Trivializing harassment

Sharing stories of sexual harassment makes everybody very uncomfortable. This is true for all kinds of abuse, but it’s especially so for sexual harassment. We have a history of treating victims of sexual abuse as dirty themselves, and humans have been known to shy away from discussing sexual abuse for that reason; it makes everybody feel dirty by association. This is incredibly sad and unfair, to say the least, and for the sake of our collective mental and physical well-being, we must overcome that obstacle.

As an owner of a body in a major city, I experience street harassment often. That includes cat calling, vulgar comments, whistling, attempts of toucherism, or frotteurism, and sometimes having someone follow me for a significant distance while exhibiting that behavior. I should say right off the bat tha there are many street harassment denialists out there, and this post isn’t for them.

Stop Street Harassment, commissioned a 2000-person US national survey.
The results aren't pretty. 

On a relatively recent event, I was walking on a major street in Athens, when a person started walking right next to me, trapping me between him and the buildings. I sped up automatically, and so did he to keep up and he asked if he could ask a question. I ignored him, but he asked anyway, if I’m doing sports, because I have nice body. I told him to go away and opened up my pace even more. He dropped back, but kept following me, mumbling away a stream of vulgar profanities. And so the puppy followed me for about fifteen minutes, until I reached my destination, a Starbucks.

I waited in line and ordered; all the while he was standing outside the glass doors, waiting for me to leave, but I was actually intending to sit there, anyway. He lost eye contact while I was getting my beverage, and, last I saw him, he was outside the other entrance, squinting against the sunlight and trying to find me. When I left couple of hours later, he was gone, probably having found his next target to harass.

I’m way past the point where I get surprised or upset by such incidents. I’ve been in public long enough that I have a lot worse stories to share from my and friends' experience. There is a discussion to be had about why street harassment is important, why people have the right to feel safe in public. If “civilization” means anything, it is that people should not have to be afraid for their mental and physical integrity all the time. You know, that’s what jungles are for. There is a lot of pointless obstructionism in accepting those simple facts, but, again, this is not what this post is for.

I happened to had shared that incident with some internet friends and after some time I happened to meet one of them in person. During the interaction, which was not a pleasant one for various reasons, that event was mentioned. We were discussing my habit of going to Starbucks; I explained that I relax very much there, and he said “Unless someone has followed you there”. I responded “Yeah, don’t remind me of that, it was a nightmare”. And he came back with something like “Well, the boy saw something pretty, don’t blame him for wanting it”. Taken aback, I just corrected the fact “He was no boy, more like in his late fifties”, to which he replied “So, that’s why you minded, because he was old, otherwise you would have liked it!”


I believe this person was just trying to be funny. Some people will agree with me that he failed (and exposed some deeply held stereotypical ideas in the process) while others will argue I can’t take a joke. However, that’s not the point of this post, either.

And, no, street harassment has little to do
with the amount of skin exposed
and the "provocativeness" of the outfit.
It's an act of power, control, and superiority.
As I said earlier, we generally have trouble dealing with harassment as a society. Many otherwise decent people, in their ignorance and awkwardness, can say the worst, most unempathetic comments imaginable. Two very common hurtful reactions are a) blaming the victim (It's your fault you failed to protect yourself, so don't expect us to have sympathy) and b) downplaying the significance of their experience (So, somebody grabbed your behind on the bus, big deal).

They are both quite disgusting tactics and, unfortunately, all too common. My "friend" trivialized my experience by asking me to "forgive" the harasser, because he was just a guy and I am a decent looking young female, so, of course, he can't control himself and has to harass me. You really can't get more stereotypical than that.

But there's also something else I've been thinking. I’ve spent some time trying to think the last time somebody got mugged and somebody joked “Oh come on; admit it, deep down you wanted to get mugged!” Maybe I have selective memory, but I don’t remember any such occasion. How about somebody getting beaten up for no reason by a gang? Does anybody joke “I’m sure you enjoyed it a little bit”?

I can’t think of another occasion where a person has been “attacked” in some way, reports it was against their will, reports it made them feel uncomfortable and unsafe… and it’s common for other people to casually assert that they must have liked it on some level. And yet this is so very common when it comes to sexual harassment.

That is also true, actually even more so, when it comes to men. If society has been for a long time resistant in accepting sexual harassment toward women, it’s even less open to the claims of sexual harassment that are made by men. They’re men. They always want sex. It’s only women who put the brakes on men’s lust. Men would literally put their organ anywhere. They could and would have sex with any female (remember, this is the stereotype of a cis,straight legacy). It logically follows, that it is literally impossible for a male to be sexually abused.

This view, casually sponsored by my male "friend", is not only disgusting and insulting, practically toward the whole of humanity, but it’s also simply dead wrong. Women want and enjoy sex just as much as men do, and men can very much not want to have sex on any occasion, for pretty much all the same reasons women can. This is not up to debate. It’s a biological fact.

So, there it is again; people being incapable of not enjoying a sexual interaction. If they report they didn’t enjoy it, or it was against their will, they will simply be brushed aside. “Of course you wanted it, dude. You’re a dude. Stop with the whining”. Or, in my case, if it was a "young" guy (therefore, automatically more attracting to me, according to my "friend"), I would enjoy being followed, stalked, and having vulgar comments thrown at me from a total stranger.

And so my question is…

And what is it about sexual harassment that makes so many people think the victim likes it?

I’m sure that the answer, whatever it is, will have a lot to do with a legacy of thousands of year’s worth of sexual oppression and ridiculous social beliefs, ideals, and taboos about sexuality. Well, not just about sexuality; also about how not to be a rude, unempathetic person.

So, here’s my little general piece of advice. When something hurtful happens to someone, you show sympathy and empathy, and tell them you’re sorry it happened to them. And just leave it at that. Assume the other person will not appreciate you trivializing their negative experience, unless you know them well enough to know they will.

And if you want to make jokes, make them at the expense of the perpetrators:

tea consent from Blue Seat Studios on Vimeo.

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