Recently, I had a conversation with someone about the frustration of getting catcalled, the impending fear of being approached, unwanted touch on the metro, hisses, winks, whistles, grins.
“Sure,” she told me, it had happened to her as well. “But that’s life; it is out of our control.” Generations of women have faced the discomfort of the unsolicited male gaze. They took it in stride, faced it head on, respectfully submitted to these forms of provocation in complacent reticence.
“It isn’t worth complaining about,” she held. And truthfully, keeping silent does feel like the safest response in many of these scenarios.
Some, having experienced similar slights, have taken to walking with a buddy at night, avoiding dark streets, as well as ignoring shady “compliments,” whistles, hoots, or proposals. It is unspoken protocol that we remain silent about these inconveniences, perhaps in the name of bravely embracing womanhood for both its highs and lows.
“But,” the woman said to me, “nowadays your generation is so sensitive. It’s like every wrong touch is labeled sexual assault.” She explained to me that for her, harassment had a far more physically violent connotation than having your ass grabbed on the bus or being hollered at. “And besides, it is what it is.”
It may be true there is nothing we can immediately change about our day to day safety concerns. But what those who tell us that “boys will be boys” fail to realize about this gender essentialism is that we reinforce their behavior with such a permission-granting platitude.
Much of the harassment that women face and ultimately many instances of sexual assault derive from the belief that men are entitled to our bodies, that women are inherently lesser. How else could one justify inflicting unwanted physical actions upon another human being, if not that those beings are considered simply inhuman, inferior, or less worthy of respect? Alternatively, some hold claim to the astute capability of predicting how much women truly wanted the attention, (verbal confirmation implied, obviously). Why else would she wear that outfit if not for my admiration?
This thinking needs to change. We must no longer propagate approval or confirmation of gender inequality through such aphorisms. While it is unrealistic to assume that in but a few small steps this systemic issue can be resolved, to acknowledge the inequality we face and to recognize it as injustice is not a demonstration of spineless young women looking to be soothed for mild instances of discomfort. It is progress towards helping to deconstruct the invisible forms of sexism that many of us experience each day.
I once believed that it was my duty as a woman in this world to silently endure the dark whims of those who catcall or touch without permission. I believed that I should be flattered to receive this attention, ignore the feeling of violation, sigh and move on. This is normalization of male intimidation. No one should have to experience any unwanted physical contact, or attention. Nor should they feel unsafe in their daily commute, especially not on account of their gender.
We must be vocal about the necessity for consent. And meanwhile as we navigate social transformation in the fight for equality, the term harassment allows us to name it what it is: unacceptable.