Sometimes when I have a spare moment, I browse the Geek Feminism web site. Often, it doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know, but it almost always gives details that help to broaden my understanding. However, one issue caught me completely by surprise: the verbal and physical intimidation and abuse of women on the street.
My first reaction to evidence like a Google map of where one blogger had been harassed in San Francisco was disbelief. For the short period the map covered, it showed at least daily incidents, sometimes more.Catcalling, staring and sizing up, unwelcome innuendo and sexual invitations, being forced off the sidewalk and otherwise physically threatened — if you can imagine a petty piece of nastiness, it was described in the first hand accounts that I read, and I wanted to disbelieve it. Could such behavior really be so prevalent?
But the comments whenever someone blogs about this issue and the responses of various women I know rapidly convinced me that, if any hyperbole existed in the accounts, it was not enough to change the basic truth. The degree and frequency might vary from city to city, or from woman to woman depending on what they were prepared to endure, but such things really were a common part of many women’s lives.
Needless to say, I was shocked. But I was also left feeling naïve and wondering how I could have missed this basic fact.
So much, I thought for the powers of observation on which I pride myself. How could I have missed something so obvious?
Part of the reason, I suppose, is the widespread assumption during my teen years that such actions were disappearing as they were denounced by the second wave of feminism. They seemed then to be a remnant of a dying set of social norms. Cheering the change, I had unconsciously assumed what I wanted to be true – that no modern man would find this type of abuse acceptable behavior. I should have known better, considering how much the culture has changed since my teen years, but somehow I didn’t
Another reason for my ignorance may be that many of these actions apparently take place where no witnesses are about. The type of man who would accost a woman on the street would not want witnesses, especially another man, who might respond aggressively.
Of course, some men in groups also make life difficult to passing women, but I wouldn’t see that, either, because I rarely hang out in all-male groups, and wouldn’t linger in one that would find amusement in making women miserable and uncomfortable.
Or so I would like to think, anyway – a revelation of this kind leaves me wondering if I would know whether friends acted this way or not.
However, I suspect that the main reason I never imagined the extent of this behavior is that it is utterly removed from what I would consider proper behavior.
It’s not that I don’t notice attractive women. Like most men and women, I am well aware when I am in the vicinity of a good-looking person of the gender that I’m attracted to – it’s just that I consider it rude to impose my passing interest on them. I can easily imagine how little I would welcome such attention intruding upon me and my concerns, so I don’t inflict mine on others.
Instead, I observe and appreciate quietly, and without obvious or extraordinary efforts to do so. To do otherwise would be a form of rudeness, like stepping too far into someone’s personal space or touching them unnecessarily. To call out on the street, or to deliberately make someone uncomfortable just wouldn’t occur to me.
I suppose I am guilty of egocentricity – of assuming unconsciously that the way I ordered my daily life was the way that everybody did. Could I have failed to see this kind of abuse going on around me simply because I did not think to look for it? Worse – was there ever a time when I could have done something against the abuse, if only stood and glared, but didn’t because I didn’t notice what was going on? I can only hope not, but the possibility seems all too likely.
I’m left feeling appalled and humbled – and worrying what else is going on around me that my expectations and assumptions leave me oblivious about.