A Note on Street Harassment

I was walking through Bethesda Saturday night (an action I suggest you not take unless you are in junior high or really REALLY need some Gifford's ice cream) with my (male) friend.  At one point a man rudely commented on my outfit.  I turned to my (male) friend and asked if he had noticed what just happened.  He said that he had noticed that the man made a comment but did not realize that it was harassing in nature.

I immediatamente got disproportionately upset.

I say disproportionately, because rude comments are directed my way frequently in DC, where being a woman and in public is apparently a valid excuse for people to say rude things to you.  I've gone through phases where I ignore it, where I give the harasser an incredulous look, where I confront harassers in a calm but firm way, demanding respect a-la-Marty Langlan (if you have never taken a self defense class from Marty, you have never lived), and phases where I fling some less-than-well-rehearsed cuss words in their direction.  I believe that any response that helps you get through your day is the right response.  I am currently in a phase where I turn to my neighbor and loudly say "Can you believe that people are rude enough to act that way?"  It works for me because I get acknowledgement that I am not crazy for thinking that behavior is wrong, and it raises a little attention among those around me if I say it loudly enough.

But when I turned to say this to my very feminist male companion Saturday night, I was met with his confusion that any harassment had occurred.  He just hadn't noticed it!  And his confusion led to my mounting frustration as I realized that men often do not see the harassment that goes on around them.

Let me reiterate that my friend is pretty darn feminist.  He once read a book about menarche parties and declared that he wanted to have one for his daughters if he ever has any.  He makes a point of encouraging the young girls he works with to get involved, rock hard, and to not let the boys dominate the game of capture the flag.  He notes gender inequality in institutions and laments the fact that there are so few women politicians.  He gets it. 

But the thing is that he, like other men (I will refrain from adding straight/white/educated in there, though that may play a role as well), get to worry about sexism when it is convenient for them.  Like, if they are late to work and need to catch the bus, they just get to run for the bus.  Women "get" to think about sexism and harassment when it is LEAST convenient to them: do I wear this skirt if it is going to show too much leg if I have to run for the bus?  Will that cause a dude on the street to make a rude comment and ruin my morning?  Will anyone else notice when the comment gets made?  Or will I have to feel disempowered AND alone before I even get to work?

I was going to write out a list of tips for what men can do to stop harassment, but I really think it all falls in the same vein as the Feminist Law Professor's "Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work!" with the added admonition of "notice what's going on and be a little more outraged, please."

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