The news is dominated by sexual assault, but what about the harassment that fuels rape culture?
By Ally Sabatina
With the news cycle being what it is—and that being one with a presidential superpredator at its epicenter—it seems every day brings a new not-so-subtle reminder of the United States’ prioritization of cis men. The very least I can do in all of this is write one piece on this day that shifts the focus for cis men to everyone else and rather than talk about the safety of their social positioning, I strive to highlight at least one element of the human experience that allows one to glean that their privileged social position, and their presumed safety, rests squarely on the assumption that no one else can be as safe—or as protected—as them.
So when we talk about the ways in which cis men get to swim through life seemingly unmarred by the bulk of their experiences, we have to talk about those they damage in the process. With a news cycle dominated by sexual assault and its resulting trauma, it pays to shift focus to the covert vehicles in which the patriarchy causes harm, including but not limited to targeted harassment, catcalling, gaslighting and their ilk. While I come from the camp that magnitude cannot prove prevalence, solidarity of shared experience is a powerful drug, so if nothing else, I asked a few friends of mine to document the instances in which they felt harassed and/or micro-aggressed outside of what they would usually discern as their trauma.
Over the course of a week, I asked my friends to text me every time they felt pestered or insulted by a man (which, if I’m being honest, is not far from a usual day in the group chat—just more conscious). Hannah*, a Communications Senior at Villanova University, remarked to me that there was nothing in her life that she would consider harassment or microaggression at this time. For much of Hannah’s life, she’s coped with the stigma and fear, that much of the time is held in tandem with femininity, by distancing herself from many notions of femininity. As a result, she finds herself an unlikely target for the cis man’s gaze, but in our discussion found that a lot of what would be considered microaggression and/or harassment by other members of our group was not the case for her. When asked why, she shared that she didn’t think she would be able to get through the day coping otherwise, which brings up the interesting point of … how much of the woman and femme’s survival mechanism is tied to her ability to keep her head down and additionally convince herself that nothing has happened?
Flipping the script a little bit, I approached another friend who felt that she had to roll her eyes every time a man spoke in her direction (and to that I added, Me Too) but further shed some light on the glaring issues in regard to power structures in academia when she told me the story of when she went to the Dean of her Psychology Department at her university. After having scheduled an appointment to meet with a man who is notorious for being difficult to meet, she was greeted by being told she was pretty and asked no questions about what brought her to his office. When she tried to shift the conversation back to how she wanted to switch majors, the dean responded by asking her if she “ever actually wanted a job” which to her felt like a call back to how pretty he found her to be. At no point did he reference any part of why she might be in his office, why she may be enrolled in university and only seemed concerned with the aesthetics he brought to the room and conditioned as she is, she smiled through it—only to get home and cry. An hour wasted to be told something she already knew to be true, but ultimately something that had no bearing on her ability to succeed.
During the week I asked my friends to mark their harassment experiences, Lauren* went out to dinner with some other friends. She texted me, “A waiter touched my boob twice the last time I went out to eat. The first time might have been an accident, but the second time 100% was not,” I texted her back my quintessential “omg [emoji displaying disdain]” and my other friend scoffed, “jesus” to which she responded, “But how do you call someone out on that? He slyly did it while taking my plate away … I scooched my chair away.” I hung my head and looked at my partner thinking (and hoping) that he was one of the good ones, but unsure how he’d behave had a similar thing happened to me in front of him.
Hearing my friends’ experiences sent me spiraling. As a two-time rape survivor and recent escapee of domestic violence, I find myself fearful and unprotected often—and I’m a white woman. The intersections of my identities push me further to the margins but it’s one thing to know something in the air isn’t right, to feel the fear dripping down my back in a cold sweat and to find myself slipping into the throes of my PTSD pathology, but it’s another thing when common discourse seeps into my brain to tell me, it’s not that bad, he just smiled at you. And in a partnership that has been built on the foundation of trauma information and mutual safety, I still wonder … how safe can I be especially when I can’t protect my friends?
After seeing a post on Facebook asking my acquaintances to contact me if they had any stories they wanted to share of their last week, I received an email from a woman I haven’t talked to in nearly a decade and unfortunately, she was able to provide a list:
- In a meeting was asked for examples of pioneers in Computing. I suggested Grace Hopper, was dismissed. Male colleague showed up late, suggested same person, suggestion taken on board.
- Same meeting, male colleague argued we shouldn’t have more than one room named after a woman as it would disadvantage our majority male students. I’m still struggling to understand that one…
- Student (18yr old male, I’m a female lecturer in my 30s) informed me that women think with their emotions, while men are logical. Ironically this was after he got incredibly stressed out and aggressive because he couldn’t grasp a programming construct I was describing.
- Female student always submits on time, work is of a high quality. Has a loud, arguably grating laugh while working on project. Male colleague rolls eyes and asks “why doesn’t she just bugger off to hairdressing?”
And once again, I found myself eye-rolling so hard I wondered if my elementary school teacher was right … maybe my eyes would get stuck in my head. I roll my eyes in exasperation, in a plea that someone somewhere does better, that someone speaks up for one of us so we don’t have to throw away the energy when we need to just to keep breathing. I roll my eyes wondering if I’ll ever leave the house without having to include all my close friends in location sharing.
SHOP WYV: HEALERS AND WITCHES OF COLOR
When we talk about harassment and microaggressions, it’s not to take away from the heinous nature of sex crimes but rather to shed light on how men dish out violent acts with total disregard to personal space, triggers and care only to be propped up by all those who subscribe to the patriarchy, even when the acts themselves are not explicitly violent. A nuanced discussion is vital to the takedown of the woes of women (and femmes and trans and gender nonconforming individuals) everywhere. Unless we are able to see how one feeds the other, the worst parts will always continue to exist.
*Names changed at request of the interviewee
Author Bio: Ally Sabatina is watching Barefoot Contessa rather than writing her author bios. In 2015, she replaced Xanax with cooking shows as a salve for panic in an unfair world. She knows the dogs on her block better than she knows her human neighbors. She works, freelances, lives and shares unsolicited opinions in Philly and on the internet.