Blog Editor’s Note:
Catcalls, unwanted touching, verbal harassment, bosses commenting on your body—sexually aggressive behavior and assault are so familiar to women that some of us are just beginning to talk about our experiences. Men, too, have their own stories to share.
In this guest post, Eileen O’Connor offers an insightful piece about the frequency of sexual harassment and assault in our culture. O’Connor doesn’t shy away from exploring her own past as both a victim of assault and perpetrator of microagression. Her ideas of how we can be complicit in preserving the status quo–by not listening to other’s stories, by laughing off our own experiences, and by staying passive in the midst of our sexist culture–are an important contribution to the conversation around this crucial issue.
Please note: We are seeking more voices on the topic of gender inequality—assault, harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and more. Join the conversation and submit to the SolLit Blog! Read our guidelines here.
Amy Grier, Blog Editor
The Right Tweet at the Right Time
“Old man on city bus grabs my ‘pussy’ and smiles at me, I’m 12.”
Canadian author Kelly Oxford’s tweet from the evening of October 7 was brave. Her call to women, “tweet me your first assaults,” was significant. It was the right tweet at the right time. By the next evening, Oxford was receiving up to fifty responses per minute. Millions of stories have since been shared at #notokay, and many of these tweets represent the first time someone has shared her story. Many note that, like me, they kept quiet for so long because of shame. It took me fourteen years.
I was sexually assaulted at age 24. If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said that was the only time something like that had happened to me. Yet something struck me about Oxford’s language: her request for stories of first assaults assumes that many women are victims more than once. Oxford was not off here: being sexually assaulted once means a woman is thirty-five times more likely than others to be assaulted again. This statistic is about rape in particular, but as I read through the responses to Oxford’s tweet, the variety of experiences women shared made me consider how sexual inappropriateness or boundary crossing can happen in many different ways. I began to wonder why, although at the time disturbing to me, I had chalked up the following experiences to a reality of being a woman in this world: men exposing their genitals on park benches and the subway; a cyclist at a festival grabbing my rear; an employer asking me for sex; being grabbed by the leg and pulled to the bottom of a university swimming pool. Such incidents seem a common denominator among women. They were testified to in the millions of tweets in response to Oxford.
Social media gives us a chance to dialogue beyond the boundaries of gender, generation, cultures and class about the definitions of assault, inappropriate behavior or language, and consent. It is a necessary and wonderful opportunity, but it won’t be easy. Almost everyone will concur that talking about grabbing someone by their genitals is inappropriate and offensive, but there are other things that happen everyday that might be more difficult to agree upon. Take catcalls, for example.
Virtually every woman I know has experienced more than one instance of what First Lady Michelle Obama described as “that sick sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street…[and] some guy yells out vulgar words about your body.”
To me, catcalls always seemed the most innocuous of sexually-charged offenses. I remember learning as a young girl that I would miss it when I no longer heard men call at me on the street, because that meant I was old and no longer attractive. This lesson went hand-in-hand with the one about always being extra careful, especially when I was alone, because the world is less safe for girls. The takeaway? It’s okay for people to holler at me, and it’s up to me not to get “into trouble.” I don’t remember when I learned these things, nor any particular person or instance having taught me; it’s as if the knowledge came imbedded in my pair of X chromosomes.
Do catcalls belong on the list with the exposed genitals, the grabbing, the propositions for sex? After all, catcalls are just words, whistles or sounds, right? I often had considered them an indelible part of being a woman, as regular and expected as my menstrual cycle. At worst, catcalls made me jumpy or angry. At best, they made me laugh, maybe even inspired me to shout a flirty remark back – as long as my interlocutors were at a safe physical distance. My response had to do with the content of the catcall, but other unpredictable factors were also at play: my mood; what was on my mind or had happened that day; the location; the time of night. Could I describe the difference between what I considered an acceptable and an unacceptable catcall with the authority and specificity of a simple “no means no”? Could I draw a line that every man and woman could understand not to cross? No, I couldn’t. And I say “man and woman” deliberately, because women catcall too. Maybe less, but we do.
Men Have Stories to Share
I’ve gone beyond catcalling. I once pinched a guy’s behind at a nightclub. I dared myself to do it. I wanted to prove something. It was part flirtation, and part “revenge” for “the things guys do to us.” I had reduced half of the world’s population to one twenty-something guy. My girlfriends thought it was bold, and hilarious. The guy played it off like it was a joke, but I doubt he liked it. What gave me the right to do that? Nothing. The fact that I was a woman and he was a man? Absolutely not. The fact that we had been dancing and flirting beforehand? No. Had I thought of how my actions might affect him and tried to put myself in his shoes? No. Am I sorry? Yes, very.
There is a harmful idea in our culture that when it comes to physical or verbal assault, men are the predators and women are the victims. But men also experience assaults, by men and by women. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male. A 2014 article in Slate cites data showing that 46% of male victims were raped by women. As there is little room for vulnerability in our society’s definition of manhood, male victims are more likely to stay silent and not report assaults.
The enormous response to Kelly Oxford’s tweet has resounded as a loud collective, “No: this is not okay.” I believe this moment presents us with an opportunity, and a responsibility, to broaden the discussion of sexual boundaries and consent to include men, as well as transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. There are many more stories to be shared, and a growing community of supporters who are ready to listen.
Photos are in the public domain.
Eileen O’Connor is a writer and translator. Her writing has been published in The Women’s Review of Books, Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Monitor on Psychology, Literal: Latin American Voices, The Recorder: Journal of Irish American History, and Hippocampus (forthcoming). Eileen is currently translating a series of interviews with Salvadoran writers for “The City and the Writer,” a blog series by Nathalie Handal for Words Without Borders. She teaches writing and Spanish at Wellesley College.