Sexual harassment. It’s one of those things overly sensitive feminists complain about. Women who have it so good they have to find something trivial to whinge about, you know – the ones who just can’t take a joke.
This is the dominant narrative when it comes to sexual harassment. It’s not a real issue, or not a serious one at least, but rather, women getting offended over nothing and finding problems where they don’t exist.
Sexual harassment is often regarded as just a joke, harmless banter or even a compliment- an innocent comment a woman got upset over. For many women, however, sexual harassment is just one of the realities of being a woman. It’s something we’re supposed to shrug off with a good-natured laugh or quietly endure.
This normalised harassment has a real life impact on women. It restricts our freedoms, with many women reporting going to great lengths modifying their behaviour in order to avoid it. Some are forced to take up different routes or avoid certain areas to escape it as they go about their day. Others give up activities like running because of men driving past doling out ‘compliments’ like “Show us your tits!”
Sexual harassment may involve unwanted sexual advances, obscene remarks or gestures, often in a workplace or social setting. It can entail unsolicited comments about our bodies, or comments of a sexual nature; it may be a wolf-whistle or a lewd gesture from a colleague or a strange man, and us women are supposed to find this all very charming.
But sexual harassment isn’t a compliment, it’s an expression of power. It is just one manifestation of a culture that is openly hostile to women, one in which women and girls exist for the pleasure of men. Where women are regarded as public property and men entitled to vocally appraise their bodies and signify their approval or lack thereof, because that’s what women and girls are for- to be aesthetically pleasing for men. Sexual harassment not only reflects sexist attitudes towards women, it communicates messages of power between men and women, reminding women of their place, and what they are for.
One night a few months back I was loading bags of groceries into my car. It was dark and the car park was almost empty. A man wolf-whistled at me. I ignored him and continued putting away my groceries. So he whistled a second time. What was the purpose of this, I wondered? It’s not as though he was trying to start a conversation with me. What response did he expect? Was I supposed to smile and act all coy (“Oh, you!”) or was I meant to find it unsettling? That’s when it hit me. It wasn’t enough for this man to quietly appreciate my appearance or to make a judgment on my body, if that was what he was doing, but he needed me to know that he was, and that it was his right.
A friend of mine recently related her discomfort while when at the gym a man she didn’t know approached her, leaned in close, kissed the air and said, “Love the lips!” As she recounted the incident on Twitter, she described the sick feeling she felt, along with her frustration that she had been too startled and taken aback to respond, a scenario all too many women can relate to. Female socialisation plays a role here- as girls, we are taught to be polite, don’t rock the boat, don’t make men uncomfortable. We learn that setting clearly defined boundaries might be viewed as rude, and that being assertive can be equated with being bitchy. Most of all we learn to put the needs of others before our own, and that may include putting men’s egos ahead of our own feelings of safety or security. Various women online empathised with my friend.
Luckily for us, this was when a bunch of random dude bros showed up just in time to share their manly wisdom and explain why sexual harassment is not a thing. What was really going on here, as I learned, is that my friend was simply overreacting, and being “forward” (i.e. strange men making women feel uncomfortable in social situations) is actually a great way to get women, because we’re all just waiting to get ‘got’ you know?
Another began with the premise “if [she] found it inappropriate”. As if the issue was not about men making sexually suggestive comments to women, but women being overly sensitive about it. This super insightful guy argued that the onus was on my friend, and women in general, to confront creepy men making sexually suggestive or threatening comments. How is a man going to know if he’s made a woman uncomfortable with his sexually aggressive come-ons if she doesn’t point it out to him, after all?
Putting aside my serious concerns for these men who believe sexual harassment can be a great ice-breaker, this exchange is a testament to the sexist attitudes and entitlement to women’s bodies still held by too many men. This belief that men’s perceived rights to the bodies of women and girls should trump women’s discomfort, that male entitlement should take precedence over women’s dignity and autonomy.
To these men, I say this:
Women’s bodies are their own. They are not public property. They do not exist for your enjoyment; they are not props, scenery or eye candy, not for you to openly appraise. Women are human beings. Having a female body and existing in public is not an invitation.
Still not convinced? Check out this series of short videos from David Schwimmer and Sigal Avin, depicting instances of sexual harassment #ThatsHarassment