Michelle Marie Ryder, USA, SSH Blog Correspondent
Like the French poet and playwright, Jean Genet, I have “never been able to find out which way the wind’s blowing by wetting my finger and holding it up” in the air. I can, however, sense a man staring at me from a mile away, his gaze penetrating me like a heat-seeking missile. I can see eyes that see me but don’t know I see them. It’s a kind of extra-sensory perception, both a blessing and a curse, helping me to localize specific threats.
Public spaces should be safe. As safe for women and members of any marginalized group – like visibly trans or queer people – as they are for men. One would think a trip to the market or a coffee break could occur without the risk of humiliation or exposure to violence.
One would think it would be absurd for my good friend to pull over on the side of the road and relieve herself in the bushes to avoid stopping at a gas station. But it’s not and she did and I completely understood why, laughing into the phone, “The gas station, where real men go to buy their groceries and harass women!”
In the 21st century we live in a complex, rapidly changing, technologically advanced world. But still not a safe one. A woman is beaten every nine seconds in the US and sexually assaulted every two minutes. Intimate partner homicide kills three women daily. And male strangers on the street (including those tasked with the duty to “serve and protect”) have the power to call into question our basic safety and humanity. Disturbingly, our culture furnishes us with a long list of instances where the evasion or rejection of a harasser’s advances was met with violence. The Economist reported last year:
“Most women don’t stand up to verbal harassment in the street for fear of exacerbating the situation. This is no idle concern: last month a 27-year-old woman in Detroit was shot and killed after refusing to give a stranger her phone number. More recently, in Queens, a man slashed a woman’s throat with a blade when she rejected his request for a date. Then there’s Elliott Rodger’s shooting rampage last May, famously directed at “every single blonde slut” who rejected him.”
Because it can rob us of the ability to act, street harassment reduces the harassed person to a thing that is human in name only. The underlying logic driving street harassment – sexual objectification – equates our entire personhood to isolated regions of the body. “Nice tits!” “Dang, THAT ass!!” “Damn girl, you’s a whole chicken! Breasts… legs… thighs… MM MM MMM!”
No wonder cultural critic Susan Sontag was so on point when she argued: “Women are taught to see their bodies in parts and to evaluate each part separately. Breasts, feet, hips, waistline, neck, eyes, nose, complexion, hair, and so on—each in turn is submitted to an anxious, fretful almost despairing scrutiny.”
A society that refuses to see us as whole human beings, in body and mind, will never be a safe one or enlightened one.
But until we can get to the promised land of gender equality – where the weather is perfect, the streets safe and the pay equal! – we are left prioritizing our personal safety above all else, which often means assenting to silence in order to disengage from potential danger. In a world that already questions a woman’s natural right to assert herself, this silencing is deeply disempowering and can overwhelm our capacity for language itself.
In this context, it is an incredibly brave act to speak up. One way to make our voices heard is through the liberatory power of poetry. My own experience has shown me that a poem often starts with a lump in the throat and the determination to say the unsayable, not divine inspiration or lofty ideas.
A poem that shakes me to the core every time I hear it is Calayah Heron’s, “CornerStoreCandy.” In this poem, Heron – who first experienced street harassment at the tender age eight – details in haunting, evocative language the terror of being sexually objectified and preyed upon. Heron’s voice cracks with pain beneath a beautifully measured eloquence. Her words illuminate the deep, unnamed feelings that are routinely suppressed when we bottle up our rage, grief and disbelief.
By putting pen to paper, poets like Heron remind us that even if we can’t speak up in the moment, we can later. It’s never too late to reject the ritual humiliations of living in a world where men have been taught to feel entitled to our time, our bodies, and our lives.
Michelle is a freelance writer and community activist. She has written for Infita7.com, Bluestockings Magazine, and The New Verse News on a range of social justice issues, and shares her poetry regularly at poetrywho.blogspot.com.Share on Facebook