Feminism | Posted by Laura D on 12/17/2010
Survival of the Fittest
Survival may seem like a drastic way to describe the experience of living in a modern Western society, however sexist it is. I have the privilege of geography to thank for the fact that I don’t face an arranged marriage or a ban on education as many other women do. However this shouldn’t stop us from talking about and acting on the challenges we still face. “Survival” may not seem like such an extreme word when we consider the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the US is murder. Anyone in doubt that an ability to negotiate sexism is a sadly vital skill need only look to one recurring symbol of patriarchal power: street harassment.
It’s an assertion of power, a threat described as flattery, a small reminder of the power men hold over women: to intimidate, hurt, rape, murder. And it might seem like such a small thing – shouts, stares or a leering comment. Some of my friends even take it as a compliment, in the same pretzel logic that cites Katies Perry and Price as feminist role models. But lately I’ve lost patience. It’s no compliment to be objectified, especially when the underlying threat of an assault is everpresent. Emily May (of Hollaback NYC), one of the leading figures in the anti-harassment movement, places it “on the same spectrum of violence against women…[as] domestic violence or sexual assault” (clearly my body is considered public property enough to illicit comments; how do I know how far that attitude will be taken?) It’s gotten to the point where if I approach a group of men as a lone female, I’m suddenly aware of my breasts and thighs: liabilities rather than assets. I’m reminded of the dominance of the male gaze and its power to reduce you to your appearance.
While harassment is sexualising, ultimately it’s got far more to do with power than sex. After all while the driver who just honked at you isn’t expecting a dinner date, it’s the work of a second to make himself feel good by reinforcing the age-old power structures that mean bikini-clad models are used to sell everything from magazines to cars. It’s an easy way to degrade a woman – by treating her purely sexually instead of, for example, someone with a successful career who could be considered a threat to patriarchal complacency.
In short, casual street harassment, while it may seem minor, is representative of ingrained male power; yet another example of female sexuality being used to degrade and punish. Of course, I’m not arguing that disempowering women is a conscious motivation behind the typical catcall – really, I’m sure not that much thought goes into it – but you can trace the value placed on female autonomy when such harassment is a common, almost accepted part of society. In fact, its sheer ordinariness is what makes it so important to fight against. While so many have to negotiate this intimidation daily, I for one cannot believe in postfeminism.
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