It’s my first work trip as a Real Adult With A Salary, or whatever. I’m in Las Vegas, which is the least “me” place there could be, as a health-conscious and environmentally-conscious urban planner and yoga teacher. But other 20-somethings at the conference are seemingly having a blast with their also young coworkers. I am an introvert, have no fellow coworkers here, I hate networking, and I am among 14,000 conference attendees, many of them what I would call “tech bros” (semi-derogatory).
I contemplate recent articles about sexual harassment in the workplace. That some men have personal policies of avoiding one-on-one lunches with female coworkers because they don’t want to seem “creepy.” Then don’t be a creep and see women as people instead of objects? I don’t know what to tell you, bro. But it is this exact objectification that keeps workplace inequality alive and women out of positions of power (by power, I mean decision-making clout)—and it cycles like this.
I catch myself thinking my own internalized misogynistic shit, judging other women—“oh she’s wearing a ton of make-up and she’s successful/smart?” Oh my god. Yes, I used to genuinely believe that I wouldn’t succeed because I wasn’t attractive. Let’s unpack that. There are some contradictions, too:
- That women can’t be both smart and attractive.
- That success (for women) is determined by attractiveness (because GOD KNOWS that ain’t true for men).
- That I am not attractive.
- That because I am not attractive, I won’t be successful—and the cascade of self-doubt and self-loathing that comes with that.
But here I am, at this conference (maybe I’ve made it and I am successful, at least on paper!), now believing that I am both smart and attractive. And creative and a powerhouse and all these things, yet still holding all of these other contradictions somewhere in my awareness.
I am in the hotel elevator after the conference and step into an elevator with one other man. I immediately tense and my thoughts start racing. Oh god, he’s holding a cup. He might be drunk (this is Las Vegas, remember). Oh he’s getting off on the same floor as me. That seems like too much of a coincidence out of all these 20 floor options. I have to let him get out and walk in front of me so that he doesn’t try to force his way into my room from one step behind me.
Another similar recent experience: I went on a solo road trip in Utah last week to hike/frolic in the outdoors, see some beautiful places, learn about self-reliance, etc. Two nights I had to sleep in my car instead of my tent because:
- I was too afraid to even get out of my car at one campsite that was full of large trucks (which I equate with men) and I was so sure that no one could see that I was a young woman traveling alone or I would be raped. So I had to lock myself in my car and sleep scrunched up because if anyone DID try to rape me, they’d have to break my window first so that seemed like a safer option?
- I was sleeping in my tent at that same campsite a few nights later, proud of myself that I was feeling relaxed enough to not sleep in my car that time, despite there still being all the trucks. It was a windy night and the rustling of my rain tarp woke me. But it sounded like feet approaching on crunchy desert sand. And it kept sounding like that, even though I knew the reality. Still, I had to get out of my tent and lock myself in my car for the rest of the night.
This is how it feels to me, as a sexual assault survivor with mild PTSD, when I am alone in a space (or even in public sometimes) with a man I don’t know. Even sometimes with men I do know. Like bosses. OH, how my career and self-development has been stunted by my anxiety of being alone in a room with a man. And guess how many bosses in America are men? 85% of executive officers.
Guess how many women in America have been sexually assaulted? One out of every 6 women in the U.S. have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. It’s much higher on college and university campuses. (And my own empirical data of nearly EVERY woman I am close with having experienced some sort of sexual assault—maybe that’s a result of my own experiences attracting similar people, but I think it is more indicative of a trend and a systemic problem, which is patriarchy and the reign of toxic masculinity.)
Guess how many women share in this experience of anxiety around men? I can’t say, but I’m sure many.
