It's about to be spring, and though a winter chill lingers through much of the country, there's no doubt that warm weather is almost upon us. And with balmy days ahead, it's a good time to focus on street harassment –- a problem that always seems to get worse this time of year. Fittingly, this Sunday, March 20, marks the First Annual Anti-Street Harassment Day.
Harassers do, of course, work year round. Women in parkas get unwanted sexual come-ons on chilly northeastern streets in the dead of winter; there's no amount of concealment that can serve as a guaranteed protection from sexualized hounding. But at the same time, most of us recognize the harassment seems to get much worse when warm weather hits and women's fashions become more revealing.
The problem isn't warm weather. The problem isn't women wearing miniskirts or sleeveless tops; the problem isn't cleavage or exposed calves. The problem is our collective belief system about the impact that women's bodies have on heterosexual men. Men can't help but stare, we're told: particularly after a long winter, the longing to ogle a woman's semi-exposed legs, butt, or breasts is overwhelming. And if they stare too long, or whistle, or make crude remarks, they are only partly at fault. "She's looking for trouble, dressed like that", we hear. Or: "She knows the effect she's having. It's what she wants."
I see this on the community college campus where I teach. The first really hot days of the year come early here in inland Southern California. And year after year, it's the same thing. A young woman will arrive to class a few minutes late on a ninety-degree day; she'll show up in short shorts and a low-cut top. Perhaps she's wearing heels; perhaps she's wearing flip-flops. It doesn't matter: the reaction is instantaneous. Some of the guys will start staring, obviously undressing her with their eyes. At least two women will exchange stage whispers, and the words are always the same: "slut", "ho." "Who does she think she is?" "This is school, not a freaking night club." And on it goes.
As I tell my students, sometimes sisterhood is easier in winter.
It's a huge mistake to blame women's revealing clothing –- or women's bodies — for public sexual harassment. The problem is a tenacious and ugly myth about male sexuality, one that tells us that average men simply can't be expected to restrain their eyes, their words, or even their actions when faced with the reality of a woman's bare skin. Because of that belief in male weakness, we outsource their missing self-control to women. And so this myth pushes women to police each other, slut-shaming or mocking those girls who are showing "too much".
We won't stop the problem of street harassment by asking women to cover up. As long as we cling to the lie that it is women's bodies that are the problem, it doesn't matter whether women wear burqas or bikinis in public –- we'll hold them accountable for what men to say them regardless of how much skin they're showing. There's only one solution, and that's to start believing that all men (not just a few decent ones) have the power to control what they say and how they act.
Most men already know this, of course. Listen to what they say when they're called out on their behavior: "She was asking for it." Very rarely will a man say "I was so turned on by her sexy ass that I couldn't help whistling." Men know –- believe me, they know –- that their arousal isn't carte blanche to do as they please. By saying "she was asking for it", harassers shift responsibility away from themselves while avoiding an even more obvious lie about their own sexuality.
The truth is that street harassment isn't about sex. It's about power. It's about taking pleasure in degrading another human being. Most harassers know damn well that shouting sexual slurs is a lousy seduction strategy. But whether they harass alone or in groups, most men who openly stare, yell, whistle (or worse) aren't interested in getting laid, though they might happily jump at the chance if it were miraculously given. What they want is the thrilling reminder of their own masculine power –- a power they feel more permission to use when the weather is warm and women seem to be wearing fewer clothes.
"Real men", we tell ourselves, want sex. They want it all the time. As strong and tough as they might be on the outside, they can be driven crazy by their longing for a woman's body. They're supposed to want it more they see of a woman's skin. And so street harassment becomes a way of proving manhood through the public and obvious display of masculine lust, a horniness supposedly exacerbated by miniskirts and bare midriffs. Except that the clothes of spring and summer aren't really the cause. Only the excuse.
Obviously, lots of us get turned on by seeing attractive people wearing tight or semi-revealing outfits. That's as true for women as it is for men; in 2011, hardly anyone still buys the lie "that women aren't visual." But we still buy into two other myths, one about uncontrollable male sexual desire and the other that harassment has anything much to do with sex.
Until we let go of both of these myths, and until we stop blaming harassment on how women dress, our public spaces will never be safe.
Hugo Schwyzer blogs at HugoSchwyzer.net.
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