I have a small problem.
It’s a truckload of men that bark at me while I’m on the street.
Now normally I wouldn’t consider this to be any big deal. I’ve had men shout at me while I’m walking around town frequently. They yell things like, “dumb fat bitch,” and “move it fatty,” you know, things like that. It’s a pretty common thing… it happens to women and particularly to fat women a lot.
But this has been the same group of guys, three times in about a week.
It’s starting to feel a little threatening.
The first time it happened I was out on Pickett Bridge. It’s near my work, and it’s a place where I can go on break to get out of the office, to look down at lovely Whatcom Creek, and to drown the worries of the day in the sound of rushing water and the meditative act of smoking cigarettes. It is, however, along a road, and this black pickup truck full of guys in their twenties rolled past, and they barked at me.
I don’t mean that they shouted, or made some kind of abrupt noise. I mean they barked at me, like dogs.
The second time was later that same day, and the third time was today.
I was walking home from work, and they honked as they drove past me. When they ended up stopped at a stop light and I caught up with them, they started up their barking again. It continued as I walked away from the road into a parking lot. At the time, I wanted to get out of the situation… now, looking back, I wish I had just videoed them on my phone, and taken down their plate numbers. I hope that next time I have the presence of mind to do just that. And if I do, I will file a report with the police.
I don’t know why they chose barking, specifically, but I’m willing to assume that it has something to do with my weight. There’s a certain kind of man that views a woman that doesn’t fit into their definition of “attractive” as an affront. Because that’s what women are for. We’re there to be pretty, to be thin, to be what men want. Men define our femininity, our beauty, and our sexuality. Because to them, our femininity, our beauty, and our sexuality are for men, not for women. Because we aren’t really people. We are objects. And if we don’t fit in to what they think beautiful and feminine is, then we are a broken object that does not serve its purpose.
Now, I don’t think of myself as skittish. I have never once been afraid to walk the streets of this town at any hour. It’s my town, it’s my home, and I have as much right to its space as men do. I’ve been held up at gunpoint twice in my short life. And this, regardless of the fact that there’s no explicit, verbal threat, is also threatening behavior.
The truth is, women kind of live under constant threat. I remember when I lived in Salem, Oregon, I worked about five blocks from my apartment, but I had five different routes to take home because I had a problem with men trying to follow me home from work… in vehicles and sometimes on foot. The vehicles were the easiest to deal with; you just sort of get away from the road. Walk through yards. Go where they can’t go. Walk around until you’re pretty sure they’re gone. At the time I was leaving work at six in the morning, so it was pretty easy to tell when someone was targeting you. There’s not a lot of traffic for them to hide in.
We are targets. We deal with behavior from strange men that is designed to make us feel less-than frequently. Even men with no intent to attack us, but just seem to want us to know that they could, at any moment.
It’s a way for them to reinforce a structure of power based on gender… a structure with men at the top, and women at the bottom. As long as we feel as though we are under threat, they know the structure is working. As long as we feel small, weak, and unempowered, it is easier for men to extract what they want from us… whether it’s compliance, service, attention, smiles, or sex.
These acts are threatening because they precede acts of violence. They don’t ALWAYS precede acts of violence, but they don’t have to in order to carry the threat of violence. The violence itself only needs to come into play a handful of times following this kind of street harassment for it to be an effective threat… because we cannot tell by your appearance whether you’re going to hurt us. We just know that women sometimes get hurt by men who behave this way.
And I want to make clear that I’m not contending that all men who engage in this kind of street harassment are going through this process consciously… but they are acting out a series of rituals that make up a specific culture of masculinity. And it’s a specific culture of masculinity that victimizes women. That threatens women. That hurts women.
Of course, what they really want is for women to react the way that I reacted today. To slink away, without standing up for ourselves. They want this behavior to be acceptable, and it will continue to be acceptable as long as women stay quiet about it, don’t react, and don’t report. It will also continue to be acceptable as long as men don’t talk about it, don’t speak out against it, and just stand on the sidelines shrugging and saying, “well, I don’t harass women on the street…” As long as the “boys will be boys” attitude persists, women will continue to exist under threat of violence.
And so, next time, I will stand up. I won’t shout, or threaten, or swear. I will quietly stand there and video them on my phone. I will write down their license plate number. I will file a report with the police. And I will make the video available online.
Because if we don’t highlight this kind of shitty behavior, it will never stop.