One Saturday during my junior year in college, I was walking down our town's sleepy main street, running errands, when I noticed that I was being followed by three men in a sports car. The two who weren't driving were shouting at me through the open windows. I hummed to myself to tune out what they were saying, and sped up my pace, but of course since they were in a car they had the advantage and they kept pace with me.
Finally, I approached a bookstore where I was well known. I thought I would duck in and hang out with the staff until the men gave up and left. As I neared the entrance, the car stopped and one of the men jumped out and ran up to me. Feeling safer because of the proximity of the friendly store, I turned on him. "What?!" I demanded.
He threw up his hands. "Whoa, my buddies and I just wanted to say how much we enjoyed your performance last night."
Oh, right. I was playing Mary Warren in The Crucible. They were just being nice, and I had reacted with paranoid anger. I felt like an idiot.
But there was a context. Nearly every time I left campus, somebody yelled something at me. And usually it wasn't benign, even if the caller might claim it was. There were comments on my anatomy, on my projected hotness in bed, on activities it would be fun to do with, or to, me. It was unrelenting.
I didn't look like a supermodel or a movie star. I generally dressed in worn, baggy, paint-stained jeans and t-shirts, since I also worked on the sets of plays. Offstage, I seldom wore makeup and often didn't remember to comb my hair. I tended to be preoccupied with my studies or with personal issues, and didn't project an aura of openness to interaction with strangers. Yet this kept happening, to my friends and to me. And it wasn't just annoying; it was scary. Most of the time the harassment was "just" verbal, but if a guy felt we were disrespecting him, and especially if he had been drinking, things could escalate. I was never hit, punched or raped as a result of one of these encounters, but I had a number of near misses, and I had friends who weren't so lucky.
Over the years, especially after I moved back to New York, I perfected a mean and angry look that discouraged the more fainthearted hecklers, but there were always some who persisted, and who became angry and sometimes threatening when I indicated that I would prefer to read my book than flirt, or that I would rather sit alone at the bar while I waited for my friend. There were always situations that I had to leave, or that were spoiled by unwanted attention.
It didn't surprise me to learn that the young woman in this video has received rape and death threats. This isn't about harmless flirting; it is about power and domination, and there are some people who don't take kindly to women pushing back.
The brilliant Jessica Williams of The Daily Show offers a funnier, but still chilling take on the same topic. (The video links to the entire segment; if you have time I strongly recommend watching it.)
When I interned at a hospital, the all-male senior staff used to gripe regularly about new EEOC regulations. Their attitude was that over-regulation was spoiling the natural give-and-take and camaraderie that built community in an often intense clinical setting. "You can't even tell a woman she looks nice in her new dress anymore," one gentleman used to lament.
The women had a different take. Like the men who only wanted to compliment me on my acting, many of the men we worked with had kindly intentions, and would have stopped at admiring our haircuts or new glasses. It would have been nice for all of us to work in that sort of atmosphere, one in which we could, in turn, feel free to admire our male colleagues' sweaters and vacation tans.
That wasn't the atmosphere we had, though. There were too many men who would start with a mild compliment and then work up to innuendo or physical contact, and who would get angry if the target objected. Often these men had power over us professionally. It was well worth sacrificing potentially pleasant interactions in favor of safer ones.
In other words, it wasn't, and isn't, women's hypersensitivity or "political correctness" that make it hard for nice men to innocently say nice things to women. It is the entitled, aggressive men who wear women down and spoil things for everyone.
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