Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ending Violence on V-Day

For years now I've chosen to forgo Valentine's Day celebrations and instead honor V-Day events that take place around the country (though I'm not saying you cannot do both, I just happen to choose not to partake in the more traditional, commercialized celebration). In case you don't know about The Vagina Monologues and V-Day projects, it's a movement to end violence against women. Productions of The Vagina Monologues are staged around the country near Valentine's Day, and I just love attending them, getting a good laugh, being inspired, and helping to raise awareness about the system of violence against women and girls.

I've been thinking a lot this week about sexual harassment. For the sake of my job and the confidentiality of others, I'll just say that the other day at the place I teach, a pre-teen boy was sexually harassing one of the girls. The girl came to me in tears. When I went to the head teacher about it, she shrugged it off, almost as if to say, "Boys will be boys." It really got to me that she would be so obtuse about sexual harassment, the profound impact it can have especially on a 12 year old girl, and lenient about what was to me an obvious offense. Maybe this particular boy didn't know that what he was doing was harmful; it's easy for kids his age to just think of such an act as harmless flirting, and unless he's told otherwise he will likely not change his behavior.

This stirred me, obviously. Then today, while shopping at Target, I was victim to a little harassment of my own. I was looking for a new top to wear to a client interview on Monday. I had several items in my hand when I went up to the dressing rooms. There was an older man standing there, not in a Target uniform, just watching me approach.

"You gonna buy all that?" he asked.
"I dunno... maybe."
"Can I help you try them on?" Okay. Not cool. But my austere glance at the female dressing room attendant only brought additional frustration. Not only did she not respond to this man's obvious harassment of her customer, she just rolled her eyes and went about her business.
"Aren't you going to say something about that?" I asked her in a whisper. She literally shrugged it off.

As I walked past the man into the dressing room area, I heard him say to another woman, "Oh yeah, I bet you'd look real nice in that." I bit my tongue to avoid saying something to the effect of, "Bet you'd look real nice with a boot up your ass."

By the time I was finished trying on the clothes, the man was gone and so was the previous dressing room attendant. I'd chosen a dressing room close to the front so I could hear if she'd asked him to stop or leave, but I didn't hear such a conversation. Once again, I suspect this obvious example of sexual harassment was merely shrugged off.

What gets to me is this: in a few short days I witnessed two blatant examples of sexual harassment shrugged off by a female who could have done something about it. Those of us targeted by the harassment likely didn't feel as though it was our place to say something (or felt too vulnerable to do so), and the offender went on unchallenged.

Is this how we treat such offenders? Just let them be, excuse their actions with some sexist anecdote about how they can't help it, that it's in their nature to be creeps? It reminds me of a study we discussed in a college psychology class. Two actors, one male and one female, were placed in an alley near a busy pedestrian walkway. They pretended to quarrel, and then the man began to "beat" the woman. Almost 100 people passed before anyone said or did something. I can only imagine the rationalizations from the bystanders: "I didn't want to get involved." "It wasn't my place to say something." "I didn't know the situation; it was their private business." Concern for one's own safety is one thing, but in this particular study no one even thought to call the police on behalf of a woman who was obviously in danger. Another study concluded women should not yell "rape" if they are being assaulted because people are less likely to help. The study concluded yelling "fire" instead of "rape" is a more effective way to get someone's help.

Now granted an actual assault is far more serious than a 12 year old's antics or a creepy man's suggestive remarks, but where do we draw the line? Especially considering these "petty" actions make the man more likely to commit a more serious act of violence if the harassment is allowed to continue, there is no excuse to not speak up for someone being treated with such disrespect.

People often ask me why I continue to identify as a feminist. I get these comments about how "sexism is over" and "feminism isn't needed anymore," almost right in the face of a culture that so obviously teaches men that women are easy to control. It's in TV shows, commercials, print ads, and ingrained in a child's psyche from a very young age, sometimes reinforced by the dynamics on one's own family. Ads that display controversial images of women being controlled are met with some outrage, but usually end up boosting the advertised product even more.

On the day-to-day level, harassment and assault are good examples of proof that patriarchy is alive and well. They exist because men still think they can take advantage of a woman due to her vulnerabilities, and in putting her in a vulnerable situation, men prove to themselves that they are dominant. To be sure not all men behave this way (and yes, I am aware that men get assaulted by women, but that's hardly an epidemic and not nearly as exemplary of the power dynamics that continue to thrive), but given the "liberties" men are taught they can take with a woman's body from ads, from schoolyard banter, possibly from their fathers... well, you get it. And it wouldn't surprise me in the least to find that the man who made the comments at me was once the kind of kid who took physical liberties with his female classmates, called it "harmless flirting," and was never told that it's not okay. Let's be honest... unless he's a complete sociopath, no man would commit such a vile act against a woman without first rationalizing it or concocting some excuse that makes it okay.

On a public policy level, violence against women rears its ugly head every time a woman is denied access to her own rights, be it through restrictions on abortion or a court system that blames her for her own rape. Crisis pregnancy centers (though often run by female volunteers who, I have no doubt, likely think they're doing the right thing) are the result of a male-dominated movement that seeks to control women's bodies and turn us into incubators, or whatever whimsical tool they wish us to be. It doesn't matter that these groups claim to be anti-rape; the system that makes Christian evangelists control women through denial of reproductive health care is the same one that controls women through sexual abuse, beatings, and forced dependency.

My parents used to always send me those mass emails that tell women what to do if they are getting stalked, assaulted, mugged, etc. Though I could go for days on the feminist problems surrounding what basically teaches women that we should be afraid of the outside world, I'm not unrealistic. I appreciate the information, and I know that the people who pass it on to me do it because they care. I know Rape Aggression Defense courses have saved lives. But while we're being armed with tricks and tips to avoid such assaults, where are the mass emails and public campaigns that tell young men it's not okay to enact violence over women's bodies? You say it's too idealistic because "some people are just bad," but these ideas are not innate. They get it in their heads somewhere that it's okay to do this, whether it's lewd comments at a random woman or forced sex with a female acquaintance. All the defensive remedies in the world will not stop violence against women if the problem is not attacked at its core.

On this Valentine's Day, pledge yourself as a true advocate for women. If you truly love a woman, you will never hit her, repress her, control her, or otherwise impose yourself on her forcefully. It's a question of women's right to live free of violence and fear.

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