Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Not Ok.

So I was walking down Prospect Park West, with a yoga mat under one arm and a tote bag slung over the other, on my way to the pull-up bars by Harmony Playground, when I noticed a group of young men hanging out just outside the entrance to the park that led down to the playground. Immediately my stomach dropped. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt they weren't just going to let me walk by. I held their gaze as I approached, attempting to demand respect, but it happened as it happens every time. I got within a certain distance, and because staring is rude, I dropped my gaze to the path in front of me.

"Ooh, pleeeeaaase teach me some yoga!"

They had to say shit. They had to reduce me to a sexual toy too selfish to let them play with it. An object they were entitled to gawk at, if not violate physically.

And, you know, it was all my fault of course. What was I thinking? Walking on a public sidewalk on a sunny day (around 1:00 in the afternoon) holding a yoga mat? In leggings no less?? I always think that this time I'll say something back. Something like,

"That's called street harrassment, and it's not ok."

or,

"That's not a compliment. It is intimidation. Please stop."

But I didn't. I rolled my eyes, and comforted myself with the lie that they weren't worth educating, which really only further reduced me to their level.

How insanely frustrating is this? That I can't go to a public park in the middle of the afternoon to make use of the public fitness equipment, without being accosted? Without being made to feel that I shouldn't be there, or that if I'm going to insist on being there, there's a price to pay in human dignity?

I got to the fitness area, grateful it was far enough down the way that they couldn't still see me, and went through my warm-up, equal parts seething, and deflated. Before long I was joined by a few other people, all guys, there for their own separate workout routines, probably not carrying baggage about their right to use this space.

They were all really nice. We didn't really chat, but they put the milk crate back under the high bar when they were done, so I could use it to reach for my toe-to-bar's. I couldn't help but wonder if that wasn't another very different symptom of the same problem: there were four tall men using the high bar, and one short woman. I was the only one who needed the milk crate, so why did every guy move the crate, use the bar, and then put the crate back? I could move it by myself quite easily. Maybe I should have taken the initiative to move it out of the way when I was done with my reps.

Sometimes women say shit to men, too, right? That argument's been thrown at me. Maybe if they're really drunk...but in general, no, not really. And if they do, guess what? The men feel that it's a compliment. They don't perceive the undercurrent of threat, because coming from a woman to a man, it's not there. From a man to a woman, "I want to have sex with you" may be what's said out loud, in various vulgar ways, but both parties know the rest of that statement: "If there weren't witnesses, maybe I would. You couldn't stop me."

One of the men working out offered me a tip for my pull-ups, in a way that didn't make me feel uncomfortable at all. He called me 'young lady', not 'hey mama', or 'sexy', for starters. He addressed me as an equal, there for the same reason he was, belonging there just as much as he did. Is that really so much to ask? Kindness and respect instead of implicit threats?

So, the point is not that 'all men are pigs' because they're not. The point is that, I'm never going to look strong or tough enough to keep from getting street harassed, because whether they know it consciously or not, men know how our society works. They know they can harass me with impunity, that I can't do anything, and probably won't even try. On some level, they consider it a right, to stare at and make comments to women, to make them feel less than respected, less than human. And that is what you call male privilege. I am disadvantaged because I can't walk into the damn park without being harassed, and men are over-advantaged because they can harass other human beings without consequences. It's not segregation, it's not being forbidden the right to choose to be the legal family of the person that I love, but it's discrimination nonetheless, and the subtlety of it only makes it more insidious.

I know many caring, compassionate human beings of both genders and various sexual orientations who would never have the gall to intimidate someone on the street by suggesting sexual attraction or activity to her. It's not enough. We're all going to have to decide that that behavior is not ok, and we're no longer going to contribute to a climate that makes it seem natural by ignoring it when it happens, or claiming that it's just someone's opinion, or that it's harmless, or that men are pigs, or that boys will be boys.

Shall we?

"I've had enough. I'm not a freak. I'll just keep fighting to stay cool on the streets..."

Live Omily,
~em

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