Thursday, June 16, 2011

Adventures in Street Harassment

Guess who experienced street harassment today. That's right, I did!

The experience: I was walking down the sidewalk, music from Sucker Punch blaring in my ears, and I see these two guys coming towards me. I made eye contact, and soon I noticed that one of the guys was talking to me. I never actually knew what he was saying, but I'm not an idiot, I know harassment when I see it. The "you and me" gesture, the intimidating body language, the sexual tone of his voice. I tried to stare dead ahead, with an emotionless expression, trying to ignore him. I was desperately trying not to let him have that power over me. Even after we passed each other, I could hear him yelling after me. For a moment I was afraid he might turn around, come towards me, and either follow me or try to grab me.

It sank in as I boarded the bus, what had just happened. The loss of control, the power he had exerted over me. I couldn't help but feel upset, especially considering my abusive past. What may have upset me the most was knowing that if I told someone, he'd likely brush it off, or worse, blame me for it. "Look at you, wearing a skirt, all dolled up, what did you expect? If you don't want attention, don't dress like that."

Luckily, the guy I told did not react that way. Thank God he's not that kind of person. Still, too many guys treat street harassment like it's either no big deal, just something that happens and we need to learn to let it go, or it's the woman's fault. Or worse, that I should take it as a compliment. I'm sorry, but it's really hard to feel good about myself when all I feel is a loss of power.

Again, let's examine the gender politics at play. Women do not compliment other women on the street, nor do men compliment men, and you'd be hard pressed to find a woman yelling after a man "daaaayum daddy you so sexy!" Men are the ones coming onto women on the street, asking for their numbers, asking for dates, making sexual comments, demanding that they smile.

Sure, sometimes strangers talking to each other isn't such a bad thing. Certainly it's fine at clubs and parties as long as the one striking up conversation or flat-out hitting on someone takes rejection well (i.e. doesn't get belligerent, accusing the rejector of only wanting jerks or bimbos), and random conversation is prevalent at anime conventions, or among people of relatively same age waiting in line for something at any given event. And certainly an actual compliment like "I like your shirt" or "your hair is cool" can be perfectly innocent and conversational if said in the right tone of voice.

Street harassment is a way for men to put women in their place. It makes the public sphere a hostile place for women, and sexualizes them, sending them the message that the only role they can hope to fill in the public sphere is that of a sexual object for men's pleasure.

And make no mistake, every woman is at risk for street harassment. It's not just pretty girls who wear short skirts, although wearing skirt does put one at greater risk. Other "risk factors" include riding a bike, jogging, carrying food, and not smiling (seriously, commanding me to smile is only going to piss me off, and if I do smile it's because I'm using laughter as a coping mechanism). Street harassers will look for any excuse they have to talk to a woman, will comment on anything they can. It's usually not about getting a date; street harassment, like rape, is about a man exerting power over a woman. And I'm going to run the risk of sounding "too dramatic" and say that more severe instances of harassment do feel like a spiritual form of rape. It's a violation of one's right to merely "be" in the public sphere.

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