One night a random guy came up to me at a bar and whispered, “You look like you like to get choked.” I asked him to repeat himself because I honestly thought I had misheard him. He obliged, and I’m guessing I looked horrified. I turned to see his group of bros laughing, so I said, “Congratulations on making your friends laugh, but you can walk away now and save face before I lose it.”
He started to explain that he did this of his own accord, and his smugness was palpable. I interrupted him, “Seriously, get the fuck away from me.” He laughed and left, but he didn’t apologize. I was livid, but three beers later I got over it for the night.
But, actually, I’m not over it. Because that same night a different guy called me a cunt for not dancing with him, and a few weeks earlier I got followed for three blocks by a guy who could not comprehend what “no” means. Because it feels like every week there’s another drunk asshole who thinks it’s okay to touch my waist. I’m not over it because I am tired of being made to feel small and insignificant. I’m tired of being made to feel self-conscious. Above all, I’m tired of feeling unsafe. So, let’s talk about harassment.
Here I want to talk about the kind of harassment of females by males, of which society hasn’t really decided the moral reprehensibility. It seems obvious that grabbing a stranger’s ass is unacceptable. However, there are a lot of people who might say, “That’s what happens on the dance floor.” I am infuriated by the porch-based chant, “Suck our dicks!” But then again, critics might say that’s because, “I can’t take a joke.” I don’t like compliments from strangers, especially ones referring to my body. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who would be quick to say, “You’re taking it the wrong way.”
I find the dichotomous response to this same experience disconcerting. Why is it that when these instances of harassment happen to me, I am absolutely enraged, but a casual observer is unmoved? How is it that the harasser has no awareness of how his actions might impact whomever he is harassing? Lastly, how can we stop this type of harassment?
Unwanted touching is generally seen as socially condemnable, especially when potty parts are involved. But when a guy comes up behind a girl on the dance floor and pulls her hips into his groin area, it’s not seen as a big deal. No bystander is going to yell, “Assault!” and perform a citizen’s arrest. But imagine the same forceful grab move happening in any other social situation — it’s ridiculous. Dance floor or not, I should get to choose whether a sweaty body with wandering hands is pressed tightly against mine.
So, why isn’t it more common for guys to simply ask, “Wanna dance?” Moreover, why is it acceptable for a guy to press his hard dick into my lower back when I’m trying to show off my shitty dance skills?
Going up to a stranger and saying, “Give me a blow job,” would certainly be filed under ‘List of Things You Don’t do if You Want to Avoid Jail.’ But somehow when there is a group of guys doing it and you are walking by on the sidewalk, soliciting oral sex from a stranger is seen as comical. “Oh, LOL, boys will be boys!” I’m not LOLing. I don’t want to suck a random dude’s dick while he is drinking Burnett’s on his porch, and I don’t want to be asked to do so in a public forum. Why not? For one, it is awfully embarrassing. Secondly, it makes me feel like a walking sex-hole.
I am a person with thoughts, feelings, opinions and a basic understanding of humanity, so I am offended when I’m reduced to a sex object by a group of Neanderthals sitting in white lawn chairs. What is so different about a group chant versus direct contact? Why is one seen a harmless joke and the other seen as insidious?
Perhaps the most nuanced of harassment, compliments from strangers, are all about context and content. If you yell at me while I’m walking down the street, chances are that I am going to hate it. I don’t care if you’re shouting, “You’re beautiful,” or “Nice rack,” they boil down to the same thing — it makes me feel like I am on display while getting from point A to point B. Why would a guy think it’s appropriate to comment on a girl’s body to the public while she is walking by?
In contrast, if you come up to me and give me a compliment, I really can’t predict how I am going to feel; compliments can be taken a lot of ways. “You’re really cute,” seems harmless, but then again I have been followed for responding “Thank you,” to that very compliment. Moreover, experience has taught me that it’s hard to gauge whether any given compliment is genuine or if it’s an implicit comment on my fuckability. A casual, “You’re pretty” can quickly morph into a pathetic pick-up line. How have we gotten to a place where women can be reasonably suspicious of what should be a simple compliment?
It is obvious the under-the-radar kind of harassment, typified by these preceding examples, is something that as a society we kind of ignore. Girls have integrated it into their lives as ‘normal.’ Meanwhile, guys really don’t see a lot of it as harassment. Does this mean guys are, as a sex, careless and callous? Not at all. Rather, I think that guys, generally speaking here, have a fundamental gap in understanding on what it is to be a female. Before guys get up with their boxer briefs in a bundle, hold the phone and hear me out.
Guys can mentally role reverse this type of harassment and say, “Well, I honestly wouldn’t care if a girl or group of girls did any of this to me,” and be completely honest. Yes, duly noted – what is one human’s harassment might be another’s weird fantasy. However, there is a vulnerability in being female that colors all of these situations differently.
Threats to my personal safety, as a girl, are very real. I’m not saying every, “You’re gorgeous,” has me running away in fear of sexual assault. My point is that I am going to take harassment from a male, especially involving my body (whether that be touching or talking about it), very seriously. I know most harassment comes from a place somewhere on the spectrum between ‘asserting male-ness’ and ‘trolling for consensual sex,’ but as a woman I can’t make an accurate judgment on that.
Moreover, we are vulnerable even in our being; it’s a challenge for some guys to view girls as more than pieces of ass. The idea that a guy has the self-determined right to comment on me or touch me without thinking about me as a person is infuriating. And there is vulnerability in that frustration — vulnerability because a guy has the power to upset me deeply with very little effort and because it feels like I am powerless to change it.
It takes the deconstruction of this type of ambiguous harassment to highlight how inappropriate it is. Moreover, it requires a lot of empathy to understand what harassment can mean to a girl or how powerless it can make her feel. I want us as a campus community, in a joint effort between the sexes, to address that this kind of harassment is unacceptable and that we need to start treating it like a real issue. I don’t have a ten-step plan for ending harassment, but I have the hope that maybe my point of view will open some eyes, spur some action and start a long-overdue conversation.
Erin Zess ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in microbiology and history.