Friday, June 20, 2008

hot time (for harassment), summer in the city

Over at Amber's blog, in response to my statement:

I'm as sensitive to patriarchy as Amber, but I do not deny that I have (legitimate) safety concerns owing to my own diminutive size and relative lack of strength. While I would exercise as much care as possible and learn as many self-defense techniques as I can, it'd be a joke to presume that would be enough in a situation involving a much stronger aggressor, much less if that aggressor had a weapon.

Hei Lun Chan asks

This is a serious question, for you and other women in these comments: how often do you find yourself in a situation where you can potentially encounter a male aggressor? Are you talking about being in a bar and having men who won't take no for an answer? Meeting a mugger when walking down the street at night? Traveling in a foreign country? I'm genuinely curious.

To which Amber replied:

It is not that you encounter male aggressors regularly--more a general, constant sense of awareness. Is that homeless guy going to grab my arm as I walk by? If he did, could I pull away from him? (Probably not.) Will that group of teenage boys let me pass by on the sidewalk? Could I push past them if they didn't? (Again, no.)

I used to have to walk around late at night, alone, in an area where people got mugged fairly regularly. I didn't find that unduly alarming, but I did feel more safe taking that path with my 6'3" housemate than I did with someone smaller.

In foreign countries, having any male companion (slender or burly) will cut way down on the unwanted advances and comments, but I really only had problems with those in Egypt and Turkey. Traveling is also a bit more uncomfortable due to variations in norms for personal space. I find street hawkers leaning within 6-10 inches of me alarming, since a stranger getting that close, uninvited, in America would potentially be a threat. They tended to keep further back from coupled women, I noticed.

And I replied there as well, but I will continue the discussion here:

It is hot, and I am wearing summer dresses these days, and not an immodest dress. Of course, it doesn't matter what I wear, because I can wear a coat buttoned up to my neck and down to my knees and I still get harassed in creepily persistent ways that make me hope that the light changes or that suddenly a group of people will come out of some restaurant and surround me in a pack. But the onset of hot weather means that my bare arms and legs are getting me even more attention--and it's not my fault! Do I resign myself to wearing burqas? If it doesn't matter what I wear, except to increase the incidence of harassment when I wear clothes that bare any part of my anatomy, am I just asking for it?

I got harassed at least 4 times today, with some guys leaning in very close, and some guys traveling in a pack and harassing en masse. I was hoping that no one would follow me. Yes, through a slightly sketchy part of the city. It's unnerving. Most of these comments are of the relatively pedestrian, non-threatening come-on sort, and I haven't been subjected to the pervy guy in the subway rubbing up against me or exposing himself. But all the same, when it's some guy leaning into my personal space such that I can smell the alcohol on his breath, or four guys coming at me in the opposite direction, it's truly unnerving. I am starting to not want to hang out in the cool and lively, but slightly sketchier parts of the city, at least without an escort from the train station to the bar or restaurant. If this consigns me to hanging out in the 'burbs (where I live, it's not so bad when it's a college city) or the non-hip, teeming with tourists parts of the city, well sigh, I might have to give up on my favorite bakery in the city and the cool concerts with bands whose names befuddle me.

I've started taking cabs from the train station the one mile home at night, even though I live a decent neighborhood. I have to walk by at least 3 bars on the way home, and more than once a drunken guy has pestered me, leaning in close, not taking no for an answer. Nothing's happened yet (brisk walker; bars are not too far from restaurants where I can duck in), but it's unnerving. My usual defense is to blast music in my ears so that I don't hear anything and wear sunglasses so that they can't look me in the eye, but it's hard to not perceive the leer, especially when the guy leans right in front of my face to say something. And I hate thinking like I have to walk with an escort everywhere. Didn't my family flee an oppressive regime? But what else is there to do? Laura Beth Nielsen's book, License to Harass, the most common response by harassed women is to ignore the harassment--this is probably the safest bet, even though it sucks to just swallow the affront to dignity.

