoy feeling sexy during sexytime.

    But there is, injected into this phenomenon, a point at which my cis male privilege puts me in a position where I simply do not take the spectre of street harassment into account. If I only call someone “sexy” in the bedroom, I’m aping the behaviour of the shitstains who wolf-whistle and demand her attention while she’s waiting for the bus or whatever. And while I feel like the venue is appropriate, it can actually end up being COUNTER-productive, as I can make her LESS comfortable expressing her sexuality, when my intention was the exact opposite.

    My feeling, especially after having read this, is that there can be no ‘hard and fast’ (heh heh heh) rule about these things, and that boundaries of sexual comfort and quasi-objectification (or maybe it’s full-on objectification and I’m just quasi-deluding myself) have to be negotiated and re-negotiated as a relationship progresses. It’s important, at least in my eyes, for straight cis men to be aware that this is an issue that affects their partners, and they might have little or no idea.

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