Thursday, February 25, 2016
I debated a long time with myself about writing this post. I considered deleting it.
It may be that I am over-reacting to a commonplace event. It may be that I am feeling unusually vulnerable and emotional this week.
I have had this debate with my 18 year old son innumerable times. He critiques third wave feminism, saying they are overly politically correct, are always looking for a reason to take offense. He tells me that in America we don't have a rape culture. In America, a woman can get on a bus alone without having to worry about being gang raped. Women are empowered. We can dress as we like, go where we please, say what we want.
I always disagree. I know that in other cultures, women live in more oppressive regimes. Generally, we're a little safer. We have more freedoms. I cannot deny those points, but I still believe that we live in a rape culture.
Unless you're female, unless you've lived in our skin, I don't think a man can understand what I mean.
Sometimes, I forget myself. For the past seven years, I've lived in a suburban, rural setting where I've encountered minimal amounts of that feeling of objectification and powerlessness.
In part of my mind, I began to think I may have aged out of that feeling. That turning 40 gave me some sort of immunity, a sort of invisibility from that sort of unwanted attention.
Of course, I was completely wrong.
Yesterday I had to go down to New Orleans to renew my occupational license. That license grants me the legal right to sell my art in the New Orleans area. It helps grant me my livelihood so it was something I absolutely needed to do.
I haven't been down to New Orleans alone, in a non-art market environment, in fifteen years. I lived in New Orleans, visited New Orleans, love the city. Of course, every time I've been out and about there, I always had at least one of my four children in tow.
Yesterday, I was alone. I dressed in my everyday winter uniform of leggings, boots, long tank top, and slightly over-sized tee with a hoodie. Admittedly, I put on one of my favorite pairs of striped leggings and one of my favorite tees in a lovely shade of pine green. I put on mascara, blush, and lip stain, same as I do every time I leave the house. My hair is a brilliant shade of radioactive red, and I like it that way. I wouldn't characterize the look as particularly seductive. It's just who I am.
I drove down to the city, found a parking spot about six blocks away from City Hall, and started walking. The walk to the building was quiet. I only encountered a few people on the way, nothing too extraordinary. I man called, "Hello, Sunshine," to me from across the street. A few men told me good morning, nothing jarring occurred.
I got to the main entrance and paused for a moment, trying to figure out which door was the right one. Two men in uniforms walked up behind me and pointed at the proper door on the far right. They gestured me ahead of them which on the one hand seems polite and gentlemanly, but I was uncomfortably aware of where they were looking when I walked ahead of them, but again, not that unusual.
I was directed to the right office. I turned in my paperwork and, within fifteen minutes, had my brand new, beautifully crisp and unwrinkled occupational license. Huzzah. Mission accomplished.
I headed back out. I walked about two blocks down Perdido Street, encountering a few people, here and there, but the streets were mostly empty yesterday morning. I saw a man in uniform walking toward me. He was pleasant looking, thirtyish. He made eye contact and gave me a noncommittal smile. I responded with a similar smile. I've found that it never hurts to be friendly toward people in authority. When he got within two feet of me, he said, "How's it going, sexy?"
I dropped eye contact and hurried on, suddenly feeling somehow powerless, extremely vulnerable, and objectified.
If he had said, "How's it going?" followed by nothing, or even something more innocuous like sweetie, or ma'am, the entire encounter would have meant nothing. Instead, I came away from it shaken.
I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to remember where I had parked, taking at least two wrong turns. A man emerged from a building a block ahead of me and kept pausing to stare back at me. I was alone on the street. I felt a growing sense of unease and paranoia.
Why was he looking at me? Just how provocative was my outfit?
He turned into another building and I finally remembered how to get to my car.
All I wanted to do was get out of the city.
I lived in New Orleans for twenty years. I can't count the number of times I was harassed on the street by strange men. It never really use to bother me.
Maybe I lost my protective coating. In his head, maybe calling me sexy was meant as an innocuous compliment, but it colored my perception of every encounter I had yesterday. It reminded me that no female is immune.
Those looks, those comments, we don't like them. Wearing leggings and a hoodie on a cool winter day doesn't mean I'm inviting that kind of attention.
The fact that it happened and I felt the way I felt reinforces to me that we still have a rape culture.
I debated a while about writing this up and posting it. This sort of event happens to women of all ages every day.
The last time I posted about being sexually harassed on the street, a friend criticized me for not responding to the comments and ensuring that the offending man never did a thing like that again.
When it happened yesterday, I didn't respond. I just walked away as quickly as I could. Does that mean that he went on to call another woman sexy that afternoon? Possibly. Will he do it again today, and tomorrow? Quite possibly.
Should I have stopped and said something? Told him how he made me feel? I'm not that brave.
His uniform gives him instant authority and power. His gender bestows on him bigger size and more strength.
Maybe I am a coward. My silence ensures that he can and will do it again.
Every encounter I have like that one where I walk away feeling powerless and objectified reminds me that I am not brave, that I feel paralyzed when confronted with that sort of attention.
I didn't invite it. I walked down the street, alone.
Which is why I have to disagree with my 18 year old son who can walk down the street without being afraid of that kind of attention, that has never known what it is like to feel that powerless and that vulnerable, I think we have a rape culture.
Until I can walk down a public street without feeling that vulnerability and subsequent shame, I am going to consider this a rape culture.
I'm sorry, son, but for all your objective brilliance and logic, you are completely wrong.