So like many people who are putting thoughts out there in the vast internets I read a number of different blogs and news sites, and it seems in recent weeks there is a growing trend of pieces discussing street harassment.
Street harassment, that time honored tradition of yelling at people (majority women) who are simply walking down the street or going about their business, has been coming under fire, most notably from Project Hollaback. Take a look for a brief primer on street harassment (link to video with animation) and how it is viewed by men and women.
Community mental health centers usually operate in the most dangerous parts of the city, where there is (usually) the most need. Those streets where people without homes gather, where shelters are, where churches pass out sandwiches at 11am and pharmacies give away drugs with vouchers, these are the areas where CMH is king.
My colleagues and I walk to my office from a gated parking lot. We walk past a homeless shelter and the alley between the shelter and our building. Each day when leaving the car, there is a moment I take to brace myself for the walk. Head up, eye contact, shoulders back. Do not engage, just nod and say good morning. Because each day there are men (and women) who will try to engage or at least make comments.
The woman in the office next to mine told me she feels fearful each time she leaves her car and when she leaves the office at 5pm. She states she feels harassed and every day has someone say something to her, usually focused on her body.
I have the same experience, but feel little fear. I’m not sure if it’s because I started my career in mental health at a residential facility full of male parolees/probationers, who rake each female employee over with their eyes any chance they get. It was a write up there; usually if one is a counselor, one’s own clients would stick up for their own counselor (“don’t look at her that way, don’t say that, that’s my counselor) and the counselor would take a moment to explain to whoever was doing the looking that it was inappropriate.
This sort of ogling was so entrenched at that center that being on the street where the worst I’ve heard is “you look so pretty today” is really no big deal. But I also found myself thinking in a bit of a twisted way…I felt jealous of my colleague.
Let me be clear – street harassment sucks. It reduces women to their bodies only. It’s totally dehumanizing. And it’s unsolicited; I doubt most women are getting dressed up to get leered at and hassled on the street. Comments are not needed for validation, especially not from strangers.
Oddly enough, however, it is a sort of confirmation, an affirmation that one is desirable enough to elicit these comments. I often talk with my mother about older women and their invisibility in our society (more on that here) but women who don’t fit normal standards are often invisible too.
Body type, race, age. When we get harassed on the street, does that make you feel just a little bit different? Like you’ve still got to deal with all the bullshit other women do? Does it unite us in anger and hatred and a thirst for justice? And how does it make those women who do not get harassed feel?
Confession: I never worried about being raped in high school or college because I wasn’t thin (and at that point did not consider myself even remotely attractive). This, of course, did not stop my experiences with sexual assault, and its been shown over and over that appearance has little to do with rape. And yet, my attitude was so warped, so distorted, and I wonder if I still have a little bit of that. When I get yelled at and feel a little validated and a lot irritated, is that validation a remnant of my attitude?