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Surveillance State 

A reflection on technology, voyeurism and the men who upskirted me

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I don't know if they saw the mole on my left butt cheek, or the scars on the back of my right thigh from a childhood spent sliding into home plate.

I don't know if the sidewalk chorus of cars and Zippo lighters and flip-flops on pavement muffled the shutter of a camera phone.

I don't know why I turned around in time to see three strangers photographing under my skirt on a public sidewalk, or why they stalked and continued to photograph me, unwantedly, while an '80s tribute band played "Jessie's Girl" at a bar nearby.

I do know I was photographed again, weeks later by another stranger, while dressed in yoga pants outside my front door.

Yesterday's construction worker was equipped with two fingers, a wet tongue and a whistle to harass women passing by. Today, his smartphone captures the print of my panties and the wiggle of my walk.

He instantaneously has an online platform to post my body to thousands. I am forever in motion as an image or gif on websites like Reddit, yet feel stifled and unsure of how to move because of who is watching.

Real or perceived, this state of surveillance is part of women's shared experience.

Technology hasn't created social voyeurs, but it's created a slicker medium to spread misogyny and objectify women. It's created a forum where Elliot Rodger can post YouTube manifestos about his hatred for the women who didn't sleep with him just before the killing spree that left six dead.

It's created an online gallery of captured women.

Aggressors have always been watching. Cynthia Bowman coined the term "street harassment" — the harassment of women in public spaces by strangers — in her 1993 Harvard Law Review article. In it, Bowman argued that harassment restricted women's physical and geographic ability to move.

"[Street harassment] not only diminishes a woman's feelings of safety and comfort in public places, but also restricts her freedom of movement, depriving her of liberty and security in the public sphere," she wrote.

This harassment — whistles, comments and groping — is a form of surveillance which places men, more often than not, at the helm of power.

Smartphones haven't increased harassment, but technology has become the new mechanism, says Elizabeth Kissling, professor of women's and gender studies at Eastern Washington University.

"Technology makes women feel even more under constant surveillance," Kissling says. "The potential of being photographed or filmed adds an extra layer. Women are already aware of the potential for street harassment, rape and assault. They are already thinking about which routes to walk or if they should wear pants in public."

Websites like Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment have created a positive space for women to occupy online. The websites allow women to pinpoint dangerous locations and aggressors, to share testimonials and find resources.

"Technology is a tool, not inherently good or bad," Kissling says. "On one hand, it's empowering for people that have been marginalized — to have this media we control — and it's given women a place to retroactively fight back."

But the law isn't always on our side. Voyeurism laws — originally called "Peeping Tom" laws — were targeted toward the man in the bushes outside one's home. The antiquated language fails to address changes in technology and protect women from being photographed against their will.

"No one imagined we would have the capability to stick a camera phone underneath a dress on the subway," Kissling says.

In March, Massachusetts' Supreme Court ruled it's not illegal to secretly photograph underneath a person's clothing. Lawmakers reacted with a bill outlawing the practice the next day. Washington state's Supreme Court also ruled in 2002 that photographing or videotaping up a woman's skirt in a public place wasn't illegal. The practice was outlawed the following year and is now a felony offense.

Kissling says the harassment will only decrease when legal precedent and social change occur simultaneously.

"We live in a culture that teaches young men a sense of entitlement to women," she says. "The idea of women being on display for ogling and photographing is a piece of that.

"Cultural change needs to happen. In the meantime, laws need to be enacted to protect people from invasion of privacy."

I cried at the kitchen sink while washing red lipstick off my flask the night it first happened. I hid the dress in the back of my closet and bathed. I tried to forget.  

When it happened again, I felt paralyzed. I sat cross-legged in the grass and bit my fingernails.

I have grown accustomed to the weight of eyes when I walk into a room, to the heavy pause on hips and lips. I have grown accustomed to unwanted conversation and touching, and I know that I am being watched.

But never before had I felt captured.

What once was a fleeting, shared, yet unwanted moment in time is now indefinite. A part of me was taken, and I can't get it back. ♦

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