Not for Public Consumption

I picked up much more than a sandwich while on a lunch run with a male coworker last week. We parked downtown and walked one block to the sandwich shop, passing six silent men. When I went back to the car several minutes ahead of my coworker, those same six men seized the opportunity to hurl grunts, hisses, whistles and sexual comments at me. Nothing was said to my friend when he returned.

That's a critical difference. As a male, my coworker can do something as simple as buy lunch unmolested.

Blame it on summer
The media makes much of this dichotomy every year when the mercury begins to rise, claiming incidents of "catcalling" rise with it. Linking sexual harassment to summertime sends the wrong message, implying women are walking around half naked "asking for it."

Are my tank top, skirt and sandals the problem? Or is the problem, in fact, that so many men feel entitled to verbally reduce me to Sexual Opportunity No. 1, No. 2 or No. 12 when I go to work, pick up lunch, pay the water bill, live my life?

It doesn't matter what I'm wearing -- I've been harassed in everything from my Sunday church best to a winter coat, hat and glove combo that showed as much skin as a burqua.

More importantly, it shouldn't make a difference what I'm wearing. Like my coworker, I too want the freedom to leave my house, put gas in my car and grab a turkey on wheat without being sexualized or deemed on display for public consumption.

Word games
The term "catcalling," as many choose to label the act of a man verbally humiliating a woman in public, is more than a little problematic. We're talking about men blocking women's paths on the street, intentionally standing too close, using vulgar and offensive language, and making sexual references.

Call it what it is -- harassment.

And we shouldn't downplay the issue by presuming harassment is somehow "harmless." Whenever a strange man makes uninvited sexual comments or gestures to a woman, menace is an implicit threat. That's why, nine times out of 10, women tell me I should ignore it. Just be quiet, walk faster, dress inconspicuously, don't talk back, don't make eye contact and maybe he'll leave you alone. Maybe one day the advice will be to just stop leaving the house altogether.

Playing with power
Our military trains soldiers to depersonalize the enemy, and there was a time prisoners were hooded before being hung in part to distance executioners from the person they were killing. Such work requires remove from the stark reality that you are harming human beings with faces and names and lives.

Street harassment is a similar depersonalization, one that allows men to treat women as objects -- instead of as sisters, mothers, daughters, friends.

We don't hang people anymore, but our society implicitly sanctions the depersonalization of street harassment despite the fact that it can escalate into violence, be it public assaults like the ones at Seattle Mardi Gras 2001, Central Park 2000 and Woodstock 1999 or the private assaults suffered in our homes and schools.

What happened in Central Park after the Puerto Rico Day Parade in 2000 and at Seattleís 2001 Mardi Gras celebration were not isolated events, but escalations of the public menacing of women that goes on all the time.

Take it like a woman
Meanwhile, women are told to get over it, take it as a compliment, ignore it -- all suggestions that assume street harassment is a passing moment that can be overlooked like an unpaid parking ticket. It isn't. It happens all day, every day. It's the cumulative force of it that drives us down.

Street harassment, like other forms of harassment and like rape, is about intimidation and power. The underlying message is, "woman, you have no business being in public on your own."

I know few women who have been harassed when accompanied by a man. But once they leave a man's company and attempt to go about their day alone, street harassment becomes their new companion. And it is this companion that tells us over and over: "You are little more than a piece of meat, a toy, an instrument of a stranger's pleasure."

While some women may resort to going out in groups or with men in tow, I happen to like my own company. I feel entitled to walk unmolested and unimpeded at high noon on a public street my tax dollars pay for. But I'm not.

Pump up the volume
Granted, all men don't define their masculinity or assert their supposed supremacy by dehumanizing women, or anyone else for that matter. I've watched men all over the country go about living without forcing sexual opinions and observations on every woman that walks past.

But those "good guys" have a responsibility here, too. Because silence equals acceptance, I urge men to actively challenge other men, including their friends, when they witness women being harassed on the street. Until that happens, I must continue to struggle against stereotyping every man as an "enemy" on par with those guys outside the sandwich shop.

Women need to speak up too, in whatever ways feel safest. New York's Street Harassment Project offers ideas about how to effectively confront harassers on your terms, be it talking back, putting up anti-harassment posters or confronting harassers with a group of your friends.

When we talk about street harassment we're talking about something as fundamental as equal participation in public life. Sure, street harassment isn't the reason women haven't claimed the White House, but think about how much more time and energy we'd have to focus on such lofty things if we weren't "dealing" with "Hey, mama, I've got some dick for you" or even "pssst ... baby, com'ere" throughout our lives.

Ashley Day is the producer of Tolerance.org.

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