The Sexual Harassment Issue
Although we recently published one of my own essays [“(Not) My Fault”], we have decided - for various reasons - to run another in this “Issue.” “I Deserve” is not the same story. While I used my first essay to explore my experiences with, and understanding of consent, this essay addresses something I have experienced time and again: sexual harassment -- or, a concerted effort to demean my existence as a woman.
“I Deserve” is not the same story, and yet it speaks in concert with “(Not) My Fault” because it, too, is an exploration of burden. When women are touched, assaulted, attacked, they are often made to take the blame and the shame. When women are called names, they feel the embarrassment for poor male behavior. When women are catcalled in the street, they are the ones who experience discomfort, humiliation, or fear.
While my experiences are not particular to me, my stories are my own and I do not claim to speak for every woman or victim of harassment. I have so enjoyed reading essays and hearing ideas from our guest contributors, in part because they tell incredible stories, but mainly because I have admired how many people can take a seemingly similar situation and tell dozens of different stories about it.
So, I’d like to encourage you, if you have even an inkling of an idea, to send us your thoughts and your stories. If you have something to say, I can promise you that it is new. I can promise you that it is different. And I can promise you that it is worth hearing.
I DESERVE - Allyson S. Barkley
Earlier this year, I left my office to walk a few blocks to the post office. I was passing through downtown Raleigh - right in front of the state capitol building - and I heard a man whistle, then yell a few words concerning my appearance. I fumed, but said nothing and continued on my way. A few minutes later, after completing my errand, I began to walk back towards the office. This time, a new group of three young men laughingly ogled me and exclaimed something along the lines of: “Damn, is she a model?” When I did not reply, they began shouting at me as they made their way around the capitol square and whistled a few times before I was too far away to be worthy of their attention.
I don’t know who first used the term “catcalling” in its present sense, but my guess is that it was a man. Any woman will tell you that catcalling is a euphemism for sexual harassment.
Harassment is an attempt to make the victim feel uncomfortable, lesser, or even fearful. It aims to strip that victim of her, his, or their joy in their identity. It makes it impossible to think of your clothes or your body as proud expressions of self, and it drags your mind to a darker place where you question everything from your fashion choices to your body image to your faith that you can be someone of value, someone who strides forward confidently into each and every day.
The first thing you feel when you are catcalled is an emotion somewhere between extreme discomfort and deep insecurity. You feel objectified, devalued, and very unsafe. After this wave of negative feeling comes immediate self-doubt and questions like: Should I have responded somehow? What should I have said? Am I wearing something inappropriate? Did I make a poor decision to walk alone?
After this incident - or these two incidents - I also asked myself: Why did this happen at 12:30pm on a Wednesday afternoon? Why did this happen here, in the center of corporate Raleigh? Why did this happen while I was wearing business casual-clothes? Do I even know how to dress appropriately for business casual?
This incident of catcalling shocked me. It upset me so much that it was all I could think about for the next few days until I realized why I was so shocked - and I became upset about that instead.
I should have been wondering why it even mattered that it was the afternoon, that I was wearing work clothing, that I was walking down the main street in the city. I should have been wondering why it happened at all.
As women, we are so conditioned to expect this sort of sexual harassment at night, especially when we are wearing clothing that could be labeled “suggestive” or “promiscuous.” We expect to hear whistles and/or derogatory words - disguised as compliments or parading as they are - thrown our way, to hear car horns blaring down the street as we hurry around the block, counting down the seconds until we are safe inside our homes.
It is not an unfamiliar feeling - the grip of fear in your throat, the chills running up your arms, the withering shame that creeps its way into your vocal chords and quashes any and all retorts you might hope to shoot back. It is terrifying to fear for your physical safety - and, depending on the neighborhood and the company, this feeling can be more or less synonymous with “a night out.” I am often shocked to find out when bringing up catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment to various male friends how many of them believe that it doesn’t really happen, or at least doesn’t happen often.
Men seldom witness sexual harassment because when women are with them we become a part of their protective spheres. We are enveloped in their auras of ownership, their safety zones. Once, while walking home with a group of friends - both women and men - I was catcalled along with the two other women by a pair of men in a car. Surprised that they would be so bold when we were accompanied by male friends, I turned to see the boys had been held up on the other side of the street by a quickly turning stoplight.
There is a certain sense of relief that I find myself experiencing when I am accompanied by a man - a brother, father, boyfriend, whomever - but there is also a sense of frustration and even anger. Why do I need a man to ensure that I get home harassment-free? Why do I need a man by my side to know that I won’t be groped at a bar or a club? Why do I need a man with me to feel safe?
That day on Fayetteville Street, I never invited those men to look at me, never invited them to speak to me, and certainly never invited them to comment on my body. When men verbally harass women, the transgression goes far beyond the impropriety of commenting on that person’s physical state. It is not a compliment to hear “Damn, is she a model?” because I know that just barely beneath those words is an implication that my value lies entirely in my appearance, that I am an object whose own thoughts and feelings do not matter. Hand-in-hand with that understanding goes the frightening knowledge that if we are to be viewed as objects we are also to be treated as such.
So I could tell you all about that incident on Fayetteville Street - all about the incidents prior as well as the incidents following. I could tell you that I was wearing business slacks and a blazer, or I could tell you that I was wearing a short skirt and heels. I could tell you that it was lunchtime on a Wednesday, or that it was 2:00am on a Saturday night. I could tell you that I had been drinking, or that it was a shady neighborhood, or that I was walking alone, or that I was actually riding a unicycle through town. No combination of clothing, company, or environment should ever warrant harassment. No use of alcohol or other drugs should ever be an excuse. I should not have to worry about “safety in numbers” or think twice about the clothes I choose before I leave to meet a friend. I should not need a man to keep me safe from men.
I deserve to feel safe anytime and anywhere. More than that, I deserve to feel valued. I deserve to feel confident. And I deserve to feel joyful - not lesser, not uncertain, not doubtful, but dancing-in-the-streets-as-I-celebrate joyful in my identity as a woman, and as a human being.
Artwork by Casey Brown. @caseyisokay
MORE TO THE STORY
Supermajority surveyed their members and asked women what changes they would see in their ideal future (hint: they want to feel safe and respected). Read the survey results here, and the rules they helped to shape here.
Holly Kearl discusses the connection between street harassment and the perpetuation of rape culture. Read her article "A Memo to Our Rape Culture" here, or check out out her book, Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women.
81% of women and 43% of men have experienced sexual harassment. Check out NPR's article on this post-Me Too sexual harassment survey here.
This week's musical recommendation is SIX. Henry VIII's six wives retell their well-known tale - and in doing so create a larger story about women reclaiming a narrative historically dominated by men.