Vanessa’s story: A play-by-play on the thoughts that run through our heads when harassment happens

Originally here: http://chickensoupforthedorkysoul.blogspot.com/2011/03/male-privilege-and-cat-call.html

Every Tuesday at promptly 2 p.m., I pack up my things at my internship and call a cab back to my dorm. If it’s nice out, I spend the five to 15 minute-wait on the sidewalk, which is most convenient for me anyway because my cab can’t miss me. This is usually uneventful, unless you count the times during Snowmageddon that I had to wait over an hour to get a cab and nearly cried out of frustration.

Yesterday was frustrating for a completely different reason.

Yesterday, as I was heading toward my usual bit of sidewalk, I heard a wolf whistle. Instinctively, I turned to look in its direction and a disheveled middle-aged man was standing across the street. He waved both arms and cocked his chin.

“Hey, baby!” He was clearly approaching me, and quickly.

In a panic, I flipped open my cell phone and pretended to take a call as I rushed back toward the office building.

“Oh, hello? I just left, why– I can come back!” I’m not sure why I thought this would help my situation.

When I got inside I hid behind the wall that juts out by the elevator and waited. He saw what door I went into, I thought nervously. He knows where I am. This door doesn’t lock. If he wants to come get me, he can. I considered going back upstairs as if I’d forgot something to buy myself time, to lose him, but I decided against it. I scurried out to check if he was anywhere in sight. The coast was clear. I wasn’t sure at this point if I missed my cab. I sent a text message to my boyfriend.

“A creepy guy just catcalled me and waved at me. I went back into the building to hide from him :(”

“:(” my boyfriend replied.

Of course, I got my cab several minutes later and I survived to write this post. And all things said, it wasn’t that much of a terrible situation. I didn’t get hurt. My office is in a busy-enough area that if this man had tried anything, someone would see– and maybe that would have deterred him from going any further than calling to me. I tried all day to tell myself that this is no big deal. It’s just a catcall, you might say.

But it isn’t. When a stranger actively does something that makes you uncomfortable enough to question your safety, it is a pretty big deal. I don’t see how any older man– any man at all– could imagine that whistling at, gesturing to, and swiftly approaching a young, solitary female would be a situation that wouldn’t make her feel threatened, intimidated. I like to think I am tough and self-assured, but in those moments, I felt shaken, and I hid. I wasn’t sure whether he would pursue me– I didn’t know that person, so there was no telling what he might do. Sometimes when you run you get caught.

You could call it paranoia, but I wouldn’t go that far.

I would venture a guess that many women, especially women who live in cities, have been made to feel ill-at-ease by a male stranger’s advances at one point or another. Sometimes, when I’m not alone, it’s easy to brush off a “hey, baby!” from a passing car or a wink from a man on the street. When you’re alone and it happens, you truly feel alone– at least I did. Alone, and desperate, and trapped, not like the tough, independent woman I fancy myself to be.

What’s problematic here is that this is a problem of privilege, one that favors men and victimizes women (and I’m taking the perspective of a heterosexual woman because that is the experience I can speak to– but please share your perspective in the comments). If we were to switch roles, even if I were an older woman and this man a younger man, I doubt he would feel threatened by me hitting on him in public. I doubt that concern for his safety would take the forefront and he would hurry back inside. Whether men realize it or not in their everyday lives, they are privileged.

My boyfriend is annoyed sometimes when I ask him to do things like walk me a few minutes across campus at night. He sometimes says that it won’t make a difference for anyone’s safety (“we’ll just both get mugged!”), but I think that’s just him being a man who hasn’t quite realized his own privilege. When a woman is with a man, she is less likely to be harassed or attacked. As a woman, I do need to take my safety into account when going even short distances after dark. Is that letting the bad guys win? I don’t think it is so much as it’s realizing what could happen if I throw caution to the wind, and that, frankly, sucks. It shouldn’t be this way.

I think men often take for granted the fact that they can, most of the time, go from Point A to Point B without being disturbed. For women, it’s different. And maybe some of the men who catcall and try to approach women on the street don’t realize that what they’re doing, for many women under a variety of conditions, will make another person feel afraid. This isn’t a challenge they have to face, and certainly one I don’t like thinking about. When I think about days like yesterday, I wonder if I can make it going to and from work alone in the real world. I wonder if I can be brave enough to go on the train or the subway by myself. The minority– and I do believe it’s a minority– of people out there who want to hurt or scare people like me make me doubt my abilities as a woman to be an effective member of society.

We are asking ourselves frequently now “should we allow women in warzones?” and I have to ask “why should there be any reason not to?” But when I think of that much bigger issue– the horrible things that have actually transpired– together with the littler things we as woman face daily, like I faced yesterday, I see the problem. There are men in this world who feel on some level that women are objects, that it is okay to come on to them, to harass them, to hurt them, to grope them, to make them, by way of sexualization, feel powerless and less than. And it’s not okay. Never. Not even when nothing comes of it, like what happened to me yesterday. Not even a little.

Privilege exerts itself in a lot of insidious ways, and this is one of them. If women feel unsafe walking down the street, how can they be leaders? How can they be journalists? How can they be taxi drivers? How can they be government officials? How can they be anything? Maybe they should just stay inside where it’s safe.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that to be the only safe choice.

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  1. Jenn says:

    Wow…that hit the nail on the head. Very well written piece!

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