I’m going to take a break from the rationalist analysis (in addition the break I’ve taken from blogging in general – sorry!) to share a series of personal experiences that have made me think more about feminism, and my feminism and more generally about what it is to be a woman in this world. Major caveat: this does not represent all possible viewpoints or opinions, not even all of my own. But it is still an important one.
I spent the summer in New York City, where I walked and took the subway to and from work, and also around the city. For the first week or so, I noticed getting more street attention than usual, but I thought little of it. It had been part of my life before, in Miami, in the Midwest, in positive and negative ways, so I took it as an unfortunate consequence of city life that I would learn to ignore. Which was fine when it was occasional, something to be attributed to rare bad apples or at least apples with a sense of entitlement where their sense of self-control should be. But then it got more, and worse. Somewhere around three times a day, a man would whisper “sexy” into my ear as he walked past, or stop me and tell me how beautiful I looked, or ask me to smile, or holler at me from a car, or honk at me from a cab. “Isn’t it a compliment?” you might ask. Or perhaps, “Well, what were you wearing? Did you look unhappy?” I was, in fact, asked all of these things and more whenever I complained or pointed out the problematic aspects of my experience. Not that it matters, but for the record, I was wearing all sorts of things. I was wearing a miniskirt and heels; a knee-length skirt and a t-shirt; a business skirt and button down; dresses; jeans; work pants and flats. Sometimes jewelry, sometimes not. Sometimes with a swagger and confidence in my step, sometimes rushed, sometimes exhausted, trudging home. It happened in the morning, in the afternoon, at night.
—– One day as I walked into my office a man grabbed my arm to inform me that I was incredibly sexy and that I shouldn’t let any man tell me otherwise. Thanks, dude. I’m so glad you took it upon yourself to boost my fragile self-esteem by grabbing my arm as I was walking on the sidewalk —–
I tell you now that it did not make the slightest bit of difference what I was wearing. No, all that mattered was that I existed, and I was in the public view, and so it was the opportunity and the privilege of all men everywhere to tell me exactly what they thought of my appearance. And did I look unhappy? Well, sometimes, because sometimes I wasn’t in a grinning mood and it didn’t occur to me that it was any stranger’s concern how happy I appeared. Silly me. And sometimes, it was because I’d trained myself to stop being friendly enough to smile at strangers, because that was taken as an invitation to chat me up, to tell me how beautiful I was looking that day. Was it a compliment? Maybe, in their minds. But I don’t much care what their addled minds thought was a compliment. All that came out to me was that my stepping out the door in the morning was tacit consent for my appearance to be scrutinized and commented upon out loud to me by any man who happened to be in the vicinity. And that is ridiculous.
As I said, at the beginning, I ignored it. Eventually, though, it wore me down. It became a massive burden that I carried around, worrying every morning about what I was wearing, noticing even more than I normally did about every man within 100 feet of me, and whether they were looking at me, or would be looking at me. I felt beaten down by every comment, every yell, stare, follow, unsolicited question and honk. I didn’t want it, didn’t want any of it, especially not from men who could not be bothered to talk to me instead of at me, who did not engage in conversation or introduce themselves. And yet, every day, it was the same. The male gaze is an abstraction, a concept. But it began to feel more and more like a physical force weighing on me.
—– As I walked towards a meeting in Brooklyn, a band of teenage boys called out “sexy” in unison as I walked by. I said “Please don’t do that. It’s inappropriate.” They only laughed at me. —–
Mostly, though, it was indeed harmless. But if it was an innocuous appreciation of beauty, wouldn’t men respond positively to information to the effect of that not being the way to go? Why then, when I asked men politely but firmly not to do it anymore, they would curse at me, call me a bitch and on one particular occasion, follow me in a truck for half a block while cursing at me. So I’m sexy until I speak up for myself, and then I’m a bitch? Thanks, asshole. That really tells me all I need to know, doesn’t it?
Another misconception to correct is this idea that being alone is the problem. Because I will tell you that in a town further north than New York, smaller, more quaint, I was surrounded by at least 6 other people, two of whom were men, one of whom was over 6 feet tall, and two men still thought that walking by me and calling me hot was a fine thing to do. It begins to feel physically oppressive, just walking around.
—– I also went to a Middle-Eastern country this summer, to a place where, as a dear friend said, “A woman walking alone is not thoughtful, it is an invitation.” I was, for example walking along a beach in front of my friends when I realized a man was behind me. He informed me that I was beautiful and that he liked my smile (I had smiled at him and his friends as I walked past, to be polite) but that I otherwise looked sad. He offered to make me less sad. No thanks, get the fuck away from me. Another time, I was in an ocean with several of my friends. A man came up to me and we started having a conversation, interrupted by waves. Every time a wave came, I would duck under. He started to put his hand on my shoulder, presumably to help me. That was fine, I guess, until his hand moved to my stomach, then my ass, and I asked him to stop and walked away. Another girl had had the same experience, but her story involved the line, “And [nearby known adult] came over to help me, because I wasn’t going to say anything” and that made me sadder than almost anything else I’ve heard. She wasn’t going to say anything even when what he was doing was inappropriate and wrong, because we’re taught to be quiet and polite. And that is bullshit. —–
But all of that was on vacation. But I came back to my Midwestern city and went out today, by myself, and had a great time. But on the way home, I ran to catch my bus and had a cab slow down and honk at me. Walking to a different bus, a man called out “sexy” as he passed, and I was in a mood, so I yelled “Don’t do that. Ever.” to this receding profile, hoping beyond hope that one of the times I spoke up would encourage another woman to, or would let a man know to stop, or would alert him to the fact that we do not, in fact, necessarily love your tender nothings thrown at us from the comfort of your cars or generally larger bodies. This is my home, but I’m still just a piece of meat, an object of gaze, and not only that, but publicly branded as one. And I am sick of it.
Look, this is majorly complicated by gender (men also get sexually harassed, and women do the harassing), class, race and nationality (expectations are different, conceptions and socialization of masculinity is different), personality types (not everyone dislikes it) and a million other things. I could have and indeed in other occasions have given more charitable interpretations of the events detailed in this piece. Nevertheless, I wanted to give an account of the ridiculous and unfair burden of being female in urban America (and elsewhere) in 2011. I hope it is illuminating.