Sunday, June 10, 2012

From Across the Street, A Stranger

A stranger calls out
from across the street
"nice tits" he yells
from across the street
lays his hands on me
from across the street
stakes his claim on my body
an object, my body
from across the street
a stranger

but my body is not an object
it's a home, a part of me
me, a self
me, a person
not an object, my body

"nice tits" he yells
from across the street
a stranger

A few weeks ago, I was leaving school with my sister and some of her friends. She was asking them if they knew someone who we'll call Jim. In the course of the conversation, I managed to find out the story behind the question. My sister was walking through the hallways and passed Jim, and he pointed at her and commented: "she has a really nice ass"

I saw red. Not because my sister is too young, or because I think she should never be seen as a sexual creature, but because this was a STRANGER seeing her as nothing more than her parts, seeing her body as an object. And thinking that objectifying her to her face is okay.

I tracked Jim down just minutes later. After confirming his identity and introducing myself, I told him his comment was inappropriate, rude and not acceptable. He apologized and said it was a joke. I said it wasn't funny, repeated it was unacceptable, and said he better not do it again. He said he was sorry, I said thanks and I walked away.

I don't know if I did the right thing, I just know it was something I had to do, for myself, for my sister, for women everywhere, because t
hat kind of comment from a stranger is a statement about public ownership of women's bodies and needs to be shut down. It's been more than a month since this incident. Nothing further has come of it, to my knowledge. I can only hope I maybe taught this one boy something, even if it is only to speak his objectifying words in private lest I find out.

As you have probably guessed, the poem with which I opened this post was born of my feelings during and after the above incident. I focused on this form of sexual harassment from total strangers, because that can be the hardest to deal with. A friend might make a similar comment as a joke - and you might be okay with it. If not, as your friend you can expect them to stop when you ask them to. And you probably don't have to worry that confronting them will lead to physical and/or sexual assault. With a stranger, too much is unknown.

Confession time: sexual harassment this overt has never happened to me. I've heard car honks or yells while I'm running, but most of the time I can't even be sure what was said or towards whom the noise was directed - and when I can, it has thus far always turned out to be a friend trying to say hi.

But even when I simply suspect that some guys whispering or laughing are talking about me, it's scary, demeaning and dehumanizing. Mostly I'm probably being paranoid, extrapolating onto innocent bystanders the actions of other men towards other women, so I don't say anything. Sometimes I half-wish they would be more clear, because if I knew it was about me, I would speak up if it was safe to do so.

But for some reason, I don't get shouted comments, whistles and aggressive "flirtation." (disclaimer: I discuss reasons here - that does not mean women who do received these unwanted attentions are responsible or should be blamed in any way) Part of it is likely my safe neighbourhood, and the fact that I don't go out at night much. But I sometimes wonder if I don't get these sorts of comments because of how I look and act. I don't wear typically feminine and "sexy" clothing, make-up or high heels. Plus, according to my best friend, I exude "non-receptive" vibes. It might also have something to do with the fact that I've been mistaken for a boy more than once in the last year alone.

So I'm curious. I know that every day countless women are harassed like this. I suspect that next year at university, I will join their number. How do you (or your friends or people you know) deal with this sort of uninvited attention?

I can see the transformative value of taking it as a compliment. Not seeing it as a compliment, because it's not, but choosing to focus on the "silver lining" of the situation (this is how my sister reacted).

I can see the cathartic value of confronting the guy. I think this is what I'm likely to do, assuming the situation is safe.

But I don't know. Which is why I'm asking you. What do you do?
One great option for responding.

People treat public harassment of women as a fact of life, but it's not. It's a facet of our society - a facet that needs to change. When half the people in the world are treated as objects, and their protests dismissed by those who will never face the harassment so common to so many women in supposedly "civilized and equal countries", something is wrong.

We all need to be brave enough to stand up and say, "no, this is not okay." More importantly, we need to acknowledge when others lay down their own limits. Maybe personally, you take a whistle on your way to work as a compliment. But many women hate it, and the man whistling has ZERO way of knowing whether you like it or not. This makes his behaviour completely unacceptable. I think almost everyone would be weirded out by strangers coming up to them and snapping pictures without asking - it's your body and they don't know you. Why, when it comes to verbal (and even physical) harassment of women, are the standards so different?

This is the kind of attitude that leads to rape. Seeing women as objects, as bodies that are objects, wanting the power and control over them, wanting the reaction. It starts young and unless we, as a society and as individuals, start telling people this is wrong, it will just keep happening. I made my first stand with Jim, and (safety dependent) I won't hesitate to do so again. Over and over again for the rest of my life, in the hopes that I will make some small difference for the next generation.

P.S. This is the first of my "creative work" posts that will hopefully go up every week in the second half of the week, after my traditional early in the week post about the same sort of random stuff. Check out the Posting Schedule for more details. It will be updated if and when things change.


