One Courageous Young Woman Speaks Out About Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Harassment

I simply had to reach out to this girl, this stranger who felt helped by me. I asked if she would be willing to be interviewed, and here we are, just over a month later, with Rebecca's candid and incisive perspectives as a young woman on some of the everyday challenges faced by herself and other girls and women around her.
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When I am writing about girls, as I recently did in "The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations for Girls" on HuffPost Parents, it rarely occurs to me that girls themselves may be reading. In my mind, my audience is parents and other adults, and they are the ones I am hoping to reach with my words. But serendipity happens when you're not looking, as was the case when an articulate teenager, Rebecca R., read my article and left me the most poignant and humbling comment I have ever received as a blogger:

"I think I might love you Ms. Day. :-) Thank you so much for giving the women of tomorrow hope. As a teenage girl, I can tell you that I feel sexism EVERYWHERE. I feel it when I go out, when all the boys and men gawk at my conservatively dressed ass. I feel it when they hoot and holler and suggest lewd things at me. I feel it when I run to my boyfriend or parents, and they insist it's just because I'm pretty!! I should take it as a compliment! I should take LIVING IN CONSTANT FEAR as a compliment! I feel it at school, where I'm encouraged in literature and arts but not math. I like math! Too bad I've never had a female math teacher to help me out. I've tried to go to tutoring sessions, only to get bullied into silence with, "You still don't get it? Well you are a girl. That's to be expected." I'm tired of media telling me what to look like, society telling me how to act, and everyone telling me that's just how the world is! I was made to be a helper, I will become a great wife one day! This went on much longer than I expected, sorry. Bottom line, thank you for giving me someone (even over the internet) who believes I'm more than what's in between my legs, and I'm not crazy for feeling discrimination. This means everything to me."

I simply had to reach out to this girl, this stranger who felt helped by me but who gave me just as much in return through the simple gesture of an Internet comment. I replied and asked her to contact me through email if she would be willing to be interviewed, and here we are, just over a month later, with Rebecca's candid and incisive perspectives as a young woman on some of the everyday challenges faced by herself and other girls and women around her. We decided together that Rebecca would use only her last initial so that her identity could be protected in a culture where simply writing about sexual harassment often attracts more of the same for women who speak out on the Internet.

LD: Hi Rebecca. Can you tell me a little about yourself... how old you are, where you live and go to school, anything else you want me to know?

RR: Well, I'm not a teenager anymore... I've recently turned 20, and I live in Dallas, Texas. I'm currently splitting up my hours between a local community college and UNT. I'm an interior design major with a bio minor so far, and I'm working on my business and ceramics minors.

LD: How did you come across my article in The Huffington Post?

RR: Short version -- it was a link on Jezebel. Longer version -- I've always felt uncomfortable when confronted with sexist comments or situations, but I've only recently been able to pinpoint why. I grew up in your typical, traditional suburban family and was taught gender roles from my family, friends and culture. Although, I've always felt that something was wrong when confronted with sayings like "boys will be boys" or "if he teases you it means he likes you!" Growing up surrounded by sexism, I couldn't separate what was sexist and what wasn't. No one ever pointed it out to me, or even fully explained it.

About three or four months ago, I started a Pinterest to group my interior design ideas and stumbled upon women's rights pages. I was floored by all the information that explained why I felt ridiculed when confronted with sexism in everyday life, and I was even more in shock that my feelings were valid. Whenever I expressed any emotion against the status quo I was shot down by both men and women, which led to me thinking, "Oh, I probably am just complaining and making drama out of nothing." I have no idea exactly when I decided to lie down and accept the sexism thrown at me daily, but I finally woke up. And when I did, I read (and am still reading) as many feminist works as I can get my hands on. My favorite sites right now are Jezebel and Feministing, along with their Pinterest activism pages. That's how I found you.

LD: In the comment you left on my post, you mention being upset and frustrated by street harassment. When did this happen to you for the first time? How often does it happen? Does it happen to your friends? How big of a problem do you think this is in the lives of girls and women today?

RR: I honestly can't pinpoint the first time -- they all kind of blur together. I think I was about 14 when I started to get paranoid about things like running by myself or walking at night. Men would usually just honk or yell at me when they passed in their cars, but some went as far as slowing down and following me for blocks. I think this is an insanely huge problem in our society, but it seems like people fail to even acknowledge it.

I don't know if men realize how hard this makes our daily lives. Exercising, grocery shopping, walking to the bus stop for school... these are all situations that should be stress-free but aren't. And sometimes our tormentors are schoolmates or people we see every day. Somehow we treat it as the norm, something to be expected. We tell girls to prepare for their rape and give them tips and tricks to avoid it. We're told to be constantly vigilant and to chant sick mantras in our heads like, "Keys out, whistle ready, hair up" and the like. We keep this up until we convince ourselves that living in fear is normal. No one stops to say, "Maybe we should teach males not to harass, not to rape." I wonder if they know how exhausting this is? Sometimes I don't even leave my house because I can't deal with another middle-aged man yelling obscenities at me from across the street.

