By Britnae Purdy, SSH Correspondent
I have a thing for coincidences. The very same day that I accepted this role as a correspondent for SSH, my local newspaper posted a Facebook status asking for commentary from women who have experienced street harassment in the Fredericksburg, VA, area, to be used for an upcoming story. I was excited – until I read the quickly-accumulating comments below the status. The most-repeated sentiment was, “Don’t we have more important things to worry about than catcalling?” closely followed by “Why can’t women stop being so uptight and just take it as a compliment?”
It upset me, especially because equal amounts of these comments were coming from women as from men. I admit to being an overly sensitive person at times, and these comments bothered me, to the point where I briefly considered re-thinking this whole feminist-writing thing and staying in bed all day instead –I was having a bad hair day already, after all (thank you, Virginia humidity). But I couldn’t help thinking it through a little.
Start. Don’t we have more important to things to worry about than cat-calling? Let’s see – violent crime, corrupt governance, prime time television…Yes, it would appear that we, the collective, faceless “we” that make up our sense of modern society, do indeed have bigger things to worry about.
But let me ask you this – do I have bigger things to worry about than my own personal safety and well-being? No. I do not. As an individual being, keeping myself safe is my own top priority, and that is what is threatened when I am yelled at, followed by, or touched by strangers in a public place.
Expand. As an active member of my community, I am similarly concerned with the safety and well-being of my friends, family members, coworkers, and the super-friendly Starbucks barista who made my much-needed latte this morning. And as a contributing (financially and otherwise) member of my community, I expect my safety, health, and concerns to be just as respected and adequately addressed of those of my non-harassed male counterparts.
As for “taking it as a compliment” and “not being so uptight?” If you, as a self-assured, intelligent, confident woman can take a whistle or sexually-explicit comment and use it as fuel to brighten your day, then all the more power to you. I cannot. There are times when a “compliment” is actually the indicator of more aggressive behavior to come, and I need to be scared in order to stay safe – if I act a little too “uptight” about a whistle, it is because I am remembering that time I was followed home at night.
Regardless of threat level, a lewd, unwelcome comment is indicative of a patriarchal society that grants men verbal, visual, and physical access to my body with or without my consent. I fear that saying anything you want about a woman’s body with no consequences is only a few steps away from feeling like you can do whatever you want with a woman’s body. A society that does not equally value the safety of its women cannot be trusted to ensure the safety of any of its members that are not white, privileged, heterosexual males. Cue violent crime. Cue corruption and lack of morals. Cue media that perpetuates the image of women as weak, sexualized commodities meant for consumption.
Conclusion. We don’t have bigger problems because the mentality behind street harassment provides the basis for most of society’s “bigger” problems. I cannot just take it as a compliment because that would mean accepting a second-class version of myself, and even on the worst of bad hair days, that is not something I can bring myself to do.
Britnae is a graduate student at George Mason University, in Virginia, where she is pursuing a Master of Arts in Global Affairs with a specialization in Security and Conflict Studies. She also writes for First Peoples Worldwide and you can read more of her writing on their blog and follow her on Twitter.