Earlier this week, a friend of mine --- a petite, lovely blonde --- was walking her dogs down her own street when a couple of construction workers took it upon themselves to reinforce negative stereotypes of their profession. What exactly was said is lost to the annals of time and translation, but it was sufficient that, when she got home and told her fiance, he was mad enough to go out there and open up a can of verbal whupass. This is a fellow opera singer who recently enjoyed a huge success playing the role of a rapist/murderer on death row, and put in some serious gym time getting cut in preparation for that role. Believe me when I say you wouldn't like to be on the receiving end of his righteous anger. Apparently he scared those two morons so badly that they left the job site, and hopefully they'll think twice about speaking disrespectfully to women minding their own business.
I was on my own yesterday when I went for smoothie at Starbuck's between Afro Belly Samba class and TRX Suspension. I am not a cute, petite young blonde. No makeup, hair in a messy ponytail covered with one of my famous hippie bandanas, sweat-soaked tank top over my shorts and sports bra --- not the vision of glamour. And yet a couple of guys riding past on their bikes saw fit to comment of the quality of my gluteus maximus.
As catcalls go, it was pretty tame, unoriginal, and, well, complimentary. I wasn't particularly offended by it, and in fact if a more unsettling incident hadn't just happened to my friend, I probably wouldn't have thought much of it. Hell, I might as well admit that I was a little flattered. My behind is generous but it's also shapely, thanks to all those squats and lunges and kickboxing. Thanks for noticing, anonymous guys on bikes.
But then, there's the conflict. Because it's inherently disrespectful to remark on a strange woman's body, especially in public. I can't help but differentiate between guys like these, who weren't rude or threatening, and in fact probably thought they were giving me a compliment. They didn't do it to hurt me or make me feel bad, so I can sort of give them a pass. My friend's construction workers are a different story --- they made her feel icky and unsafe in her own neighborhood.
It got me thinking.
I don't know a single woman who has never been sexually harassed and/or assaulted. The severity ranges from mild (catcalls, brushing up against you, obscene gestures, ass-grabbing) to severe (sexual bullying in professional environments, rape), but every woman I know has experienced it. I once saw it happen to my mother, with her three young kids standing right there. I've had my share of catcalls, unwelcome propositions, and even what I would call low-level sexual assault. (Once, an employer cornered me in a dark place and forced me up against the wall. He thought he was being playful and trying to steal a kiss; I thought I'd tell his wife, and told him so, which more or less put an end to it, but at the time I was pretty scared. Another time, there was a guy behind me on a crowded subway and ... well, let's just say, thank God I was wearing a raincoat). It doesn't matter how you're dressed, what you look like, how old you are ... some guy somewhere is going to feel justified in commenting on your body. Some guy somewhere is going to think it's just fine to use you like one of the ratty old porn rags he's got stashed beneath his mattress.
It's pervasive in our society, along with the general focus on the importance of how women look. Any public female figure, no matter what her accomplishments, is subjected to minute criticisms of her dress, hairstyle, figure, and looks. And if they are found lacking, she is severely criticized for it. It's as if whatever else she has accomplished in her life, she's failed in a fundamental way by not meeting the approval of the anonymous masses. If you're a woman, and you're not pretty, anything you do and say can be dismissed with scorn.
And if you *are* pretty, you are public property; even more so than the average woman. Your looks are sure to be judged, commented on both publicly and behind your back. You may even have a harder time being taken seriously, especially when you're young (witness my sister-in-law, a petite, slight, pretty young woman who could not get banks to take her seriously enough to lend her the money to start a business ... a business which is now thriving, with two locations and many employees). And when those looks start to go, as they inevitably must, there will be more comments. Because while older men can be distinguished, older women can only be "cougars".
There's certainly nothing wrong with being proud of your body, especially a body you work hard to make fit, healthy, and attractive; a body that is strong and able to do what you ask it to do. And there's nothing wrong with taking pleasure in compliments. I'm not going to jump down the throat of a guy who whistles at me, or tells me I have a nice ass ... it's all in the intention and delivery. At the same time, if this milder behavior is acceptable, where's the cutoff where it becomes unacceptable? And however harmless it may be as an individual incident, how much does it contribute to the overall culture that allows women to be objectified? That allows Draconian laws meant to control women's bodies and actions to continue to be proposed and passed --- not in countries where women are traditionally little more than the property of men, such as Iran and Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, but right here in our own country? In 2012, we find ourselves fighting the same battles our mothers have been fighting for centuries, for control and ownership of our own bodies. For equal pay for equal work. For the right to walk down our very own streets without being verbally abused (or worse) by strangers.
All those little things --- wolf whistles, commenting negatively on other women's bodies, not calling people on it when they do it in front of you --- they add up. They contribute to the culture that allows and even encourages abusive behavior. So, maybe I was wrong to let that "nice ass" comment slide. And my friend was right to tear those two lewd yahoos a new one --- although unfortunately, I doubt they took the lesson they needed from it.
What do you think?
*Edited to add this link to a very good and well-written article on street harassment. Julia Gazdag says it much better than I did. Also, be sure to watch the video at the end.