The other day, my friend Dina was talking about her experiences of being catcalled—street harassment is a more accurate term—while walking around the streets of New York.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard about the epidemic of street harassment. Many of my women friends have remarked about experiencing and dealing with this kind of harassment and how unsafe it makes them feel.
For Dina, one particular instance of harassment on the streets of New York was cemented in her memory. She was walking alone, during the day, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, when she heard a man taunt her, “Hey baby, you’re lookin’ good…”
“Don’t call me baby,” she responded.
He looked her up and down and said, “…fucking dyke.”
For the record, Dina is straight—not that it would have been okay if she weren’t.
This wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last time Dina faces street harassment. She has been harassed in public places, and on a number of occasions, followed by men. Many studies indicate that almost 100 percent of women will face some sort of street harassment at one point in their lives.
Most men don’t even realize street harassment exists as a very real, serious problem. Yet, many women see this kind of harassment as part of daily life. For the few men who are aware of it, they assume the extent of street harassment is something akin to harmless, or at worst, annoying flirting, which still problematic if that attention is unwelcome.
The reality of street harassment is far worse than what most men think or believe. In cities large and small, women have to contend with comments that range from the mildly offensive to the disgusting. Beyond being verbally harassed, many women are followed and some women are even forced to deal with the same harasser on a daily basis. And for some women, this “harmless” harassment leads to assault.
But I realized, as Dina was telling me her story, that I have never actually been witness to the kind of street harassment my women friends tell me about. If a woman is walking down the street with me, other men generally won’t engage in any kind of harassing behavior towards her because street harassment, like all forms of harassment, is about attacking the vulnerable.
And despite what some readers of this column may think about my gender, I will never know what it feels like for a woman to walk down the street alone. How am I to fully relate to the pain, fear, and humiliation of street harassment when I have never witnessed its full form and lack the the personal experience of being harassed on the street?
Street harassment is simply one issue that plagues women in their everyday life. They are constantly barraged with discriminatory obstacles that we don’t even see as obstacles.
My passion and main concern with respect to combating sexism has been about revealing hidden forms of sexism; my fight lies in overturning the idea that women and girls are subject to a certain biological destiny, and revealing what we think to be biological destiny as actually the problematic ways in which we condition girls and women in our society. This conditioning creates a lens through which women see the world and approach their life—a conditioning that itself is discriminatory.
We don’t know what it’s like to have our intuition dismissed, especially when we sense danger and feel unsafe. How would we know? We men are perceptive and women are just overreacting.
This is why the sexism we have to combat in this country is the kind we don’t even notice. It’s the sexism that we wave off as, “That’s the way things are.” It’s the kind of sexism we haven’t even started to address in our society at large. And because we refuse to dig deeper to learn about the everyday struggles of women, we persist with behavior that simultaneously hurts women and drives the issue of gender discrimination deeper into a hidden underworld.
My friend Mike gets very frustrated with my writing about women because he doesn’t see a need for it. He sees the way men and women relate to each other in the world as a competition, instead of as an opportunity for us to help and defend each other.
Just the other day, he asked me, “Why don’t you defend men?”
Without the support and care of women, without their consideration of our aspirations and how we feel, we wouldn’t be who we are. Our daughters, wives, co-workers, mothers, sisters, girlfriends, need to understand that a day in their life doesn’t have to be lived alone.
Having consciousness about the daily struggles of women is something that I am still learning how to do. Like so many men, I have been conditioned by our society to think that women are here to support my needs, instead of learning that we are here to support each other.
Last weekend, I had an experience that reminded me to think about the struggles of women. After leaving a dinner meeting, I walked to a bank of elevators that led to the parking structure where my car was parked. When the elevator doors opened, I was greeted by a woman who was headed to the same parking garage. Given the situation—it was late at night with no one around—I told her, “I’ll take the next one.”
I’m not a saint. I still have so much to learn. But at that moment, I, as a man, made the conscious decision to calculate how riding elevator late at night with a strange man would make this woman feel. And by putting myself in her shoes (as much as I could), I adjusted my behavior accordingly.
This woman knew nothing about my intentions and nothing about me. Did I want her to spend the next thirty seconds wondering what was going to happen to her at 11pm at night? Nope. I wonder if she would have asked me to take the next elevator. I know she has probably been conditioned to think, like so many women, that asking a man to take the next elevator would be rude and presumptuous.
That night, I did what most women do for men on an everyday basis: I considered her needs. I thought about how the situation would make her feel—not because I wanted to avoid a reaction, but because I wanted to support her. It’s just not something men do as easily for women.
Hopefully, my decision was a respite for her.
But I know it was a brief one.
Because the next morning, she’ll have to start the process all over again: living in a country— and a world—that may respect her on the surface, but finds a way, every minute, every hour, to make her feel like she’s different from me.Share on Facebook