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.