[Triggerwarning: Descriptions of incidents of sexual harassment!]
A couple of months back, I was grocery shopping with a friend. It was pretty late and so the huge and usually crowded store was almost deserted. While she got in line to pay I made a quick detour to the book corner. I passed two young men, roughly in their mid-twenties. They were talking but stopped to turn around and look me over. Browsing through the books on display I heard one men asking the other if he liked ‘that one’. The other replied that I was too young for him. As I turned to walk back to my friend I happened to momentarily and unintentionally look in their direction. This provoked them to explain very loudly and makedly casual in my direction ‘What, we are just men, so what.’
I have experienced a lot of sexual harassment, sometimes very subtle, sometimes rather brash, fortunately seldom dangerous. It all started with the old man in the public library I frequented when I was younger, who told me to smile because ‘you look beautiful when you smile’. Obediently I smiled. I’d never experienced any kind of sexism before and only later realized how creepy it was. A couple of years later, attending one of my first concerts, someone suddenly grabbed my backside. Looking back into the crowd behind me I faced a group of grinning boys and girls, roughly my age. Again a couple of years later I set out for a run with my flatmate’s dog. While I unleashed her a man walked up to a sign post a few meters ahead. He pulled down his pants and peed on the post, making sure that the moment I looked up I’d see him doing so.
These incidents are just some of the many I’ve experienced that have stuck with me. Most of the sexual harassment I encounter in everyday life doesn’t stick because by now I’ve gotten so used to it. Never mind the guy shouting something at me from the other side of the street. Never mind the creepy guy staring at me on the platform or from his seat across mine. As long as he doesn’t get off the train at my stop.
Many people might have objections to my stating that the library example above counts as sexual harassment. But I walked out of the library that day wondering how to feel about it: Asking me to smile didn’t seem to be such a bad thing. But nevertheless, it left me feeling patronized and somewhat degraded. I questioned my obedience to smile. After all, I was a 9-year-old and that 50+ years old man was a complete stranger who I’d never seen before. I felt oddly uncomfortable. Should I have reacted differently?
Now, being older and having experienced my fair share of creeps and sexual harassment, the worst part is that I usually just ignore these incidents. That I took to carrying pepper spray with me even when I went out for a run back in the teeny tiny village that I grew up in. That sometimes I am very aware of the men around me, and how they behave – in general, but especially towards me.
I tried saying something to men like these. To let them know that I wasn’t going to take being considered as just some ‘thing’ they could comment on and judge based on my appearance. But that didn’t work very well. Mostly they got rather aggressive and I felt even more uncomfortable. All this left me with the impression that I could never get out of a situation like this holding the upper hand. Quite the opposite, it seems like no matter what I did, I never did the right thing: If I talked back I felt threatened by sudden bursts of aggression, if I remained silent and tried to ignore it I was left with the nagging question of whether I could have done or said something.
And this is exactly the problem with incidents like those described above. They deprive women of a feeling of safety when they are in public (and please don’t forget that sometimes the situations in their homes are even worse!). Personally, I’ve never witnessed a bystander defend a woman who was cat called or groped by some stranger. Mostly people look away and hurry on, lest they be bothered with such unpleasant events. And if women try to talk about their experiences they often have to defend their own actions or are told that they are overreacting (ever heard of the term ‘rape culture’?).
I wish I could wander around the city feeling completely safe and not spend a second worrying about the group of men walking towards to me. I’d love to think that they are not ‘just men’ and that they just have to sexually harass me. And luckily most of the men I personally know are genuine people who somehow manage to suppress their ‘manliness’ and view women as people too. But there are still those who feel the urge to harass women. And I keep wondering if they just don’t know how degrading and unsettling this feels – or if they know it just too well.
Sina was listening to Reservation by Angel Haze.