Guys tell me I'm beautiful once or twice a week. The real problem arises when they follow me into a store, or refuse to go away. More often than not they get angry that I only reply with a smile and a "Thanks!" They'll call me a bitch or a whore when I refuse to give them my number, and insist that I'll like what they have to give me. It's borderline ridiculous. It happens to my friends as well, and with some of them I'll vent about it. Others exclaim how lucky I am that at least someone wants me.

LD: Tell me more about why you think that considering sexual harassment to be a compliment is harmful.

RR: I'd go so far as to say considering sexual harassment to be a compliment is almost as detrimental as sexual harassment itself. To look a survivor in the face and tell her (or him) that they wanted it is severely messed up. To tell them that their outfit or demeanor provoked it, or that it's somehow their fault is... I can't even think of a word. Unfathomable? As a culture, we grant women's sexuality a kind of power it doesn't deserve. Women don't control -- and shouldn't be responsible for -- a man's actions. To say that anyone can make someone hurt them is just plain stupid. Not only are we teaching girls to view sex as a tool and something to be ashamed of, we're releasing boys of responsibility. When we teach girls to accept these "compliments," they grow into women who accept blame. And when we teach boys that it's no big deal, they grow into men who don't see women as real people. Instead they see an object.

LD: Why do you think that at school your interest or achievement in mathematics is not taken seriously, or is undermined? Do you think other girls and young women experience this problem? How do you think it could be improved?

RR: The stereotype that women are bad at math is unfortunately still prevalent. If one of my male classmates misses a problem, it's because he's bad at math or made a mistake. If I miss a problem, it means girls are bad at math. Another student made a "girls are bad at math joke" in sixth grade and it really stuck with me, because everyone laughed. No one bothered to correct or to even argue with him, even other girls. We actually agreed with him. So yeah, I'm sure other girls experience this problem.

On the flip side, whenever I did really well in math the people around me were always impressed -- mostly because I was a girl and didn't suck in math. Not because of my score.

Honestly, I think it's going to have to start with parents. I can't tell you how many boys I've babysat for who have thrown tantrums because they didn't want "the girl color" or "the girly backpack," etc. Why do these 3 and 4-year-olds think that the girl backpack is such a horrible thing? Why is it unimaginable to a 3-year-old boy that it is okay to like pink? Until we teach the incoming generations that being called a girl isn't an insult, we're going to have gender inequality problems in not only math class, but our whole culture.

LD: I'm very interested in your views on media. You express that girls are messaged by society that their gender is the most important thing about them, and that their potential is limited to traditional roles like "helper" and "wife." Where do these messages come from? Why do you think this is still happening in 2013?

RR: Haha! God, "where doesn't it come from?" would be an easier question. Everything from commercials to our language choices, and everything in between.

For example, most commercials about home care or home products feature women. Because we're the domestic housekeepers I suppose! Add in that everything is sexualized (YouTube Carl's Jr. commercials as a prime example), and add a dash of violence against women in ads, and you have the reason why this is still happening in 2013. Have you noticed that in most ads (in magazines geared to both sexes), the men are usually placed in a position of power while the women are in submission?

Women being "helpers" is more enforced in Christian households than anywhere else, I think, which is ironically due to a misprint in the Bible. The original Hebrew text actually translates to a wife being a partner, not a helper. As far as the whole "woman=wife" thing, I've recently noticed that when a woman gets married she isn't really seen as an individual human being anymore, with her own career and goals. She's a wife. Maybe that's just my filter and my community and how I see things. I don't really have anything to back this up. It's just my own opinion, after seeing how the women around me are changed by marriage.

LD: You mention feeling discrimination as a female. In what ways do you think girls and women are discriminated against? What could adults do to help change this for girls? What could girls themselves do?

RR: In job opportunities, social circles, and the media... if you can name it, there's probably discrimination. Women and girls alike can educate themselves. Look up statistics on rape in this country. Heck, look at our own government. Did you know that Iran, IRAN, infamous for culturally ingrained sexism, has more women in their government than we do? That's insane.

Girls need to stand up for themselves, and adults need to tell us we're worth standing up for. Our emotions are valid, and we're worth fighting for.

LD: Thanks so much for doing this interview! I'm so glad that my article helped you. As a writer, there is no greater feeling. In closing, is there anything else you'd like to say to readers?

RR: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my viewpoint! And at the risk of sounding horribly clichéd -- emotions aren't a bad thing. Even though we're told good girls don't get angry, girls are drama-filled, girls are hormonal and hysterical -- know that your emotions are valid. So if you feel slighted or angry or whatever else good girls aren't supposed to feel, sit down and examine your feelings. That's honestly what led me to accept that it was sexism that made me angry, and acknowledging sexism was my first step to becoming confident in who I am and what I want out of life.

* * * *

Girls need to stand up for themselves, and adults need to tell us we're worth standing up for. Our emotions are valid, and we're worth fighting for.

Yes, Rebecca, they are and you are.

And at Brave Girls Want, we are trying. As I wrote last month, "Our girls deserve a childhood free of stereotyping and sexualization, the encouragement to reach their full potential as human beings, and the joy of knowing that there are many ways to be a girl."

Many thanks to Rebecca R. You give me hope. We're in this together.

Lori Day is an educational consultant, writer, and co-founder of Brave Girls Want. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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