I had forgotten what it felt like to constantly look over both shoulders as I walk down the street. I had forgotten that I had to scrutinize my clothing to avoid “sending the wrong message.” Soon after I returned to Washington D.C. from working a year in China, it didn’t take long for me to remember.
It started with the staring. No permission is necessary as some men take it upon themselves to vigorously eye women up and then down. Those unwanted eyes seem to grow hands, and you can feel the waves of discomfort roll across your body.
Maybe it’s me.
Something in the way I board the subway or in the way I pack my car with groceries communicates that I would like to be violated by a male’s eyes. Sometimes I even forget to dismount the Baskin Robbins sign stapled on the back of my head. Of course any man would see my skin and loudly declare that he “loves to eat chocolate ice cream.” (Excuse me while I take note of his preference).
It did’t end with the staring, but I really wish it did. When a couple of friends took me to a bar to celebrate my return, I tried to do everything right. We traveled in a group, we didn’t wear anything too suggestive, and we parked as close to our destination as possible.
I’ll admit I was already on edge. Throughout my transition back into American culture I have been showered with pity or comments like, “You should just get over it. This is the way it is.” Something really may be wrong with me. Yet I can’t believe that I have returned home, and can finally see an alarming societal ill that I had been conditioned to ignore.
We had almost made it through the night scot-free, but as I was exiting the bar, one man decided to rub his hand down my entire front body. He looked at me and said, “I know you like that.” It was as if every word that I had ever known had taken a vacation from my memory. I stood there staring back at him, saying nothing and feeling small. He walked away. Very anti-climatic…I know. If you are asking what I wore to provoke him, I had on a loose-fitting white-buttoned collared shirt. (Of course you didn’t ask, but now I feel the need to analyze my role in the interaction).
It went from bad to worse. We hurriedly tried to make it home, but trouble caught up to us yet again. Less than three minutes from the car, we were approached by two young men who were clearly intoxicated. They began to scream at us because we didn’t speak to them. Obviously we didn’t learn the ‘speaking’ lesson fast enough, because they began pouring beer cans and chanting R.I.P. We walked/ran the rest of the way to the car. As they threw their beer cans after us, I knew there was no need in saying anything then. On the silent ride home, all I could think about was that if a police officer gunned them down right at this moment – I would be marching for them.
My friend told me I should take it as a compliment. She assured me that I had just forgotten that some men act that way when they find women attractive. “It’s not like we are women in danger,” she continued. “Boko Haram is killing and raping women and girls in Nigeria. You just got a beer can.”
She was right. I was raised in America understanding what it is like to feel sexually objectified when I walk outside. My brief respite in China must have made me ill-equipped to face it all again. Furthermore, a beer can is a far cry from rape or death. Still, I just…wonder.
I wonder whether our quiet acceptance of sexual harassment has caused the problem to balloon. I wonder what men say to their friends who physically harass women in bars and clubs. I wonder whether our silence on the home front is an indicator of why our silence is deafening when it comes to gender inequality worldwide.
Many people read articles and they demand for a great solution when they come to the end. I’m sorry to disappoint.
I do know some things that would make me feel as if my female organs did not relegate my humanity. Here are a few:
• No means no. Stop means stop.
• If you will not speak, then look away. There is a clear distinction between looking and violating. You may be shy or you may not want to talk. However, please don’t forget that the mind comes before the body. If you have no intention to engage a woman further, do not violate her by taking in every inch of her body.
• There is no need to verbally or physically assault a woman to get her attention. Try conversation. A simple “Hello, how are you?” or “Have a good day” would suffice.
• Sexual innuendos are unnecessary. Whenever you see a woman who looks nice, just tell her. How about, “You look beautiful” (P.S. she’ll likely say thanks).
I find it hard to convince myself that sexual harassment is just the way it is. Instead, I’d like to believe that when we stop telling victims of sexual harassment to “just calm down” our social landscape would look much different. I’d like to believe that we should confront or even report perpetrators of sexual harassment. Maybe it is just me, but I fervently pray that I’m not alone.