Thursday, May 29, 2014
Before #YesAllWomen started trending on social media in response to men’s (but not all men’s!) response to feminists’ response to the mass shooting in Santa Barbara this week, and before the shooting itself had occurred, I had completed a draft of the following essay about street harassment. I worried while writing about the reactions that I would receive in the comments. Maybe people will perceive my observations as whining about something relatively unimportant, they’ll think I’m too stuck up to give nice guys a chance, that I am projecting violence onto behavior that’s really innocent, that I need to learn to take a compliment. I felt a lot of pressure from past conversations to pre-empt the commenters in proving that street harassment is not flattering, that it is one of many disturbing expressions of male entitlement to sex and women’s bodies, and that it is part of a continuum of disrespect for female autonomy that too often culminates in severe or even deadly violence.
In an unfortunate twist of fate, the proof of that statement became the most visible news story of the weekend when Elliot Rodger completed his stated desire to bring “reckoning” to women who have denied him the pleasure he felt was his birthright and any men who might ally with them. Reactions from women online prompted a defensive reaction from men (and some women) clamoring to stifle the talk of misogyny in favor of discussing mental illness or gun control. What I hope the #YesAllWomen campaign can continue to show men is how commonplace many of Rodger’s remarks really were, how many of us have experienced firsthand the effects of widespread violence against women, and how quick our culture is to normalize it. By sharing our stories, especially with men who will listen, we can change the culture and begin to take gender inequality and gender-based violence to task.
Here is the essay I was working on, unamended except to add that, yes, all women have days like this one and too many have far worse days, but they’re all part of the same story. Let’s work together to write a new one in which women are respected, men are respected, and everyone has better relationships and a better chance to thrive, love, and grow as a result.
I am walking quickly because I have barely enough time to walk across downtown from Browne’s Addition and make it to the event on time. It’s one of the first days with more than a hint of summer in it and I get to admire the later blossoms on the trees, the slight breeze that is finally refreshing after the chilly winter. Walking has always helped me process my day and connect with nature and with the people around me. I enjoy it so much that I never bought another car after mine met its end seven years ago.
The first honk, accompanied by a simple “Yeah! Nice!” from the passenger seat, jostles me out of my late spring nature reverie, but I recover quickly. A simple honk-and-yell after 10 years of being accosted on the street isn’t enough to enrage me the way it would have as a teenager or as a newly minted (and brimming with righteous indignation) feminist. I make it to the Spokane Club with my confidence and good mood intact, and exchange smiles and nods with my fellow pedestrians. As I cross Monroe, the second honk-and-yell is hurled my way. I cut up to Riverside to avoid waiting for the light and it’s there I get my second “compliment” of the day. Walking past the businesses across from the STA Plaza, a young man is leaning against the bricks listening to music.
“Very nice!” he says, à la Borat, while making direct eye contact with me and smirking. I turn away and keep walking, the best solution I’ve found so far to these kinds of encounters especially when there’s no time for a confrontation and you’re on the verge of being late already. When he’s a few steps behind me, he yells, “Bitch!” and the single syllable is packed with disdain and loathing.
On a feisty day, I would flip him off or yell something back, but today I am determined to let it all roll off and stay in control of my mood. Being insulted on the street is just a reality I’ve learned to handle without a great deal of fanfare by this point in my life. I now have seven minutes to reach my destination and think that I am on target to avoid lateness if I hustle. I cut across a big surface lot, taking the diagonal to save time getting to Sprague. Since I’ve been primed for confrontation on this walk, I am paying more attention to the people around me than I did when I first left the house. Up ahead, between Mootsy’s and the corner at Washington, I see three men talking with each other. They see me and stop their conversation entirely, all turning to wait for me to pass.
“Great,” I think, “a tunnel.”
