Musings on Life for the Queerly Inclined

Posts tagged ‘street harassment’

I Am Not Overreacting. I Am Not Uptight. I Am Not Kidding.

TW: street harassment

Yesterday something amazing was proven.  Y’all ready for this?  It’s groundbreaking.  *Drum roll*  It is possible to compliment someone–a stranger–on their appearance without scaring them.  Compliments without massive power plays–wow.  As I was going into work yesterday, a man passed me on the street.

Man 1: I like your outfit.

Me: Thanks!

Then we both kept walking.  This interaction was not creepy, aggressive, or terror-inducing.  It did not make me reach for my keys or rush into work and slam the door shut behind me.  We’re certainly not obligated to want compliments or be open to receiving them, but overall Man 1’s approach was pretty low-risk.  I appreciated the compliment and continued on with my day, looking fly.

The Much More Common Alternative

After an awesome day at work (dear god, I wish that were more firmly rooted in my memory than the rest of this shit), I headed to the train to go to an artsy networking event further downtown.  While walking to the train, I saw a group of five men–all in their 60s–standing on the sidewalk together.  As I neared them, one of them came up to me, moving progressively closer to the point of nearly pushing me into the buildings.  I was on the phone with a friend and trying to ignore the man walking with/on me, while his posse stared me down.  I sped up and so did he.  Then he pulled out the same old line that is thrown at women all the fucking time: “Smile!  Hey, smile!”  He said it five times, with increasing aggression.  He kept pushing and his buddies kept staring.

This is when the diatribe that is constantly playing inside my head actually came out of my mouth.  Pulling ahead, I spun around and yelled “NO!  I SMILE FOR MYSELF!  I DO NOT SMILE ON COMMAND!!”

They all stared, taken aback.  I hurried away.  A second later, a voice in my ear asked “Did someone just tell you to smile?”  Having momentarily forgotten about my phone conversation, I’d clearly just yelled in my friend’s ear as well as at five men on the street.  Whoops–that part was unintentional.

It wasn’t until I reached the train platform (a block later) that I realized I was shaking and freaking out. “Holy shit,” I thought to myself. “I just yelled at five men for harassing me.  Finally.  I’m glad I did, but that was scary.”

“WTF?  That’s so sketchy.  Who does that?”

To anyone reading this and thinking, “Wow, that’s so messed up.  You must’ve been in a ‘bad neighborhood’ or have really bad luck”: NO.  CHECK YOURSELF.  This stuff happens all the time, everywhere.  If you’re unaware of it, you’re in a position of extreme privilege.  I’ve had literally this same encounter–let’s call it the “smile bullshit”–at least four times in the past two weeks (minus the attempt to push me into a wall–that took things a big step further).

What type of man would do that?

All kinds.  Our society trains us all to believe that men deserve access to women’s bodies.  Do all men buy into that?  No.  Some boys and young men are raised around wonderful people who adamantly reject this notion.  Others work hard to unlearn it.  But still, there are zillions of men all over the place who believe this–consciously or not–to varying degrees.

I’ve noticed an awkward dichotomy in the way our society views older men.  Either:

  • a) they’re automatically assumed to be perverts and merit extra suspicion, or
  • b) when they’re actually predatory, their actions are justified to no end. “Oh don’t worry about him–he’s just set in his ways.  He doesn’t know what he’s doing.  Generational differences, blah, blah, blah.  He doesn’t mean anything by it; it’s harmless.”  FUCK THAT.  YES, IT’S MEANT TO BE AGGRESSIVE AND NO IT’S NOT HARMLESS.

Why does this happen?

Because patriarchy.  (Isn’t that the answer to so many things?)  Women and girls are always supposed to smile, appease, and be visually appealing and available to men.  Especially if you are feminine, in which case you should acquiesce passively at all times.  Great system, right?  *Gags*  This shows up in childhood when kids are told “Give a kiss to that relative you’re uncomfortable around.  He’s your [insert familial relationship here] and he’ll be sad if you don’t.”  It shows up from pre-teenager-dom onward when men catcall, yell at, make demands of, and physically grope and grab at gender minorities on the street, in our workplaces, in stores, in relaxation spaces, on the beach, at the everywhere in the world.

