Last week, I told a male friend about a time recently when I was followed for three blocks by a man whistling and commenting on my body. I’d left my house on a whim because I wanted a small bag of almonds and some chocolate. A pleasant trip that should have taken ten minutes ended up taking over a half hour and enraging me, because this guy followed me into the store and hung around creeping on me while I ignored him until he went away.
My friend asked me why I didn’t say anything to him. “Just tell him to fuck off!” is a refrain I hear a lot when I tell dudes about experiences like this. This makes it clear that dudes, no matter how well meaning or adorable or kind or progressive or honest or lovely, have basically no idea what it’s like to be a woman in the world.
I didn’t say anything to him because I’d said nothing to this person to begin with and never made eye contact with him and kept my head down for 30 minutes and did not acknowledge him once, and yet he walked a few paces behind me for blocks and then stood near me making gross noises for an obscenely long time.
Obviously, he gave no shits how I was feeling about the situation. This had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with what he thought he could get away with. He committed to making me uncomfortable for his personal gain. That is gross and unsettling.
At the most basic level, I don’t respond to men who catcall me on the street because when I’m just outside existing in my own life, I don’t want to talk to some stranger about how he feels about my ass. Engaging with a toolbag really cuts into my doing anything else really.
At a more serious level, I don’t respond to catcallers because I don’t know them. I am annoyed by the idea of engaging with a stranger. I am scared of confronting a stranger. In general, these people are taller and heavier than me and could, for all I know, be total psychopaths. They have already proven that they can’t read (or that they will gleefully ignore) social cues. I’m just on my way for chocolate. I’m not willing to find out what other social mores he might be ready to dismiss. His ego may be so bruised that he might punch me in the face, which is what happened to Mary Brandon when she told a man at a festival to stop grabbing her ass.
Sadly, in terms of sexual violence against women, dealing with someone just yelling something at you as you go for a run or licking their lips as you walk by, which is uncomfortable, upsetting, and unnerving bullshit, is actually the best case scenario.
We could have our personal computers hacked and all our private photos stolen and shared all over the internet, only to be told that we were to blame for having taken those photos in the first place. This is the logical equivalent of my taking your laptop out of your computer bag and saying it is mine now, because you had the audacity to put it somewhere I could reach it.
We could be raped by our friends or by strangers, not be taken seriously by our college or by the police, and then make huge, intelligent, thoughtful statements about this, only to have people tell us that “regret sex is not rape” or that by speaking out, we are “attention whores” or are using “rape as self-promotion.”
We could be assaulted and nearly beaten to death, only to be told we deserved it because of our relationship status or our chosen profession.
The simple truth is that women are victims of huge invasions of privacy all the time, every day of our lives. These invasions are not always physical and they are not always devastating, but they are there, lurking, always.
In addition, the responsibility for these attacks always falls on us. If I am harassed (or grabbed or beaten or raped) and I do not say anything, it is my fault because I did not vocalize my distress. If I am harassed (or grabbed or beaten or raped) while I am out at night while wearing a skirt or having a vagina, it is my fault because I was asking for it (or, in the case of the stolen celebrity photos, the fault lies with the women for having something worth stealing). If I am harassed (or grabbed or beaten or raped) and I say something and the situation escalates (as it did for Mary Brandon), it is my fault because I should not have provoked him.
If it’s not already painfully obvious, women are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
I once had an argument about this catch-22 of sexual violence facing women with a man who told me that all this focus on violence against women is unfair, because men are also victims of violence. Okay, guy. Sure. Men are often victims of war and aggression and physical violence. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re talking about. We can talk about sexual violence against women (and men) without talking physical violence against men, in much the same way we can ask people to donate to cancer research without also asking them to recycle. It is possible to seek justice for one group without minimizing or negating the suffering of another group. In fact, the only people I know who actually do that are people like you.
There is an enormous difference between saying that you don’t see something and denying its existence. In the first case, you are admitting that you are privileged enough not to experience something 50% of the population of the world faces, in varying degrees, every day. In the second, you are proving that you are a moron who takes breaks from reality.
Rape culture is a thing, people. There are men who feel entitled to look at nude photos of women without their consent, to yell uncomfortable and obscene things at women who are simply taking their bodies out of their houses, and to touch, grab, and all too often, sexually assault women against their will. This happens.
Arguing against this, calling it “feminist propaganda,” or, worst of all, extolling it as your personal right because you have a penis that likes things makes you at best an idiot and at worst a violator of the human rights of the women around you.