One is on the building side of the sidewalk and the other two are smoking by the parking meters across from him. The apparent leader of the pack looks to his buddies, and then back at me as he steps out into my path in the sidewalk. He puts one hand out in a request for me to slow down and says, “Hey, girl. You know you crazy hot, right?” It’s a strange rhetorical question and it’s the last straw of my mile or so of patience so far, so I just shrug dramatically with my hands out and yell, “Well!?” as I keep walking. They don’t call me a bitch, but I can hear the slap of high fives and a general noise of approval as they watch me leave.
I share this story here to give an example of what many women go through on their daily commute, particularly if they aren’t in a car. These encounters were fairly tame and on their own don’t prove much about gender-based power dynamics, but I should also mention that they occur in the context of ongoing gender and appearance-based harassment and violence. The context is what makes these instances so much more than what they’re usually characterized as when I share them with male friends, compliments. In addition to comments or expressions of approval about my physical traits on the street, I have also been followed on foot and by men in cars. I have planned or changed my route specifically to avoid being bothered. I have been late to work due to diverting my route away from people I perceived as threatening. I have had trash thrown at me from a car after flipping off a catcaller. I have been groped by a stranger in public. I have been photographed against my will in public and among people I believed to be friends. I have been vilified for putting “nice guys” in the “friendzone” rather than sleeping with or dating them as a reward for their kindness. I have been stalked, harassed and threatened by some of these “nice guys” after I rejected them. I feel lucky to have not been raped, beaten, or killed by a partner or stranger because the odds are not in my favor as a woman. The knowledge my biology endangers me has been ingrained in me since childhood. My experiences are not unique and are, in fact, far better than what a large proportion of other women have dealt with in their lives.
Despite all of this, and though I’ve been slandered as one, I am not a “man-hater.” I hate, well, hate. I hate inequality and injustice and unfairness. And I understand that while men benefit disproportionately from patriarchy, it still doesn’t give them justice or fairness. Men are taught that in order to be manly, they must vanquish other men in their chosen field, dominate physically, intellectually and sexually wherever possible, and gain power over the previously uncontrolled circumstances of their lives. These ideas lead to bullying among boys, a great deal of anger either turned inward or outward, and at the macro level, to destroying life on a mass scale through waging war. Obviously, there are men who fail or refuse to conform to these twisted notions of what it means to be a man. They are often punished for their non-conformity by their peers, by women who believe hyper-masculinity is normal or desirable, and by authority figures. This punishment still pales in comparison to the threats of daily life that come with being female.
Men, as the leaders of our institutions and as the far and away most frequent perpetrators of violence, have the power to end gender inequality and systematic violence against women and they don’t do it. If you are a man and you dismiss women’s concerns on these topics without considering how you fit into the picture, you are part of the problem. If you are a man and you harass women, feel entitled to our time or bodies, or commit other acts of violence or coercion, you are definitely part of the problem. If you are a person who makes excuses for this type of behavior, you are part of the problem. If you think that feminism means women dominating the world in the way men do now, or that it means anything other than ending sex/gender based oppression, your lack of research is part of the problem.
Are men so afraid of being treated like women that they won’t stand up against blatant violence? Though it’s less overt than murder or rape, street harassment is violence. Rather than being treated as part of a continuum of disrespect, dehumanization and violence, it’s treated as a harmless recreational pursuit and dismissed as “boys will be boys” behavior. This summer, I call upon the men who want a better world to stop “complimenting” women on the street, and to call out other men’s disrespectful behavior. If you have children, talk to them early and often about sexism, racism, inequality and justice. Kids seem to have a natural aptitude for identifying unfairness — have you ever given just one of your two children a treat in front of the other? — and if they learn about how it’s structured into our society, they will be better equipped to dismantle it. Perhaps your daughters won’t grow up with boys who have harmful ideas about who or what she is, and your sons will be stronger and better for learning the lessons, too. ♦
Taylor Weech, who hosts the weekly public affairs program Praxis on KYRS-FM, is a Spokane writer and activist. She's advocated, among other things, for environmental sustainability and all-ages access to the arts.