When I was thirteen, I got to hold a Playboy magazine for the first-time. Instead of being wrapped in plastic like at the bookstore, where it would be tucked away behind car magazines, the issue was open and ready for my perusal. My stepfather gave it to me as a birthday present, as if to say, “This is yours now. This is the world you inherited.” I knew what this world looked like, the conversations his mechanic buddies had about women when their wives weren’t around.
In their conversations, they got to control women with their words, sorting out the female behaviors they did and didn’t like and decide which body shapes were appropriate. Everyone had their preference — being a leg, breast or butt man — but all were agreed that flat butts were a “dealbreaker,” as were front butts and love handles. As a listened to my stepfather describe his ideal woman, who appeared to be Tawny Kitaen or a sexual fantasy from Porky’s, I thought about my mother, who didn’t fit that mold. I saw the looks he gave my mother when she gained weight or dyed her hair blonde, anything he didn’t approve of. It was like a code was being violated. He didn’t grow up and get married for this.
For my birthday dinner, I was taken on my first trip to Hooters, in order to be properly indoctrinated into their club of men, surrounded by my uncle and my stepfather’s friends. My uncle told the waitress it was my birthday and they made me stand on a stool, so I could survey the room like Simba in The Lion King. After being held aloft in the new land of patriarchy, the waitress had to help me down from my perch. I noticed that the name on her tag was “Trixie.” I asked if that was her real name. She smiled without her eyes, clearly tired and nearing the end of her shift, and said, “Honey, it doesn’t matter what my real name is.” I wanted to know why, but it didn’t occur to me to ask.
My whole life had been building to this moment, as if I were being informally trained for it. When I was three, my father let me watch HBO at night with him one evening when my mother was off at work. I sunk into the semi-circle sofa, the cushions overwhelming my small body, and saw a naked woman for the first time — or one that wasn’t my mother. She was blond and her breasts were like hot air balloons, the kind that made you float in the sky. According to my father, this is what a woman looked like, and he taught me how to talk to her. To get her attention, you whistle. If not, she might not know you exist.
When we would go to the supermarket together, this became something of a game between us. If a pretty girl walked by and I yelled something at her, I got rewarded for it, usually with a high-five and sometimes with candy. I would shout, “Hubba hubba!” and he would sigh, “What a natural.” In high school, I took to babysitting my cousins for extra money over the summer, and I heard those words come out of one of their mouths. The perpetrator was nine and still not over wetting the bed. I asked him where he got those words from and whose they were. “Who taught you to talk to a woman like that?” I wanted to know. He smiled and coyly shrugged, and I could feel someone out there, flashing the thumbs up.
In a recent article for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses this culture of ingrained toxic masculinity — particularly the ways in which he saw it play out in impoverished areas. For the working-class father facing eviction or a man of color who finds out that white patriarchy has no place for them, sexual harassment is a way to assert traditional power hierarchies. They might not have female assistants or other classic markers of upwardly mobile male dominance, but they have their words. In Coates article, I can see my stepfather’s eyes telling me that growing up isn’t what his father promised him.
However, the buck hardly stops with the disenfranchised. My grandmother worked two or three jobs at a time to buy my father and his siblings the privilege that birth couldn’t afford them — and a house in a neighborhood that would pay for their future. They didn’t come from privilege, but my grandmother’s hard work allowed my father the ability to fake it — and strut around school like he owned the place. In society, men aren’t just taught that they own any space they enter; that has to be encouraged by the systems of generational patriarchy which reinforce it.
My stepfather was a mechanic, with a collar as blue as my grandmother’s, but his friends were businessmen and lawyers. Even though they didn’t share a class background, the language of casual oppression offered them a shared dialogue, a system that they could all buy into. Masculinity became the equivalent of the schoolyard popsicle sticks, designed to be split in half and savored with a friend. When I see a man whistle like a wolf of wall street at a woman on the sidewalk, I don’t just see the schoolyard and the bully throwing around his power. I see a man who thinks this is the way the world works. This is what it means to be a man.
