Street Harassment, Assault, & Why Women Are So “Nice”

Followers of the Thoughts on Liberty Facebook page may have already seen this video by the excellent Everyday Sexism Project we posted on Thursday, in which several women describe their encounters with harassment and assault in public spaces. Some of their accounts:

“I told him to stop… it just scared me so much, I didn’t want to trouble anyone about it, and I didn’t get up and I didn’t shout at him or anything, I was just…”

“I just thought… he was trying to get himself under control and,… this probably isn’t happening…”

Paralysis in an unusual and stressful situation isn’t out of the ordinary. A few weeks ago, Scientific American blogger Kate Clancy told her story about being repeatedly creeped on by a guy from her gym. She describes what went through her mind after the encounters with the guy:

“I feel like an idiot for doing nothing, then like an idiot for overthinking it. But it doesn’t feel harmless, and I feel the man’s unwelcome touch – the way he lingered on my skin – every time I think about it. I am sick with disappointment in myself and in this man.

Here’s the thing… I could be very careful and polite, and try to bring him in as an ally. I could explain why what he is doing is making me uncomfortable. And I could convert him. Or, he could become an enemy, and tell me I’m a bitch, and make my time at the gym hell.”

Now, you might forgive a teenager for not knowing how to deal with harassment, but Dr. Clancy has a PhD and does roller derby. She’s no naïve ingénue. How does a successful, assertive feminist become a deer in headlights when receiving unwanted contact from a skeezy guy? Even more interesting: why, after the fact, would she even consider trying to bring him to the light side of the force, assuming this grown-ass man was just mistaken, or had just never learned how to play nice with others?

To be clear, I’m not blaming victims for failing to adequately respond to assault or harassment. I understand the frustration of when the Fight or Flight response is overridden by the “Stand Silent and Motionless and Try Not to Cry” gambit. I’ve been there. Everybody has been there.

Sure, women are socialized to be collaborative, not cantankerous. That’s not up for debate. I understand the inclination against causing a big scene in public. It’s vulgar. I’m not that kind of woman. I want to be taken seriously, to be respected. I don’t want these bystanders to think I’m bitchy. I want to “win” this encounter through diplomacy, to make this person understand why his actions are creepy. I don’t want to be a “feminazi.” I don’t want to disrupt other people around me. Etc.

Ladies, here’s your wake-up call: There are two kinds of people who don’t agonize over what others will think about them: those in positions of power*, and those who pull their dicks out in front of women on the subway

Look, if you’re not in a car with Chris Brown or an end-of-civilization/zombie movie, you needn’t be afraid to shout “WHAT THE FUCK?” or “GET AWAY FROM ME” at the top of your lungs when somebody gropes or harasses you in public. Likewise, you shouldn’t worry about the social consequences of being rude to a strange man who makes you profoundly uncomfortable. You think he gives a single shit about how you feel?

Three years ago, NYU prof Clay Shirky pissed off the Internet with his “Rant About Women,” writing that behavioral differences between high-performing men and women tended to work out in men’s favor, notably men’s willingness to self-promote and risk public failure. His conclusion may be uncomfortable, but it’s the truth: “[T]he fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction.”

I’ll have more to say on this topic in Part 2.

*This means women, too. You think Marissa Meyer would cancel Yahoo’s remote-work policy if she cared that everybody would hate her for it?