Nielsen's book wasn't just about individual responses to street harassment, but the legal consciousness about such harassment--what might the law do to address this? For example, how might the law address aggressive pan handling vs. sexual harassment? How do lay people balance such harassment against competing First Amendment norms?Nielsen posits that a socio-legal perspective is the only appropriate way to fully consider how racial, gender, and class hierarchies interact with and/or inform the “legal consciousness” (how people think about the law) and treatment of offensive public speech (OPS).

To do so, she spent over 120 hours observing interactions in public settings and conducted in-depth interviews with 100 respondents from San Francisco, Berkeley/Oakland, and Orinda to ensure greater representativeness with respect to race, class, and gender. Legal research was also conducted to compare “official” understandings of OPS with those presented by her interview subjects.

Nielsen states that “in protecting offensive public speech, the law protects a social practice that reinforces and actualizes hierarchies of race and gender.” (12) While she finds that a consensus believes that sexist or racist public comments are serious social problems and that OPS is offensive or morally wrong, simultaneously that most believe the law should not limit forms of speech. Reasons provided for why the law should not be used varied by race and gender. The First Amendment “freedom of speech” argument was generally associated with white males (112); women were more likely than others to say that “autonomy” – the ability to control being made the target, that OPS is a “personal battle” - was reason enough to prevent interference by the law (113), and blacks cited distrust of authority and the likelihood of having the law work against them (124-125). The impracticality of having the law prevent OPS was cited by both men and women of all races. Ironically, while most report that panhandling/begging is pervasive, nearly benign, and non-threatening (43), it is this form of OPS that results in the most formal methods of resistance (161-164).

Nielsen notes that “being in public” varies based on what group identity (gender, race) one is associated with. Women are most often the target of and/or have encountered sexist speech. (43) Consequently, they are more likely to internalize blame for the sexist speech and create a “detailed calculus” to avoid OPS, including becoming more attentive to body language, altering physical appearance or travel route, and assessing interactions and the associated perpetrators. (58) No blacks reported not having heard racial remarks at one point or another. (Table 3.4) They are less likely than women to change their behaviors to avoid racist OPS, and instead simply have to avoid making a situation worse. (65) Unlike women targeted based on gender, persons of color targeted for their race are likely to blame the instigator’s ignorance for the OPS. (74)

I am trying to resist Nielsen's findings, but without much success. Just because I wear a sleeveless dress doesn't mean that I blame myself for inviting harassment. Occasionally though, I'll think "it's the skirt." Then I remember the times when I was in a long puffy jacket, and I still got harassed. I try to walk only during busy times in the daylight, but that doesn't change the amount of harassment either. Yet the truth of the matter is that "taking back the night" doesn't mean walking alone at night, as if "fuck fear" is enough of a badass sentiment to make you safe from harassment or crime. And I'm not one of those foolish people that think that by being less safe, I'm preventing the other side (who?! the creeps) from "winning" by controlling my fear. Sometimes fear is legitimate, and it is not cowardly to have fear. It's cowardly to let it rule your life, but merely being sensitive to legitimate fears about which routes and times to travel does not equal agoraphobia. So yes, I do alter my routes and the times at which I do things, I only feel like a total loser on those occasions in which I don't even want to leave my house, if leaving in a pair of shorts or skirt is going to mean a bunch of guys leering at me. Fuck that shit. I'm leaving the house, but I'm going to be safe about it, and I'm going to put on a pair of sunglasses and my Ipod. Not that it's a coat of armor though. It helps a little though, to cope with the brave act of walking the mile to the train station. Sigh. This is America.

Sigh. You can have legal consciousness, feminist beliefs, and an alert awareness about your surroundings and safety, and still, no win situation. Some days, it's unbearably hot, and you second guess that summer dress or decide to stay indoors. No one wins, not that there's any prize.