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I recently had the painfully unpleasant (but all too common) experience of being sexually harassed by a man. I was harassed in a digital age, when creepy men can invade your personal space by sending their unwanted and invasive attention straight to you, regardless of where you are or what you are doing. I was sexually harassed while I was enjoying dinner at home with my family and friends, this creep’s crass thoughts and words flooding me with fear and shame in the comfort of the home I grew up in. I was sexually harassed while I was working at school, this asshole’s demented ideas trashing my consciousness and the innocent environment it was meant to be nourishing. I was sexually harassed and it was NOT OK. It IS not OK. But when I reported it to the local police force meant to protect me from this kind of creep- this ONE creep of an entire species of creeps pervading the male-world we live in- it informed me that this sexual harassment WAS, in fact, OK because it did not place me in any sort of direct existential danger, and that if he continued to harass me I should simply change my number and avoid the areas I typically see him creeping around.
When I hung up the phone with the police I thought to myself: Something here is terribly wrong.
Now let us be frank about this endemic plague called sexual harassment that male homo sapiens can’t seem to kick. It shares the same qualities of all of society’s ugliest actualities, but is experienced by an entire gender group, worldwide, and everyday. To be female in the world- today, yesterday and tomorrows to come- is to be subject to sexual harassment by men. For women, sexual harassment is as pervasive and (dare I say) NATURAL an everyday part of our realities as breathing: it is in us and outside of us from our youth on up to adulthood, a period through which we develop our own personal means of dealing with it while trying to fulfill ourselves meaningfully in a world built up against us. I have historically dealt with it through silence, ignoring the presumptive “hey baby’s” and “nice ass’s” by quickening my pace and turning my face from the eyes and mouths violating me. A friend of mine plays crazy, staring blankly or yelling incoherently at her perpetrators’ advances until they finally back off (needless to say, some don’t). Yes, we women have our ways of dealing with the sick and unfair reality our sexist history has constructed for us , and to varying degrees they allow us to get through the day to day.
But today our methods, my methods especially, are dated. Today, my (admittedly) passive silent reaction to a man’s harassment protects me from him about as much as a cigarette protects a smoker from getting lung cancer: Not only does my silence fail to protect me, it makes the situation worse. As I repeatedly erased the explicitly crude messages invading my phone and interrupting my life- my life as I was CHOOSING to experience it- I was giving this creep the power to manipulate my immediate condition and surroundings. When I simply closed out the digital garbage littering my laptop’s inbox and polluting my mind, I was allowing this jerk the liberty to control how I was feeling and thinking at that time. And when I reported this unjust robbery of my self-determination, I was told that silence and avoidance would be the only means of coping with the harassment until it transpired into something more “real”: a response which, rather than providing me a sense of comfort and consolation from fear, stirred in me a very deep sense of rage, and a firm new determination to never feel that fear again.
We live in a world today where people die from the lives they lead in digital media. Kids commit suicide from cyber bullying, people are trafficked into fatal situations, and women get harassed- and abused, and prostituted, and raped and killed- in a cyberspace that increasingly takes on the oppressive patriarchal qualities of the society that produced it. Not only do women now have the “real” male-oriented world to navigate and survive in, we also have the equivocally real, male-oriented cyber-reality to navigate and survive in, the latter’s very “unreality” making it all the more dangerous. Who we women choose to participate in our everyday “real” lives is something that is fortunately very much in our control, despite the abrasive harassment which inevitably invades them. We are free to pick and choose what male attention we wish to fill those lives with, while surviving the grimy reality of unwanted male attention because we are women and that is what we women do. Who we invite to participate in our digitized lives, however, is something entirely different completely. While our digital livelihoods are not something we are completely powerless over, they do involve spaces that make our digital (and real) selves more readily accessible and vulnerable to unwanted attention, gazes and words. Creepy men will, and are, invading those spaces, and it is not something that will stop by simply ignoring it or keeping your mouth shut. Cigarettes will kill you. Silence will make this harassment worse.
So consider this my own little vernacular vendetta against the creep who thought it was OK to fuck with me, to make me feel belittled, ashamed and afraid (to protect the integrity of his identity, I will refer to him here as “the-guy-you-all-know-if-you-go-to-the-Starbuck’s-on-Monroe-Avenue,-Monday-through-Friday,-anytime-from-about-7-a.m.-to-5-p.m.,-who-wears-a-yellow-jacket-and-rain-boots-and-sits-in-one-of-the-larger-comfy-chairs-pretending-to-write-a-math-textbook-while-actually-sexually-harassing-women-all-day-long,-who-is-reported-to-have-done-this-to-countless-girls-before-me-and-will-unquestionably-continue-to-do-so,-so-long-as-all-of-us-girls-stay-quiet-and-choose-not-to-stop-taking-this-BULLSHIT!). But it’s more than that. It’s a statement that this kind of harassment is more pervasive and less tolerable in today’s digital age than the former kind was, currently is, or ever will be in the future. It is ubiquitous and just as menacing, dangerous and unacceptable as any other form of harassment or abuse for the very real and tragic consequences we’ve seen it create. Why should a woman being sexually harassed on the street be given different consideration than one being sexually harassed in the privacy of her own home? Why must a woman feel the direct physical fear of a man for her fear to be taken seriously by the law, and why have our laws failed to acknowledge this fear manifesting itself in new forms, through our new medias and in our new digital selves?
Freedom from fear is not a right limited to the world we actively live in, but one that extends into the worlds we create with our language and means of expression. The fact that the digital worlds we populate are not real in a corporeal sense does not absolve us the moral responsibility we have to endow those worlds with a bit of humanity. The fear I felt every day the aforementioned creep harassed me was unquestionably real, though that fear’s source was “not.” If fear can blur the lines separating our “real” selves from our digital selves” and our “real” worlds from our digital worlds, freedom from fear can do it too, in a very loud way.
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