This is not to say that men never experience street harassment or that perpetrators are always men.  There are many targeted identities and many factors that could lead to someone being harassed.  However, in the vast majority of these cases, men are the harassers and people perceived to be men are safer on the streets.**  Because many men never experience street harassment (and other types of “casual” attacks), they’re often totally unaware of its existence and prevalence.  There are two groups of out-to-lunch people here:

  • The willfully ignorant: men who’ve been told by women in their lives about these incidents, but refuse to believe them and try to invalidate their experiences. “You’re overreacting.” “That’s never happened to me, therefore it can’t be true.” “Jeeze, can’t you just take a compliment?”  These men are tacitly endorsing harassment.  They’re assholes and I have no time for them.
  • The unenlightened: some guys have literally no idea that this shit happens.  They’re not trying to support patriarchal attacks, but they’ve never given them any thought.  I start telling stories like this and they’re actually blown away when I tell them that–even in my most relaxed state–I live with a constant baseline of fear.  I don’t let fear govern my life and curtail all my actions, but it’s always there.

Then there are the guys who are aware, look out for these situations, and call them out.  I appreciate those guys and I feel safer around them.  Yet this post is not about them and they do not deserve magical ally cookies just for being decent human beings.

It is never the responsibility of oppressed groups to educate privileged groups.  No one is obligated to do this, but I do believe it’s valuable to speak out if and when we want to, so that some of this inadvertent ignorance decreases.

Aftermath of Shitty Encounters

Beyond all of the bullshit already described, the thing that really makes me angry is how these comments–tossed out at no expense to the harasser–have the power to ruin my day.  Ya know what I mean?  I had an awesome day at work, after which I texted several friends and my mom about how excited I was to have met all these amazing artists.  I accepted an awesome opportunity, bonded with people over sequins, and was feeling on top of the world.  Then, the unwanted actions of five strangers threw my mood from euphoric to scared and wanting to curl up in a ball in bed.  I spent the train ride down to my evening event talking myself out of that and willing myself not to let those guys ruin my night.  Fortunately, I ended up meeting some great people and I’m glad I went.  Still, I hate that this bullshit happened last night, that it impacted me enough that I’m still preoccupied with it today, and that it happens all the time.

Attention, Chicago residents: I am sick of this.  You come near me in a potentially threatening manner and biting your head off is the very least I will do.  Stay the fuck away.

**I am referring specifically to this type of catcalling “smile for me, baby” street harassment, which is usually directed at women and feminine-presenting folks.  That is not the same as racial profiling, trans*phobic attacks, etc. and should not be equated to those.

Can We Get Some More Gender-Aware People in Publishing?

Attention, world: Saturday was a “Do not mess with me today, I will cut you [viciously with my eyes and words]” day.  I mean, that’s my normal state, but this weekend the danger level was raised to code orange.  You have been warned.

Part 1: Looking for Trouble

Saturday was filled with all manner of fuckery, including the fact that my spellcheck (as I learned) did not recognize “fuckery” as a word.  Now it does.  Phew.  I woke up early and decided to read a book that has been on my list for a while, but I’ve never touched: Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.  I’d read excerpts, seen quotes bandied about on blogs, but hadn’t read the whole thing.  Now, I’d heard that the book contained problematic claims and a lot of trans*phobia, but I firmly believe in reading things first-hand before being able to properly refute them.  Opening the book, I saw that chapter four was titled “From Womyn to Bois.”

Me in my head: “This is bound to be a disaster.  Might as well jump in!”

TW: trans*phobia, femmephobia, and assorted patriarchal bullshit

Levy’s thesis is that lesbian women–no discussion of gradations of queer here–who either:

  • are somewhat gender-fluid
  • are immature
  • have/desire sex frequently (holy shit so much slut-shaming)
  • objectify other queer women (especially feminine-of-center ones)
  • want to be men (whatever that means)

identify as bois and see this as a way to eternally extend their teenage-dom.  Some trans* men also fall into this category, she says.  FYI: trans* men are not “real boys” unless Levy perceives them to be cis while walking through a park.  Okay, good to know.  WHAT THE FUCK IS SHE ON?  This chapter is littered with trans*phobic slurs; she asserts that t****y is the word of choice used by members of the trans* community to describe themselves.  Never mind the fact that she’s interviewing FAAB bois and trans* men, not trans* women (who are actually the ones historically targeted by that slur).

Phase A: Who on earth published this?

Reading this chapter, I became predictably enraged.  Levy glosses all bois as ignorant jerks who refuse to take responsibility for their lives, puts gender binary in scare quotes (cuz, ya know, that’s not a real institution to interrogate or anything), and basically every point she tries to make becomes a shit show.  Obviously, I want Levy to take responsibility for her words and the harm that they’ve done.  She’s perpetuating dangerous ideas and people cite her works as expert opinions.  But I also couldn’t help thinking “Who published this shit?”

Me in my head: “She actually sent this manuscript to a publisher and nobody said ‘Hey, how bout you don’t spew trans*phobia everywhere?’…no ‘This all seems really biased.  Are you sure you understand the complexity of these communities and are researching several perspectives?’…no ‘Did you listen to more than one token POC voice?’…no ‘This is a perfect example of terrible ethnography and journalism'”???

