A question was raised in the comments of the first post of this series* that comes up over and over again in discussions of street harassment: how do we establish (and maintain) healthy and authentic selves in a sociocultural environment that is hostile to who we are?
Okay, so the question wasn’t exactly posed like that. Instead, Alexandra complained about when men she doesn’t know command her to smile, Franchesca wrote about negotiating beauty and arrogance, Danielle wondered “how much is them and how much is me?” and TFIsabel asked why some women are harassed more than others. In spite of their differences, all these comments have the common theme of our trying to figure out how to balance personal responsibility for shaping both ourselves and the culture in which we live with the responsibility street harassers also hold for these things. What I appreciate most about these comments is that they all point out that while street harassment is not the fault of the victims, our choices do play a role in constructing the environment in which these scenarios occur—therefore, we are not powerless to stop it.
Now before I’m accused of implicit victim-blaming, I ask that you hear me out—because that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that if we want street harassment to stop then we have to look at the overall dynamics involved in it. This means pulling back from simply examining a single micro-interaction for gendered power plays and also examining the many social and cultural elements at play that contribute to the existence and perceptions of street harassment. It means we recognize that we’ve got a lot we are juggling at any given time, and if we can teach ourselves to see those multiplicitous dynamics, we might also teach ourselves how to change them.
Considering this made me think of Jack Goes Boating, a really great indie film released last year that was directed by and starred Philip Seymour Hoffman. The most compelling character in Jack Goes Boating, imho, is Jack’s oddball love interest Connie. Brilliantly executed by actress Amy Ryan, Connie demonstrates some uncomfortable tensions that exist for women when it comes to the threat of sexual violence in public spaces. Throughout the film we see numerous victimizing encounters Connie has with men who make her the focal point of some type of unwanted sexual attention (e.g., masturbation on the subway, harassment at work, being asked out in a hospital while her father is in a coma). The cumulative result of these encounters is clearly demonstrated in Connie’s off-kilter behavior (she visually presents herself as plainly as possible, views all men as sexual predators, and fearfully and begrudgingly interacts with them), as well as men’s behavior toward her: they seek her out for victimization or treat her as a broken person in need of their protection. But the genius of Ryan’s performance in the film is this: the viewer is never quite sure whether Connie’s point of view is wholly accurate. We are left wondering if we see what truly happens to her or if we’ve simply gotten a peek into how she constructs reality in a world that is dangerous for women. Jack Goes Boating musses up the dichotomies of intention vs. perception and real vs. unreal, subtly pointing out that both are important.
Street harassment makes it difficult for many of us to exist as the person who we “truly” are because our need to feel safe in public demands both self- and perpetrator-imposed behavior modification. And one of the biggest struggles we confront is not always having the ability to accurately discern the presence of danger; therefore, we err on the side of caution, assuming it’s there and modifying our behavior as a result. So, trans people avoid public restrooms; interracial couples and queers don’t publicly express their intimacy; and women alter their route in order to avoid places they may encounter bothersome men. Like Connie, we place our perception of what might be over what may or may not really be because past experience has taught us that we don’t have the luxury not to. But doing this comes at a price. And that price is our own authenticity and perpetuating the status quo. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Franchesca made an excellent point about this when she wrote about rejecting traditional femininity, and going grunge instead, because she wanted to hide her body from strange men’s gazes and avoid their sexual advances (particularly as a teenage girl being approached by older men). But she soon figured out that tactic wouldn’t work. On one hand, she was getting “praise” for having the “right” presentation of her gender identity, which satisfied heteronormative male pleasure and privilege. On the other hand, she struggled with not being true to herself. Her fear of street harassment brought an unavoidable mixture of self-loathing and anger at the world for placing her in an unwinnable position. It wasn’t until she reconciled the two by accepting the conflict itself as inevitable that she found some semblance of solid ground on which to stand to define who she really wanted to be and start living her life that way.
Danielle’s string of questions following an unwanted encounter also exemplifies this conflict nicely. She wonders to herself, “Was my dress really that short? Why would he yell at me? Why am I letting his comment affect me?” We vacillate between blaming ourselves then the perpetrator and then society and then back to ourselves. The questions are circular because “blame” is multidirectional. (To be clear, this next bit is not about Danielle specifically, but an abstraction from the situation she described.) From the harasser’s point of view, and our cultural one as well, the skirt may have been too short. But from a social justice perspective, the length of skirt is irrelevant because safety and common courtesy should be a right, not a luxury. Maybe he yelled because he doesn’t know any better or because he feels entitled or because he genuinely thought he was being complimentary or because he wanted to take his bad day out on a stranger from whom he could quickly flee. Maybe the feeling of disgust is because you find the man who yelled at you unattractive and that makes you question your own physical appeal if an ugly dude thinks you’d actually be interested in him. Maybe you let the comment affect you because it’s both humiliating and scary to be yelled at by a man in a car, especially when there is no social sanction or institutional recourse to match such behavior.
There is no one magical answer to any of these questions—nor to the question that started this post. That’s why they’re asked again and again. Instead, what we gain from asking and thinking about them is that context is important and that we have to interrogate the ambiguity and complexities in order to find solutions beyond frowning at a command to smile or wearing baggy clothing or screaming at a guy who slaps our ass then reporting him to the police. No matter how uncomfortable the process might make us.
* Many thanks to Alexandra the Tsaritsa, Danielle, TFIsabel, and Franchesca (a lovely ladyfriend from my salad days, btw) for providing the inspiration for this post.