In the age of Lauers, Roses, O’Reillys, and Weinsteins, the American public has been forced to question the origins of sexual violence. Is it individualistic, poor parenting, or a larger cultural problem?
A conversation with my brother on the morning of the #metoo phenomenon led him to guffaw on the prevalence of sexual harassment.
“I’ve been sexually harassed!” he retorted. “Multiple times!” He then explained a situation in which he’d been the brunt of unwanted sexual advances.
His story was a good example, but it paled in comparison to a slew of experiences I could recall upon command. How could I explain how important and different it is when a woman is sexually harassed compared to a man?
I was wearing fitted leggings and wedges, a modest height, but platforms nonetheless. I was 23-years-old, living alone, and was walking from my darkened apartment toward the Park Street T-station in the heart of Boston. A group of loitering teenagers were in my path. My hand tightened around my purse as I approached.
“You lookin FINE. Where you goin’?” they heckled.
If I answer, I thought, they might be encouraged. But if I don’t, they might be insulted. Do I want to upset a group of teenagers that have nothing to do but pay attention to strangers?
“Thanks,” I said lightly. “To a party.”
“Can I go?” one of them said in a hopeful, little brother kind of way.
“Sorry,” I said, trying to mean it, and kept walking.
One of them, most likely the one I said sorry to, shouted so suddenly that I jumped.
“What a BITCH!”
His voice rang so loud it startled a spray of birds out of a nearby tree into the dark sky. My steps quickened, breathless and flushed, until I made it to the subway platform, comforted by the presence of others.
We’ve all seen the same movie clip in dozens of old films: a leggy actress struts across the stage and a slew of eyes flit toward her, raising a cacophony of wolf-whistles.
If the name itself does not reveal its predatory nature, wolf-whistling is the two-toned whistle commonly used by men to make known that a woman has aroused his interest. The whistle originated by British sailors who made the call to get the attention of other sailors when a pretty girl walked by.
The wolf whistle laid the foundation for the catcall, which turned a seemingly innocuous whistle into a verbal exclamation.
Many men who have never been victim to the catcall claim they are merely a “toot of appreciation” that should be “considered a compliment” and that they wish they got that kind of attention.
But as Bryony Beynon points out in her article “Wolf-whistling is Just the Start” published in The Guardian, “any behavior that stops you from feeling safe in public, even for a moment, is street harassment — that a ‘compliment,’ even if well-intended, is only a compliment if it feels good.”
If catcalling was a harmless compliment, then one would think it would be an acceptable thing to do when a person is with her significant other, family or friends. But that is never the case. We are harassed when we are at our most vulnerable: alone on a street, on a subway platform, through clandestine emails and text messages. What all of these have in common is that no one else is present to protect.
When the teenagers first heckled me, I was willing to take it as a compliment. After all, I had spent time getting ready and was wearing my favorite heels; I was a single girl on a Friday night going out on the town. I wanted to feel good. But as soon as the advances were rebuffed, I was dealt a reaction so charged with malice it was made to frighten. A compliment is not a compliment when the person receiving it is threatened if they don’t return it.
According to the Advocates for Human Rights, “Sexual harassment is, above all, a manifestation of power relations. Women are much more likely to be victims of sexual harassment precisely because they, more often than men, lack power.”
What infuriated me, long after I recovered from feeling scared that night, was that I could not even defend myself. How can I defend myself without risking physical harm to my body? I hated how powerless I felt.
Heckling is not a form of flattery. It is an assertion of power.
When men send crude messages and profanities at women it sends a message: “I can say anything I want to you and about you.” They get away with it by holding another form of power over us: physical, social or economical. It is not a flirtation; it is an assertion of power over our bodies.
This assertion of power is not only a threat — but it shows an entitlement to comment on women’s bodies, which is the underlying thought beneath the entitlement to touch, rape and harm them.
Sexual violence has always been a topic shrouded in darkness. Disbelief, victim blaming and the search for proof have always clouded its visibility. But the brave women who have spoken against attackers of power are actively combatting abusers. As we’ve seen with the Cosby and Weinstein cases, despite the former’s mistrial, there is strength in numbers. Women can accomplish much more together than when we are on our own.
By speaking out against abusers of harassment and assault, we can spotlight this issue and decrease its breadth. Some organizations, like Hollaback, are making a difference by providing an outlet for men and women to report accounts of harassment. Check out your nearest chapter to learn more.
Beynon states, “There is no reason sexual harassment in the street should be any more permissible than racist language.”