  1. Ooo, I hope this is the 1st in many to come! Btw, I love the poem. (But I'm going to throw my 2 cents in and say you don't neeed the 2nd verse. The 1st verse stands on its own.) But, yeah, it's soo good. I love how you captures your emotions so perfectly. Top notch work.

    So, now I'm going to disagree with you on objectification of women. It's a phrase that gets thrown around, and I'm not sure it's often used correctly.

    As a society, let's be real, we judge EVERYONE on their appearance when we first meet them. That guy with the funky teeth? Ew. That good looking boy jogging? Yum. That guy with dreds who is starting to smell? Must be a hippie. Personally, I play up the cat calls with a witty retort, and I did get a kick from the boy who almost feel down the escaltor because he was staring. Still, how many job interview advice books do we read telling us to "dress for success?"

    When I was younger, I thought this was all stupid. No one should be judge by their looks no matter what - that being attractive or respectable. Then I had to employee someone I'd never met. All I had to judge him was his appearance, and you know what? I went with the clean cut person over the messier person because I didn't think the person who couldn't be bothered dressing up would respect the work enough to complete it.

    So, what I'm getting at is that I'm not sure Cat Calls are inherently objectifying people (And yes I say people because boys get cat calls not quite as much as women, but they still do). It's rude, sure, just as much as telling someone they smell is. But it's a vocalization of attraction that unless UNWANTEDLY REPEATED I don't consider hasrassment.

    Here's why: 1.) Vocalizing attraction, rude or not, is necessary for acknowledging potential partners. Everyone is a stranger at some point. It might not be the best way to look for a girlfriend, but it's still a way. 2.) I'm a big propent of women not being embrassed their feminity. That means I see nothing wrong with wearing skirts and heels or wanting to be desired. 3.) Saying "Brad Pitt has great thighs in 'Troy'" is pretty much the same thing.

    So what I'm getting at is I don't believe objectification is a necessairly result of physical impressions, but rather the belief that someone can never amount to more then her phsyical traits.

  2. Which brings me to an example of an overheard judgement on me while I was working at a grocery store one summer: "With a body like that, what is she doing working at a place like this." It was the strangest thing I'd ever heard. I never forgot it, but it took me years to understand the meaning.

    THAT comment was objectification. That woman never talked to me, instead, she based my worth and my ability to work on my appearance. She didn't know that I had a full scholarship to college for phsyics, or that I had ambitions to publish a novel one day, or that I was working to have money to pay for the leftovers of school scholarships don't cover. No, my ability to be working at a grocery store (and I do believe she meant it that I should be somewhere else) was based soley on my appearance.

    So, what I'm getting out is that I believe having someone tell you about your attractivness might be rude, I don't believe it's objectification of women. More than likely, if that boy got to speaking with your sister he wouldn't think of her as a nice ass, and possible he didn't just think of her as an ass, but rather a GIRL he found attractive enought to express his interest, someone he'd be interesteding in persuing. I do believe that juding the worth of a woman based soley on her appearance is objectification. But by saying an girl who chooses to dress attractively or accepts attention for her appearance or that even expressing attractivness is objectification of women isn't necessarily the case. Maybe we need to define the term objectification so that it can be understood that finding someone attractive or unattractive is not inately evil, but rather beliving someone's value lies solely in their appearance is.

    So, now that I've written an epic reply, I want to point out that I understand what you did completely, that your opinion is valid, that it took me 2 hours to write this response, two posts because it was too long, and I totally can't wait until your next post.

    1. First of all, thanks for the encouragement. It's always hard to tell if a poem is objectively any good (vs. just satisfying a need to let out emotion) without someone else seeing it. I see what you mean about the second verse. I think I was trying to show how although the speaker knew the shouted comments were wrong, she couldn't stop them from happening - her opinion didn't make any difference to the man.

      You make some very good points about objectification and appearance based judgments. I often get caught up in my own little world - a world where it once took me weeks to notice that my BEST FRIEND chopped off half her hair. No exaggeration. I just don't seem to notice people's looks (faces, hair, clothes, whatever) as much as your average person. I was at a party once and the host left the room for five minutes to change her shirt. Someone mentioned this afterwards, and they had to spend nearly ten minutes convincing me it was true. I could remember the conversation we'd had the whole time, but not the clothes.

      My point is, I think I forget how automatic such noticing and judging is to a lot of people, and how sensible/useful it can be, for example in situations like job interviews. Where I disagree is in saying what applies in a job interview applies in life. An interview is a defined event with forewarning and where you're forced to make a judgment on very little information. In life, we can take the time to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I think we should.

      In the end, I see stranger's comments about a woman's attractiveness and/or physical features through the lens of a social order where a woman's value has historically lay pretty much only in her beauty. To me, accepting these sorts of unasked for comments as normal feels like support for that value system. (and also makes it harder to object to repeated targeted harassment hidden as 'compliments').

      And now that I've written this epic (but not quite as epic as yours) reply, let me just say how much I enjoy being able to have this discussion with you, and that I hope I'm not being confrontational and/or rude. Also, your excitement for my next post is very heady and also slightly scary.