Later still, I am walking across a pedestrian bridge on the Las Vegas strip because the roads here are 10 lanes, even though this is supposed to be a city for people and not cars—I digress. I am hangrily searching for a meal that isn’t fast food, a disgusting chain restaurant, or a place that has something without meat. No dice (ha). I notice a club promoter talking to these two beautiful women dressed in fabulously fitting jumpsuits, looking fly as hell. He’s asking them if they have plans tonight and yeah, okay how about Saturday? If a man in a t-shirt and cargo shorts scouting the streets for women based on their appearance and clothing in order to offer them deals that aim to get them as drunk as possible in a night club doesn’t scream rape culture, well, I don’t know what does.
A few blocks later, a man starts walking towards me. I can’t remember if he was wearing a shirt or not. I try not to make eye contact and speed up my pace. Street harassment is something you can feel coming sometimes, and you brace yourself. Yet each time I am amazed at how my safety can be so violated in a public space—and that men feel they have the right to do it. That they are God’s gift to my day and of course I want to talk to them and also have sex with them, what else could be going on in my pneumatic body and air-filled mind?
“What’s your sign?” he calls out.
I keep walking.
“What’s your sign? Zodiac,” he persists and falls in line next to me, too close for my comfort, which he clearly has a blatant disregard for.
“Guess,” I say bluntly, showing no enthusiasm for this interaction, though he probably still takes it as flirtation.
“Aquarius,” he doesn’t even ask as a question.
“No, Cancer,” I entertain, still with no actual entertainment in my voice.
“Oh. I’m an Aquarius,” he offers.
“Well, it’s not gonna work out then,” I quip matter-of-factly and smirk, cringing at previous Aquarian men I have dealt with.
I quicken my pace still and look straight ahead. He still feels entitled to yell some profanities at me about “white chocolate women” always being the best. I am repulsed. I sigh loudly and roll my eyes into 2070 (where sea level rise has at least put this place underwater THANK GOD, but oh god now it’s even more like the movie Wall-e).
Cat-calling, or street harassment, is so common that I’d venture all female-bodied people (and some male-bodied folks, too, yes) have experienced it at some point.
Once in a mall while I was riding an escalator down, a man riding up on the other side says, “You dropped something.” I look down and lift up my bags to see.
“Your smile,” he returns, rising past me as our separate track paths cross each other.
Again, I roll my eyes in 2070.
Telling random women to smile suggests that you only see them as something in your line of vision for your pleasure, not that I might have a rich and varied life going on inside of me (and, no, I do not want you inside of me). That your mere presence and ABSOLUTE WIT with that comment should inspire my smile!!
That men at large feel entitled to make comments on a woman’s body and appearance in public spaces … imagine what they feel emboldened to do in private spaces—the statistics support this.
Harassment isn’t a compliment, despite that I do sometimes smile when a man on the street tells me I’m beautiful. And then I hate myself for that reaction, because objectification isn’t flattery. Sure, a man can think I’m genuinely beautiful and want to tell me that, but what is the purpose of your talking to me? Actually, I would like to know the logic behind this, but it appears that the intent is to get some type of further interaction, and suggests also an entitlement to that further interaction. An ownership.
As a survivor of sexual assault and thus a person who already feels unsafe in their body, especially in public places, street harassment is triggering to me. A reminder that my body is not my own in rape culture, that other people believe themselves entitled to my body and my time.
So, what is the way forward? Seeing women as humans. That’s basically the whole idea of feminism—so radical! But it’s even more than that. It’s seeing everyone as humans. That we are all people, with our own inner worlds. That we are all worthy of respect. And you don’t know everyone’s story, but everyone has one. We should strive to be more compassionate and kind in our interactions, including that of strangers. I love to look strangers in the eye—when I feel safe enough to do so. That I don’t is a failure of our society, a result of our deep disconnect from one another, each other’s humanity, humanity as a whole, the earth.
Yes, the earth is related. Humans (mostly white men in positions of power) have and continue to ravage the earth. The earth is seen as an object, a resource to be exploited, not having its own intrinsic value. The same as women.
Let us connect with our surroundings on more than just an objective level, but a sensual and intimate experience (a safe one). Let us connect with people in a way that is humanizing and mutually enriching. But don’t you dare tell me to smile.