The first time it happened to me, I was nine and an older boy told me he could "do what he wanted" to me in an empty schoolyard. At 12, I was walking on a busy street the first time a man grabbed my arm so he could "take a good look at me." I was 15 the first time a group of guys followed me in their car, in a busy urban area, while they barked and hooted. I was 17 the first time a man flashed me while masturbating in a public place. I'm 45 and it's still going on. And, I'm not alone; 98% of all women report that they experience street harassment.
When my confident, curious, adventurous 12-year-old daughter asked if she could go get ice cream by herself (we live in a city) the first thing that I thought of was how to prepare her to hear:
"Where's my smile, baby?"
"Wanna go for a ride?"
What if she is surprised? Looks down? Doesn't give the guy speaking to her the positive response that he seems to think he's entitled to? What hurtful, explicit things will he then say to put her in her place?
From now on, she'll have to be on alert. How many times will she have to go out of her way, take longer routes, not go certain places, alter her clothes? Not forget to hold her keys poking through her fingers? Not take certain buses, and pay for a cab instead of taking a metro? Take her lighthearted moods and tuck them away behind earphones and fake phone conversations?
How will it make my daughter feel? Powerless? Angry? Sad? Scared? It's stressful and depressing to have to acknowledge the underlying threat of violence, especially in a culture that is dedicated to equality for all, a concept predicated on equal and safe access to public space and free speech. Her loss of innocence will have as much to do with the betrayal of this myth of equality and equal access as with understanding her physical vulnerability.
I often hear people (men and women) say about street harassment something to the effect of "boys will be boys" or "It's flattering, right?" Here are three things to think about before we continue to tell our daughters to ignore a lifetime of "cat" calls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking and even assault and move on with their days:
1) Street harassment is a serious issue because it's the most visible symptom of a society that uses fear to control more than half of the population. Most women will experience some form of sex-based harassment on our streets. It has nothing to do with age, race, ethnicity, class, place or time. By looking at a series of academic and community studies and using her own research, Holly Kearl, the author of "Always On Guard: Women and Street Harassment" and founder of Stop Street Harassment, found that anywhere between 80 percent and 98 percent of women surveyed report persistent, aggressive street harassment.
69 percent of women surveyed chose not to make eye contact for fear of harassment. When 69 percent of women regularly are thinking about avoiding eye contact, it's a serious problem.
Eye contact is an important component of freedom, civility and equality. Even my 14-year-old instinctively knows that. Her rule to assess risk is whether or not she can "look him in the eye, freely, and say thank you the way I would to a woman." Without exception women are exquisitely attuned to determining the difference between a compliment and harassment at an early age. We don't always have the time or the margin of safety to determine between the two. And street harassment is the tip of a very big iceberg. As Emily May, a founder of the end harassment movement Hollaback, describes it, public harassment is a gateway behavior to domestic violence and rape. If a man feels entitled in public, what does he do in private?
2) Public media harassment of women, particularly in the political arena, is the same sexual harassment; it's just a larger street. Tell me the difference between a man that calls me a "dumb b***h" for not smiling nicely to him on the street and one that refers to Hilary Clinton as emasculating while recapping her debate performance or Sarah Palin as a MILF after hers? Both are predicated on the idea that all women's bodies are available and accessible to men. Biased on-air treatment of female political candidates at all levels has an impact and it's contributing to our eroding status in the world and our economic competitiveness. Huh? Say again? Studies, like the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report for 2010, have demonstrated that a nation's economic growth and competitiveness (not to mention happiness) are directly correlated to the status of women of the women in that nation. We recently moved from 68th to 70th in the world for political representation of women. We have a crisis on our hands because the already abysmal and declining rate of female participation in leadership at all levels of government. By the time a woman candidate enters the public political fray, where she will without a doubt be harassed for being in possession of a cervix, she's been conditioned, as have we all, by a lifetime of bullying and indignities that undermine her ability to succeed. If you think the sexist media treatment is irrelevant, then watch Miss Representation.
3) Street harassment is NOT about sex. It's about power. It's subtle and pervasive social control. It says to girls and women, "you can never be sure you are safe out here and I can control where you go, when you walk, whether or not you smile, what you wear and how you feel." It's not flattering. It's not fun. We aren't "asking for it." The normative public intimidation of women is a debilitating blight on equality.
To be clear, this argument is not an indictment of male sexuality as a pathology, a disease to be cured or a crime to be persecuted. Most men can be visually stimulated, act decently and enjoy non-threatening, healthy ways of expressing their attraction to a woman. They can then, with consent, enter into dialog and relationships -- short or long -- with them. Street harassment is not that. It is a symptom of the way our culture harmfully conflates "masculinity" and male sexuality with violence, a sense of ownership and oppression of women.
Lastly, I'm not "feminizing" (a bad thing, apparently) men by asking to be treated with respect in public spaces. Exactly what harm would it do to men if we decided as a society to work to end ubiquitous sex based public assault of women and live in a more civil society?
In this country we tend to be proud of the fact that we don't cover "our" women in burkas. But, as bell hooks said -- whether it's obvious or subtle, oppression is oppression. Ubiquitously practiced sex-based public harassment is a form of oppression that we tolerate as women and cultivate as a society to our net detriment. This is a social injustice that undermines our most lofty claims about what America represents.