In a plot twist predictable fail move, Levy characterizes black queer women in general as butch, by virtue of providing no other examples.  Seriously?  That again?

My Phase A reaction was characterized by anger at how simplistically Levy glossed communities that I care deeply about and am connected to.  I  desperately want bois and trans* guys not to be seen this way.  Are there immature bois and trans* folks who perpetuate patriarchal norms?  Sure.  Are there immatures jerks across all segments of the population who do this?  Absolutely.

Phase B: Oh no, there are queer people who believe this shit!

Midway through the chapter, incredible sadness and anger at the interviewees overtook my anger at Levy.  Levy repeatedly quotes various bois speaking derisively about femmes, feminine-of-center women, butches–the list goes on.  Femmes are labeled “air”: substance-less, clingy, needy, subservient, there to please and then be discarded by bois.  Hey there, repackaged patriarchy!

Levy certainly shouldn’t have glossed all masculine-of-center FAAB communities as monolithic, based on these few examples.  It’s like she explicitly sought out the douchiest bois and then asked them to regale her specifically with tales of their douchebaggery.  However, her interviewees do exist and their femmephobia is real.  Despite my earlier urge to protect these segments of the queer community, I was left wondering “At what point can I no longer fight for them?  At what point is their behavior inexcusable?”**

Part 2: Books Lead to Great Experiences

Later in the day, I tore myself away from the joys of Female Chauvinist Pigs and went to the library.  I was greeted by a large sign informing me that Naomi Wolf will be there in a couple weeks to speak about her new book Vagina.  Vagina is the latest iteration of “woman = vagina,” centering whiteness, and cultural appropriation.  So y’all can guess how I feel about that.

Browsing in search of a book, I saw an older man walking between two shelves, staring at me.  Only vaguely paying attention, I glanced up, smiled weakly and said hi.

Strange man: “Aw I love that smile darlin’.  Hey gorgeous!  Smile for me like that more often!”

Me: (staring after him) “No.”

Me in my head: “No!  I smile for myself.  I DO NOT SMILE ON COMMAND.”

It was then that I realized that I’d seen this very same guy around town before, and he’d greeted me exactly the same way then.  Terrific.

Leaving the obnoxiously typical man, I headed up to the young adult section to find a book that had been recommended to me by a friend.  Apparently, since it’s a graphic novel, it’s classified as young adult.  Hmmm.  All the YA books in my local library are kept in a particular room that’s meant for teens and has a special lounge space for them.  Pretty sure people who aren’t age 13-18 aren’t supposed to hang out there, but we can…ya know…check out books.

I’m not sure what the deal is with the librarian who works in the YA section.  Every time I’ve seen her, she’s been grumpy/antisocial.  Maybe she had a whole lot on her mind or maybe she’s not great interpersonally–I have no idea.  Regardless, the moment I walked in, she looked me slowly up and down, scrutinized my hemline, grimaced, and said a brief hi.

Me in my head: “What did I do?  I’M WEARING A FUCKING SWEATER DRESS, how risqué could I be?

Super confused.  Whatever, I looked fuckin’ fabulous.  They didn’t even have the book that I wanted, so I peaced out.  On the way home with my brother, I recounted these events.  He was incredibly upset on behalf, especially about “smile for me” guy.

My bro: “I don’t always punch old men in the face, but when I do, it’s because they’re assholes to my sister.  Stay angry, my friends.”

My bro wins.  We had a long conversation about the smile comment and about dealing with street harassment.  This is the zillionth example that confirms my belief that it’s so important to speak out about these issues (if and when we are able), especially to people who don’t see or experience them, especially when those people are like my brother: straight, white, cisgender teenage guys.  Gotta train ’em to see the shit that won’t be hurled directly at them, yet happens all around them.

Part 3: I Have No Time for Assholes

The day significantly improved in the evening, when I went to visit a good friend.  Having spent the L ride downtown scribbling furiously in my copy of Female Chauvinist Pigs (huge capitalized “NO”s and “STFU”s abounded), I was looking forward to chilling out in a thoroughly non-patriarchal atmosphere (as much as that is possible).  As I crossed a large intersection to meet her, a car sped by, honking profusely.  I turned to see strange guy #2–barely older than me and in a beat-up truck–staring out of the window, leering at me.

Without pausing, I flipped him off and kept walking.  He looked shocked shocked and horrified at my reaction.  I wish I had a picture of his face.  Too fucking funny.

Me: 

Success.  Then I waltzed off into the night with my friend and headed to her apartment for yummy food and wine.

** The answer, of course, is that this shit is never okay.  I love bois (and others) who are not femmephobic jerks.  Then again, I think all kinds of non-jerk people are great, ‘nough said.

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