Woolf, more on street harassment, and simple things

How Virginia Woolf did not age well (or, rather, she aged very rapidly) and yet she maintained this essential quality of light elegance, quiet composure. In contrast to her brilliant, racing mind? I feel somewhat obsessed with that photograph of her, from 1938, just three years before she died; her limpid expression, the angle of the camera, the light behind her.

In the grim state of affairs regarding women’s public safety, my conclusion is thus: You simply cannot trust men you do not know. This sounds dark and cynical, but I feel dark and cynical about the state of women’s freedom and the outrageous lack of respect for women as human beings. A close friend worked at the same hospital as Hannah Graham’s alleged murderer and rapist and said he was the nicest, gentlest guy; so did many of his friends. “So, now knowing all of this, and knowing how I found him to be such a trustworthy person,” my friend said, “how can you trust anyone?” We let the question fall and didn’t answer, because what could we say? Who can you trust? But “anyone,” to me, is the limiting factor. I’d answer that you just can’t trust unfamiliar men with your physical safety, ever. Because Lord knows a woman isn’t going to rape you and then throw your body in a stream.

We were talking about this case again with friends around a bonfire and the daily reality of street harassment came up. Except that the men around us — thinking, respectful, generous men — seemed somewhat shocked that this was a daily reality for us women. We women all agreed that we were always on alert, everywhere, even in daylight, even in familiar places. Stories about harassment that had happened just a few hours prior bubbled up. The men were silent. But none of it was unusual to the women. Constantly checking our surroundings, whether day or night, watching for suspicious characters, cringing when walking past a construction site: these are not behaviors that men commonly concern themselves with.

Someone said, “Well, they’re just yelling at you; they don’t have any real power over you.” But men who harass you on the street do, unfortunately, wield a form of power over you. Because they make you afraid. They make you feel unsafe. They make you frightened of your surroundings, mistrustful of society at large. They make you feel exposed and vulnerable. This is how a patriarchal society works.

I have to quote Rebecca Solnit again, because I feel like I just can’t get over this:

Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality.

— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Please, look me in the eye and tell me that we don’t need feminism. That women have enough rights already. Say it to my face.

We talked about ways to respond to street harassment and didn’t come up with any workable solutions. Responding, to me, is giving such a man what he wants (recognition that his words have affected you), even if that response is a middle finger (or a thumbs down, as someone cutely suggested). I’ve always chosen to ignore, to steel myself to wear an unfeeling mask. But I don’t know if that does anything to resolve this ongoing issue.

Every time something as horrific as Hannah Graham’s murder crops up in the news, every time a man shouts an obscenity at a woman in the street, the only refrain I can recall is you are not free, you are not free, you are not free…

As a corollary to this conversation about street harassment, my friend Tara made an interesting side note. “No one hollers at you when you have a bunch of babies strapped to you,” she said, with a wry smile. That interested me. I wonder if other mothers would report the same? Street harassment is negated if you are accompanied by small children?

A woman will also never experience catcalling if she is accompanied by a man. Presumably, that woman is owned by her male companion and she is therefore protected, as his property, from verbal abuse. So there’s that. (Which also enrages me in a different way. That even the basest men somehow respect this misogynistic code of behavior toward one another — if a man has “his” woman with him, “his” woman is therefore ineligible to receive harassment. But a woman daring to walk alone? Open season!)

Virginia Woolf, June 1926. (c) National Portrait Gallery. #virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf, June 1926. National Portrait Gallery.

This devolved rather quickly. I had intended to write about simple, pretty things.

Like how my rosemary has flourished in the front yard. Like the way Eden leans against my chair while I am reading and looks directly into my eyes with an unblinking, expectant stare. Like the fact that I am savoring Lila and reading it with worshipful patience. Like having lunch with Guion on the deck on a weekday, with the dogs sunbathing, with the leaves fluttering to the ground, with the yellow jacket persistently hovering over your raised spoon.

I don’t owe you a smile

Last summer, when my hair was very long. Source: Guion.

To get downtown, I have to walk over a bridge, adjacent to a lane of often busy traffic. As any woman who lives here will tell you, this bridge is an epicenter for cat calls, whistling, and shouted comments from male motorists. You get used to it. You start to expect it; you even develop an ability to predict which vehicles are most likely to contain men who will harass you.

On this particular day, traffic was stopped as I was crossing the bridge. I’m walking, trying not to make eye contact, when a man leans out of the window of a truck and says to me, “Heyyy, baby, give me a smile!” I don’t look at him and keep walking. Then, in my peripheral vision, I see him lean back out the window and he screams at me, “You stuck-up BITCH!”

It’s jarring to be called a “bitch” by anyone, much less by a man you don’t know, who feels justified calling you that because you won’t smile at his leering, pock-marked face after he demanded that you do. Even though nothing physically happened to me, I was upset by the incident for the rest of the day. I finally realized why I couldn’t get the encounter out of my head: This was the first time, in my young adult life, that I actively felt like an object.

We talk about “the objectification of women” all the time. It’s a phrase I’m very familiar with and I’ve sat in university classes about just that topic. But I never really thought it applied to me. Women in the media are objectified; models on billboards are objectified; actresses are objectified… but me? I’d never felt that way before.

Like any young woman in my general age bracket, I’m fairly acclimated to street harassment, but this is the first time that it made me feel angry, exposed, and even a little frightened. As I finished walking down the bridge, I grew increasingly self-conscious. I wanted to disappear. (And, alternately, slash that truck’s tires.) I had never expected to feel this way, but there it was, that feeling I’d only heard proclaimed from podiums or academic columns: I am a woman and I am therefore an object, free to be publicly evaluated, insulted, bossed around, and lewdly scrutinized.

I don’t really have an “action point” for this post. I don’t have any happy promises to wrap up the ending. Recounting the little incident still makes me feel furious. I take refuge in expressing anger (and sometimes bits of humor) about the culture of street harassment with other women, especially Stephanie, who has lots of stories in this dehumanizing department. But we don’t have any solutions. You get used to it, you adapt. You vaguely dream of a world in which your daughter might be able to exist as a human being, free to walk on a public street without being regarded as a sex toy, a manipulable body who owes mankind a smile. But that is often too hard to imagine.