Harassment morphs from validation to unwanted exchange
Opinion Column: Mangoes and Revolution
I remember being 12 years old the first time I noticed getting unwanted attention from men. I never had any particularly bad teen years, but I was at an awkward age. I still wanted to be a kid, play games and not worry about boys. My body, however, had different plans, and with my period came budding breasts. Then came the looks and the catcalls. Time was up, almost like a rite of passage into adulthood, I had to learn how to deal with whistles and random men grabbing my ass.
My coping mechanism was ignoring the comments and ogling. I became used to my heart pumping adrenaline and sinking into fight-or-flight mode. I still replay instances from when I was 13 or 14, and think of what I could have possibly done. It felt wrong to stay silent and look down — I stopped making eye contact with men.
Despite the feeling of not being safe and taking self-defense classes “just in case,” I remember having a conversation with one of my best friends at the time. We might have been 15 or 16 when we were actually talking about how on a certain level it felt good to get that kind of attention. Now, I look back and rationalize that in this society there is an obsession over our appearances, what we do with our bodies and who we do it with, and most importantly, what men think of us. It didn’t matter that I was a feminist and a revolutionary, some part of me felt good about being sexually harassed on the daily.
Somewhere along the way I said my first “f— you,” and started glaring back as icily as I possibly could. There is a world of a difference between someone genuinely telling you that they like something about you, and someone very purposefully demanding you do something for them or talking at you. I remember walking down George Street one day, somebody crossed paths with me, looked at me and said, “I like your earrings” — it didn’t feel like a threat at all. However, most of the time (no longer talking about George Street, that’s another conversation entirely) it’s men whispering “sexy baby,” “nice ass,” “Sweetheart, how are you?” “You look prettier when you smile” and hundreds of variations.
It was as if those words dripping with lustful greed were in some way going to sweep us off of our feet, and drive us to an erotic frenzy that would make us want to engage sexually with them right there and then.
Let’s be crystal clear on the fact that the men who behave in this way in no way mean to appeal sexually to women. This kind of behavior — from the ogling, to the comments, to the groping — manifests as small acts of personal terrorism every day, which serves to put human beings who do conform to the norm of cisgender men in their place. It serves the purpose of making the divide between genders very obvious, and expressing which is dominant. We then have to learn at a time when we still play with infantile toys that glares will feel powerful, but can put you in danger. Smiles will bargain safety, but make you feel sick to your core.
The man in my family whose hand got too close to my vagina. The man in my family whose hand landed on my breast. The man in the subway who joked about putting his hand on my leg. The man at my job who persisted in getting my number. The man who followed us until we sought refuge at the convenience store. The hook-ups who insisted for too much.
I was 17, on the subway in my home city of Madrid with my mom speaking English. A man on the opposite row of seats started gesturing for me to sit next to him, thinking I was foreign. The man next to him started doing the same, but toward my mom. Speaking Spanish, we crisply called them out on their piggery and they turned to insults, going to the extent of asserting we must be Nordic because we were so cold (with flawless sexist and racist logic).
This type of thing happens every day. It does not matter what you wear, where you are or the time of day. We learn to cope in different ways. We learn what is most effective in different scenarios, what allows us to feel a little bit more of ourselves. But sexual harassment remains a very obvious symptom of rape culture, and not just in other countries.
I feel incredibly self-conscious writing this, but I do not write to find validation or to make you sorry. As when I was in the subway that time with my mom, I do not write to make those who harass suddenly realize how wrong they are — they probably won’t. I write this because we all need to realize just how important it is to speak up, and to set examples so that those around us, particularly younger people, realize and understand that sexual harassment is never acceptable under any circumstances.
Becky Ratero is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in women's gender studies and history. Her column, "Mangoes and Revolution," runs monthly on Thursdays.