For many men, that has rarely been challenged. Who is going to tell you differently, Spike TV and Maxim? They don’t have an interest in reforming masculinity — but supporting a masculinity model that encourages rampant consumption. They need the myth to sell magazines and to uphold the idea that a woman’s crowning glory is being objectified on the cover of a magazine. A woman is told she derives her worthy from how much men want to put their penis inside her, no matter what age she is. As Jennifer Aniston glides through her forties, she’s had to show increasingly more skin to stay relevant — from wearing only a tie on the cover of GQ to playing a sex addict and a stripper in her last two big-budget comedies. This is the game, and men have little to lose. Who will take their points away?
A recent article on Thought Catalog got me thinking about this. Josh Gondelman wrote that he’s glad he didn’t grow up in a time when “men were [still] men,” the era of sexual harassment that Mad Men both criticizes and inherently fetishizes with its slick surfaces and noir-tinged elegance. Like the show, our era has a tortured relationship to the old culture of gender politics, in which a woman could be all but assaulted in the workplace without having any say in the matter. Until The Civil Rights Act of 1964, women had almost no rights as a worker, and the legislation was a small step toward changing how we treat women. Remember: spousal rape wasn’t outlawed until 1993.
Although sexual harassment in the workplace is still illegal, behavior that’s equally inappropriate and psychologically damaging is allowed to operate elsewhere, pushed out of the office and into the streets. In seemingly every survey ever conducted on the issue, 100% of women report having been sexually harassed in public, through catcalls or more direct threats of physical harm. In Humboldt Park this week, a woman was sexually assaulted at a bus stop, a testament to the danger that many women feel when they travel alone or go out at night. They are told that the street isn’t a space for them. My dad might have owned the halls of his high school, but they are told they don’t own the streets.
When I discussed the Humboldt Park incident with a friend, she quickly affirmed her belief that our bus stops need to be surveilled, in order to protect women from this sadly common sexual harm. I agreed that more should be done, but I wondered how much police cameras would fix the issue. With the ways in which our culture and our police force view sexual assault, just because they are watching doesn’t mean they are looking. Where are they putting these cameras? Who is being policed? The problem of street harassment is so widespread and pervasive that no camera could catch all of it, not even those Google Earth photos. You can’t Big Brother this one.
For decades, women have taken up the mantle of street harassment by being leaders in their own communities, raising awareness about the realities that face young women. These grassroots efforts, embodied by the “Stop Street Harassment” website, are a great tool to recognize the struggles of women and send the message that they aren’t alone. When society continually sends the message that harassment isn’t a big deal (and you should take it as a compliment!), you might feel like no one is listening. A semi-recent piece in Psychology Today profiled Anna, who has been harassed so often that she’s afraid to go outside. She is fourteen.
However, reforming our culture of catcalling will take more than localized efforts, no matter how passionate. We need to begin to recognize street harassment for what it is: harassment, a systemic violence that continues to socially marginalize and abuse women. Women know what it feels like to believe that there’s no space for you, but do men? Have men ever walked outside in a dress and seen how society views femininity or walked in someone else’s heels for a day? Yesterday I talked to a man at my gym who didn’t grow up around women and had no female friends. I told him that both of my roommates were female. He informed me that he would move.
Men continue to form communities, whether socially or psychologically, that exclude women and profit off of their continued invisibility. That’s being challenged by women, but other men need to stand up and make a space at the table for women. Toxic masculinity can only be reformed when men stand with women for change and say that every space deserves to be safe, whether you are in the office, in your living room or walking home listening to your iPod. Just as we stood up to workplace culture 50 years ago, our politics must move into the streets. Men need join in and be leaders in this movement, working alongside and with women. We all have a lot to learn.
So, guys out there, the next time you’re at the bar, know that just because that waitress doesn’t tell you her real name doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Everyone has a story, and it’s about time we started listening.