The other day, my friend Dina was talking about her experiences of being catcalled—street harassment is a more accurate term—while walking around the streets of New York.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard about the epidemic of street harassment. Many of my women friends have remarked about experiencing and dealing with this kind of harassment and how unsafe it makes them feel.
For Dina, one particular instance of harassment on the streets of New York was cemented in her memory. She was walking alone, during the day, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, when she heard a man taunt her, “Hey baby, you’re lookin’ good…”
“Don’t call me baby,” she responded.
He looked her up and down and said, “…fucking dyke.”
For the record, Dina is straight—not that it would have been okay if she weren’t.
This wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last time Dina faces street harassment. She has been
harassed in public places, and on a number of occasions, followed by men. Many studies
indicate that almost 100 percent of women will face some sort of street harassment at one point
in their lives.
Most men don’t even realize street harassment exists as a very real, serious problem. Yet,
many women see this kind of harassment as part of daily life. For the few men who are aware of
it, they assume the extent of street harassment is something akin to harmless, or at worst,
annoying flirting, which still problematic if that attention is unwelcome.
The reality of street harassment is far worse than what most men think or believe. In cities large
and small, women have to contend with comments that range from the mildly offensive to the
disgusting. Beyond being verbally harassed, many women are followed and some women are
even forced to deal with the same harasser on a daily basis. And for some women, this
“harmless” harassment leads to assault.
But I realized, as Dina was telling me her story, that I have never actually been witness to the
kind of street harassment my women friends tell me about. If a woman is walking down the
street with me, other men generally won’t engage in any kind of harassing behavior towards
her because street harassment, like all forms of harassment, is about attacking the vulnerable.
And despite what some readers of this column may think about my gender, I will never know
what it feels like for a woman to walk down the street alone. How am I to fully relate to the pain, fear, and humiliation of street harassment when I have never witnessed its full form and lack the the personal experience of being harassed on the street?
Street harassment is simply one issue that plagues women in their everyday life. They are constantly barraged with discriminatory obstacles that we don’t even see as obstacles.
My passion and main concern with respect to combating sexism has been about revealing
hidden forms of sexism; my fight lies in overturning the idea that women and girls are subject to
a certain biological destiny, and revealing what we think to be biological destiny as actually the
problematic ways in which we condition girls and women in our society. This conditioning
creates a lens through which women see the world and approach their life—a conditioning that
itself is discriminatory.
Women not only deal with discriminatory behavior on a daily basis, but they are also loaded with
the baggage of their social conditioning. We must recognize that, day in and day out, every hour, every minute, women face lives that we men will rarely see and never feel.
Women are constantly reminded that they are different from us. And while we will never fully understand or feel what it’s like to deal with these issues, we also don’t make any effort to ask, we don’t inquire about their struggles. When we do hear about realities like street harassment, we dismiss the situations as just the way things are. Sometimes, as so often happens with street harassment, we diminish the impact it has on women, “Boys will be boys.”
And therein lies the problem: if and when we think of sexism, it’s about class-action lawsuits,
wage fairness—the big issues. We don’t seem to pay attention to the minutiae of daily life and the discrimination that exists on an everyday level.
As men, we will never know what it’s like to get up in the morning with two kids and have the
pressure of getting them ready for school, while simultaneously finding and juggling time to get
primped and ready—instead of the morning routine adopted by most men, which calls for taking a five minute shower and throwing on a suit.
If a woman shows up to work without makeup, everyone assumes there to be a death in the family or that they’re sick. Without makeup, they look haggard and tired to us. A woman who doesn’t have on makeup for work is seen as unprofessional.
As men, we very rarely, if ever, know what it’s like to face unwelcome comments and jokes from
a co-worker and go through a process of deciding, like so many women do, if it’s “worth it” to
say or do anything.
We don’t know what it feels like to ask our friends if our arms look fat or to hear comments like
“just another ten pounds and you’ll be perfect.” We don’t know what it feels like, because we
don’t have to buy Spanx, we don’t have to conform, and we don’t have to combat unhealthy
body images coming at us from multiple directions.
We don’t know what it’s like to deal with the burden of birth control. We don’t try to understand
what it feels like to remember take a pill every day, to deal with the insurance and associated costs, to
confront yearly invasive exams, and to live with possible physical side effects. We don’t seem to
realize that birth control is not just an issue for women deal with; it’s an issue that we should also take responsibility for.
We don’t know what it’s like to have our intuition dismissed, especially when we sense danger
and feel unsafe. How would we know? We men are perceptive and women are just overreacting.
This is why the sexism we have to combat in this country is the kind we don’t even notice. It’s
the sexism that we wave off as, “That’s the way things are.” It’s the kind of sexism we haven’t
even started to address in our society at large. And because we refuse to dig deeper to learn
about the everyday struggles of women, we persist with behavior that simultaneously hurts
women and drives the issue of gender discrimination deeper into a hidden underworld.
My friend Mike gets very frustrated with my writing about women because he doesn’t see a need for it. He sees the way men and women relate to each other in the world as a competition, instead of as an opportunity for us to help and defend each other.
Just the other day, he asked me, “Why don’t you defend men?”
Without the support and care of women, without their consideration of our aspirations and how
we feel, we wouldn’t be who we are. Our daughters, wives, co-workers, mothers, sisters,
girlfriends, need to understand that a day in their life doesn’t have to be lived alone.
Having consciousness about the daily struggles of women is something that I am still learning
how to do. Like so many men, I have been conditioned by our society to think that women are here to support my needs, instead of learning that we are here to support each other.
Last weekend, I had an experience that reminded me to think about the struggles of women.
After leaving a dinner meeting, I walked to a bank of elevators that led to the parking structure
where my car was parked. When the elevator doors opened, I was greeted by a woman who
was headed to the same parking garage. Given the situation—it was late at night with no one
around—I told her, “I’ll take the next one.”
I’m not a saint. I still have so much to learn. But at that moment, I, as a man, made the conscious decision to calculate how riding elevator late at night with a strange man would make this woman feel. And by putting myself in her shoes (as much as I could), I adjusted my behavior accordingly.
This woman knew nothing about my intentions and nothing about me. Did I want her to spend
the next thirty seconds wondering what was going to happen to her at 11pm at night? Nope. I
wonder if she would have asked me to take the next elevator. I know she has probably been
conditioned to think, like so many women, that asking a man to take the next elevator would be
rude and presumptuous.
That night, I did what most women do for men on an everyday basis: I considered her
needs. I thought about how the situation would make her feel—not because I wanted to avoid a
reaction, but because I wanted to support her. It’s just not something men do as easily for
Hopefully, my decision was a respite for her.
But I know it was a brief one.
Because the next morning, she’ll have to start the process all over again: living in a country—
and a world—that may respect her on the surface, but finds a way, every minute, every hour, to
make her feel like she’s different from me.