Out at dinner recently, a male friend disclosed an experience during which he was uncertain of how to react, and the situation was weighing on him. While at a gas station, a woman filling her car received unwanted calls from a man passing on the sidewalk. My friend described the words and tone of the passerby as aggressive, making him uncomfortable, and he perceived that it was clearly making the woman uncomfortable as well. He did not know what to say or do, did not want to make the situation worse, did not want to take away her feeling of owning the situation and choosing to say something or nothing on her own behalf.
What is happening in those moments when a woman is verbally attacked for her flaw of being out in public? For looking so good that others are not able to control themselves in their comments? Guilty of walking while female?
A friend forwarded this satirical article in The Onion which describes a strange office day in which a Woman Wasn’t Harrassed: no obvious undressing-with-the-eyes stares, no misogynistic jokes, no belittlement in being asked to smile by those she’s passing in the hall. And, per usual, The Onion gets it perfectly right: it’s funny because it’s a total opposite, an example of the non-norm, that makes us laugh because otherwise we cringe.
Women working in offices, in rural America, in urban downtowns, in restaurants, in maintenance, in factories, could tell the story of why verbal harassment is terrible in their particular communities. Why it is individually offensive, cumulatively detrimental, endlessly exhausting. Each story or example would likely have a hint of fear: of “it” not stopping there. And by “it,” let’s call it what it is: harassment. Concerns I personally have felt, as the receiver of vocal tactics, typically revolve around the danger of the situation to escalate further. I quote Julia Gazdag here:
“And so, with his sense of sexual entitlement and my good reason to think he views my sole purpose as being dominated, a “compliment” hollered down the block about any part of my anatomy is a clear and intentional threat indeed. Most of us have lost track of the etymology of the word “vagina”, but its original meaning is a sheath for a sword. Now, I don’t know about y’all, but my lady-part has many uses and neither it, nor any other part of me serves to function as a place for anyone to keep anything. Visitors are allowed, but only with a valid permit. And while culturally, the original meaning of the clinical term for the most female of anatomies is not well known these days, the sentiment behind it lingers in the whistles and calls of the adult male a**hole. The idea that a simple holler can potentially turn more serious and dangerous is pretty logical.”
There is valid concern in any situation that the calling could escalate to something further. Personal space could be diminished with calling leading to an approach. Once personal space is breeched, there’s the potential for physical contact and threat. And with this type of harassment, it’s the space that is the key component. The harasser is utilizing the presence of space to enhance their attempt at conversational dominance, verbal attack, and perceived harmless action.
However, it is the fact that the perception of space is just that, a perception. Whether the harassment occurs from across the street, across the hall, or from a passing car, space is able to be eliminated and that ‘harmless act’ buffer becomes null and void. It is this fact that provides the underpinning of why these words are not harmless. This act of harassment sits on a spectrum of acts against women, verbal, emotional, and physical. And it is, importantly, an act against women as with this harassment, not to be confused with conversation, the woman is the target, the object, the prey. Verbal harassment can progress to the physical. And for those learning from their male counterparts and role models that verbal harassment is somehow okay, who creates the line of keeping that from breeching the physical? And the physical sits on its own spectrum of horrendous-ness. This Jezebel article really rocked my core, not only for the act, but for the comments questioning its validity. The spectrum exists, and rape is on one end. It’s not a stretch, to me, anyway, to recognize verbal attacks as present on the same spectrum. To quote Liz Gorman:
“While walking down a city street alone, a sort of reverse 10-5 rule exists. No matter the time of day or what you’re wearing. It goes like this: I am walking alone and see a man walking towards me at 10 feet. Maybe instead of looking straight ahead into the distance, I move my eyes to the ground. I slump my shoulders slightly, so maybe my breasts aren’t as prominent. I begin to analyze the width of the sidewalk; am I too close to him? I can’t move too far away, as I might risk offending him. And if I’m too close, well, that may very well be an invitation for something. At 5 feet, I take a small breath and one of two things happens: nothing at all, which I consider a small victory or…something. Something like a kissing sound or a variety of sexually explicit comments. At which point I left with two options: pretend that I don’t hear a damn thing, or risk an additional conversation, which in the past has been anything from a choice silent hand gesture and specific curse words to an extended conversation on mutual respect and common courtesy. It’s usually the curse words, which I wouldn’t recommend for those who can’t take what they dish. And the encounter is over. Have a nice day.
And most of us have to deal with this on a daily basis. We change our routes. Maybe I’ll take a left down this street so I don’t have to walk past That Store or That Bus Stop or That House. Maybe I’ll just take a cab when walking wouldn’t take much longer. Maybe I should have worn something else. Maybe I’ll just stay in tonight. There are a lot of “maybes”.”
Awful, awful, that women experience this day-to-day, moment-to-moment.
And what does the language of this situation point to? Catcalling. Cat-calling. Women as cats. Women as pussies. Because pussy is a euphemism for vagina, and most women have vaginas. Thus, woman are defined by their genitals. As are the pricks doing the cat-calling… but I digress. There is plenty of reclamation around this language, but catcalling is still routine nomenclature for this act, where women objectified by someone on the street is called to, as one would an animal. However, I learned thanks to wikipedia, that if a whistle is involved, it’s referred to as a wolf-whistle, the man in this circumstance portrayed as predator, the woman, the cat, the prey.
What about the catwalk? The stage on which objects of our culture are displayed by human objects for review and critique by the audience? To be applauded or booed, with the support of everyone not up for display on that stage?
Examples of the reverse, where men are objectified, are funny because of their “play on words” or play on culture, of our common situation. This aptly named “3 Musketeers Catwalk Commercial” is one example.
Here, the man seems to take the advances as a compliment, a kindness, despite its lack of solicitation. Seemingly harmless, just take it as a kudos to your good looks if you’re lucky enough to be called out? This could be seen as a belittling of the problem, this man can take it so why can’t women? Again, similar to discussions about jokes objectifying women, perhaps the situation would be less funny if it weren’t true, and if we weren’t laughing, it would be breaking our hearts as it contributes to keeping our strong women down.
So what do we do, when we are an observer of a woman being harassed? Do we speak up, do we do nothing? My response to my friend was personal. That when it has happened to me, I feel very alone in that moment. Especially if no one else says anything, that somehow every else is averting their gaze, avoiding involvement. And it’s up to me, what to do, depending on my perception of whether it’s a safe amount of space between myself and the perpetrator to tell him what I think, or if ignoring him will actually make the problem go away. I told my friend that it does a lot to have presence with me, to feel that there are others recognizing the problem, and hanging out just to make sure it dissipates without further advancement on the spectrum. And, to speak up, especially as a man, to say what you think of the guy doing the attack, whether you think he’s an asshole, or just letting her know that you were there with her, and sorry he’s clearly uneducated about how to be respectful. That goes a long way. I can only speak for myself, but I think even those bold women who are prepared to speak up immediately and defend their presence in public, might like a guy to affirm her knowledge of how she didn’t deserve to be attacked. She deserves to be in public, walking, filling her car with gas, or wearing a short skirt, without harassment. Period.