Just a week ago I was walking home from a yoga class, sweaty and wearing a sweatshirt over my yoga pants. I thought nothing of the middle-aged man walking toward me until he looked me up and down and simply said “Nice.” I looked around. It was unmistakably directed at me. And I didn’t know what to do or say. As he walked past me I gave him a quizzical and then angry look. But should I yell? Curse him out? And call more attention to myself? As soon as I decided to turn the corner and just walk home, the shame and embarrassment flooded me. Should I be walking around in tight yoga pants? Did I open myself up to that? How can some man on the street feel such ownership over my body as to issue a passing grade on it?
I’ve been working against a culture of harassment against women that blames them for the harassment for years and years. But it was easy to zoom right past all of these things I knew logically and feel that shame blossom deep inside my psyche. The first thought right after “How dare he” was “Maybe I shouldn’t wear these clothes.” And it made me realize that while I may know where my line is when I’m alone with a man, I may not know what it is when I’m walking down the street.
Rape culture doesn’t end when you leave your bedroom and head outside – that’s where it may in fact start. Street harassment is one of those things that women are expected to simply cope with. We all have stories. This was one of my more subtle ones. Worse ones involve the men I caught masturbating while staring at my body on two separate occasions, the man who grabbed my ass hard as he walked behind me in a crowded department store, the litany of comments that followed me as I walked alone to the subway on Friday nights. Over at the ACLU’s blog, Robyn Shepard shares her own story of being smacked on the ass in public – and doing something about it. She writes that she ran after the perpetrator, confronted him, and called the cops on him. They didn’t end up finding him for the arrest, but it’s heartening to hear that law enforcement took her seriously. While we clearly haven’t gotten past blaming rape victims for their assaults, we have barely begun to address the victim blaming in street harassment. To the point that I do it to myself.
In her blog post, Shepard makes a crucial point: “Sexual assault doesn’t always necessarily mean something as horrible as rape.” In fact, it can be the smaller, subtler acts that are the most culturally pernicious. Over at Hollaback, they state: “Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against… [I[t is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay… Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK.” And they’re doing something about it. By using crowd-sourced data and creating a space to share stories, they’re working to make this problem visible enough to mobilize against.
One is a stepping-stone to another. When men feel they can yell whatever they want about a woman’s body and get away with it, that they can touch her body in public and get away with it, why wouldn’t they think they can go further? Any form of gender- or sexual orientation-based harassment or assault is unacceptable, be it on the sidewalk or between the sheets.