Friday, July 27, 2012

Street Harassment: Guilty By Default

via www.stopstreetharassment.com
Every day in my life, for as long as I can remember, I have had some men whistling, catcalling, and being disrespectful to me while I walk down the street. It does not happen occasionally, it does not happen once in a while, but every single day of my life. Every day! And I am not the only woman who experiences this. As a New Yorker with an attitude I like to believe that I am tough, that I can handle it, and that just ignoring the rude comments or saying a simple "fuck you" is enough; but this should not happen at all! Catcalls, groping, public masturbation, and stalking are not compliments, it is harassment. They make public places unfriendly and frightening to girls and women, and result in a culture that makes other forms of violence against women acceptable. 


Yesterday started off as a fantastic day. The weather was beautiful. I had lunch with a close friend. I was extra productive at work. I got home and my boyfriend had prepared dinner for me, and after dinner a dear friend, who went into labor, asked me to take her to the hospital and stay with her in the delivery room. I got to see her beautiful baby girl being born and share the joy of bringing a new person into this world. But that quickly changed when I walked outside the hospital to buy a bottle of water and find my boyfriend who was parking our car. As I waited in line by the newsstand I noticed every single man in the line was staring at me. Not a quick glance, but leering at me as if they have never seen a woman in their lives. I pretended not to notice while I paid for my bottled water, until the vendor himself made a comment on my appearance. I was noticeably uncomfortable because the entire line of men was still staring at me, but I played "nice girl" and forced a smile and a thank you.


But then I decided to stand in the corner and wait for my boyfriend, and it got worse, because apparently the worst thing an attractive young woman can do is stand in a corner, lest she be confused for a common prostitute, or accused of trying to get attention. Suddenly men driving by decided that I needed to be honked at. Many slowed down, rolled down the window and disrespectfully asked me "how much?" as if by simply standing on the sidewalk I was offering my body for sale. Others walking by would slow down and get so uncomfortably close to me that I felt the need to walk away. But apparently walking away is also not the answer, because the men formerly standing on the corner began to call out things such as "why are you running away baby?" and "don't leave, we're liking the view." I became so uncomfortable that I borrowed a strangers' cellphone, because I had left mine in the car, to call my boyfriend and tell him that I would wait for him inside a café.


Now, let me be clear, I am not new to street harassment. I, like many other women in New York and every other city in the world, am acutely aware that street harassment is part of our daily lives, but, to me at least, the harassment is usually in passing. I always continue walking and pay little attention to the catcalls because I find that men who act this way are not worth wasting my time. However, I was appalled at the number of men and women that simply kept walking and did not for one second call any of my aggressors on their disrespectful behavior. We must stand up to this kind of behavior in public places because if we do not, we send the message that this behavior is natural for men. Our men are not animals, they know that what they are doing is wrong and highly ineffective. The fact that street harassment is at it's worst when men are in a group leads me to believe that men use street harassment to affirm their masculinity to other men. And many lone harasses often learned to cat-call and wolf-whistle at women passing by from being in a group of young men. We live in a society where men are conditioned to believe that their masculinity is dependent on female approval, and that leads to a culture where men use women to validate their worth, even if by force.


In the essay "Masculinity as Homophobia," Michael Kimmel argues that men are shamed and humiliated by a  culture that raises men to feel a sense of inadequacy in terms of achieving masculinity, and a fear that they will be judged by this perceived inadequacy. Men's "fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man[...] keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women." Kimmel goes on to explain that while powerlessness is a valid feeling for men, it does not "accurately describe their condition" because "it is not true." Institutionalized sexism is so entrenched in our culture, that we negate to see male privilege. Male privilege is so normalized that it goes unconsidered, allowing men to feel that it is not a privilege at all. In order to validate male privilege, we raise boys to aggressively pursue a level of masculinity that leads to an even great disparity in gender equality.


I happen to believe that there are more good men than bad ones, but it took me years to feel that way. As a girl, I was raised to believe that "men will be men" and that predatory behavior was part of their natural masculinity. But being male does not give anyone the right to use their masculinity to shame, scare, and intimidate me. No one is entitled to feel threatened by simply standing on a sidewalk, and a beautiful woman is not an excuse to forget that women are not men's entertainment, unless she so chooses. Street harassment is threatening and uncomfortable, but it does not have to be. A genuine compliment is not harassment. Men can tell a woman in the street that he thinks she is attractive without belittling her. Flattery feels great, and we should all be free to tell another person that we think they are beautiful, but there is a fine line between a compliment and a verbal assault when directing a comment to a stranger. Men, I urge you to take a stand against street harassers. We need a world where girls do not grow up to fear men, and boys do not base their worth on others' approval of their masculinity.





9 comments:

  1. When personal identity and status are not dependent on wealth and power, sexual commodification and objectification will end. As will many other abuses of the Human experience. But it will take a radical realignment of our basic values, not merely education or even outright vilification.

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  2. Right, and vilification does not work. It creates a them vs. us argument that leads to nothing.

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  3. This is getting to be out of control. Good piece on it. And yes I read your warning on your page- shock factor is a gripping characteristic in a post that keeps the reader hooked and leaves them with a thought on the topic.

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    1. Thank you Deborah. It really is getting out of hand, and exacerbated by gender stereotypes.

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  4. Hi Tim here

    Men are like vultures waiting to pounce upon women.They think its their divine right. But if you look at the flip side, will women be comfortable if they are not noticed at all; paradox isnt it.My friend's wife uset to complain to my friend when I didnt notice her.Bottomline is men shouldnt act like poachers, women shouldnt present themselves as objects of attraction.On a scale of 1 to 10, men get 7 points as culprits & women 3.

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    1. Hi Tim. I quite agree with you there. And, as I mentioned in my essay, flattery is welcomed and appreciated, when done in a respectful manner. I have been genuinely compliment without feeling demeaned or insulted. However, harassment is to create an unpleasant or hostile situation, especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct; the aim is to torment.

      I do think that we must also focus on girls growing up needing male validation. I think it's a great topic and I am looking forward to writing about it. I hope you'll read it!

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    2. "Tim Ali". Men are not vultures, but men in some backward cultures are (like your own probably).. Anyway, I doubt this behaviour exists everywhere in NY, usually it's related to places with africans/muslims, so why do women go there? I'm a man and I keep out. Just doesn't get it.

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    3. The story above is about sexual harassment in NYC. I have travelled all over the world and have experienced it everywhere, including Latin America and Europe. Denial that it exists will not fix the problem.

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  5. thanks for sharing.

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