Whenever I give a talk about street harassment to a group of people that hasn’t identified as feminist, I am likely to hear comments like “It’s men’s nature,” “It’s a compliment,” “Sure we don’t like it, but what can we do about it?” Recently, had conversations with two different young women who said their mothers have told them it’s a compliment and just part of life as a woman. That is similar to what my mom once told me when I was a teenager.
The belief that this behavior is “normal” and “natural” and there’s nothing we can do about it is sadly widespread. Take this latest research, via Think Progress:
“Most young women assume that being harassed, assaulted, and abused is simply something that everyone experiences, according to the results from a forthcoming study that will be published in the next issue of the journal Gender & Society. The perception that gender-based violence is normal dissuades most victims from reporting those crimes.
In order to arrive at those conclusions, sociologist Heather Hlavka analyzed interviews conducted with 100 young women between the ages of three and seventeen years old. The interview subjects had been identified as potential sexual assault victims through an advocacy group that works to combat child abuse. Hlavka discovered that most of those girls rationalized their everyday experiences of abuse and harassment, simply believing there was nothing unusual about being victimized.
“Objectification, sexual harassment, and abuse appear to be part of the fabric of young women’s lives. They had few available safe spaces; girls were harassed and assaulted at parties, in school, on the playground, on buses, and in cars,” Hlavka writes. “Overwhelmingly described as ‘normal stuff’ that ‘guys do’ or tolerating what ‘just happens,’ young women’s sexual desire and consent are largely absent. Sex was understood as something done to them.”
In other words, these young women tend to believe that men can’t help it. They’ve been taught that men can’t control their aggressive sex drives, so it makes sense to them that girls will inevitably become the subject of that aggression. That’s a central aspect of rape culture, and Hlavka argues it’s been deeply socialized into young women. Most of the study participants didn’t understand that there was any other way for men and women to interact.”
When I worked at AAUW and co-authored a national study on sexual harassment in grades 7-12, this attitude was common among the harassers — “it’s no big deal/it’s just part of school life” was commonly given as the reason why they harassed another student.
As much as I’d like us (the anti-harassment movement) to be doing more prevention work, sadly, a lot of what is necessary right now is simply raising more awareness that sexual harassment and sexual violence are NOT normal and NOT okay.
I strongly believe that story-sharing can play a central role.
Take for example, a recent talk I gave to 100 students and faculty at a college in Maryland. During the Q&A a few men had no problem announcing to the room that it’s human nature for men to harass, women are to blame because of the tight clothing they wear, and (my favorite), that men are natural predators to women who are natural prey.
The talk was followed-up by a workshop with about 40 people, including the young man who made that last remark. At the start of the workshop, invited people to share their stories and several women did. And do you know what, that young man listened to their stories and shut up and did not say any more ridiculous things. I could see understanding and even empathy dawning in his eyes.
When people we care about — be they classmates, family members or friends — are negatively impacted by something, we are more apt to listen and to care, regardless of now “normal” or “okay” society says those issues are.
So, please, when you can, share your street harassment stories with people you trust – -raise their awareness that this a problem and why. Together we can help change social attitudes and go from seeing sexual harassment and assault as normal to deplorable.
Share on Facebook