It happened quite suddenly. The change did not occur strictly because of my age. I had just turned 33, not that much different than age 32 when unwanted sexual assessments (gaping, ogling) by random men was a pretty regular thing. Back then, sexual harassment by strangers (lewd comments, cat-calls) still occurred from time to time as well. Nor did the change occur due to my appearance. My weight, hairstyle, clothing choices were consistent with my look prior to the end.
Nor was it intentional in any way on my part. In fact, the change happened quite unexpectedly.
Back then, when in public, I habitually hardened my face and straightened my posture against the usual assessment by random men. You know the look of young women: blank expression, no eye-contact, no smile. I had perfected the look when in grocery stores, on public transportation, while filling up gas, walking through parking garages, anytime in public. By then I rarely gave it much thought. Then oddly one day, I realized, it was….unnecessary.
At first, it didn’t register. Then it dawned on me; men passing me on the street, or in the grocery store were not assessing me (and btw, we can tell.) Instead, the men offered the same type of greeting that I would receive from women. There was brief eye-contact, a respectful nod and maybe a friendly, “Hello.” That’s it. There was no sexual charge. It was a normal interaction with a normal guy.
The place: a walking path near my suburban house.
The year: 1998.
The reason: I was pushing a double stroller with my new-born twins.
Babies change everything: the meaning of Christmas, one’s response to world events, indeed, one’s very identity (Mom). This new, unexpected treatment by men was definitely a sweet perk of motherhood. Being treated nicely by men my age and older was an entryway back into society. I was somehow wholesome again. I had been away so long that I didn’t recognize the magnitude of what had occurred to me when I had reached puberty those many years ago. Looking back, it all makes sense.
In childhood, we all belong to the same community of parents, teachers, neighbors, older kids, younger kids, cousins, police officers, grocery store employees, etc. We all belong. Then, a girl, with no effort or intention, becomes different. We become “attractive,” in that our bodies now attract attention, and nothing is the same again. Our world becomes smaller in two ways. First, teachers, uncles, grandfathers and even fathers separate from us just a bit. We feel that shift. Things are no longer normal. We are no longer normal. Then, it turns out that some men (not many, but enough) can no longer be trusted to behave in a decent manner. We learn this quickly, and we learn it the hard way; through shame. Our bodies are assessed, and we are commonly privy to comments regarding the results of such assessments. So we close things off. We close off simple greetings. We close off easy smiles, and we close off trust. This is especially true in public. Young girls become guarded, necessarily so, and they must stay that way for years and years.
I had been away so long that it felt strange to be normal again. I had forgotten what it felt like. Since I was now a “Mom,” I could greet and smile whom I wanted, when I wanted, without invoking unwanted attention. Since this type of open interaction was closer to my true nature, it felt really nice to be Me again.
Sexual assessment and harassment are rampant, as is sexual assault and rape. If you don’t think so, turn to the woman sitting next to you and ask her. If she is between the ages 14 and 24, chances are she was hit on, flirted with, ogled, grabbed, demeaned or hooted at in the last month. These unwanted interactions are ubiquitous to adolescent girls and young women.
If she is between the ages of 25 and let’s say 50, we might hear about workplace harassment as well. While the incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace certainly occur far less often than the brief random harassment received in public, the stakes are much higher. Of course, professionalism within the workplace has improved drastically over the decades. (We’ve all seen Mad Men.) Nowadays, men and women generally abide by professional standards based on mutual respect. Nonetheless, when the rules are broken, it remains incredibly unlikely that this harassment is reported, that the woman is believed and that the man is held accountable. Besides shame and anger, the career and vital opportunities for a skilled, competent woman can easily be stalled or destroyed simply because a man chose her as his target.
The truth is, unwanted assessment and comment on a woman’s body are always creepy. Abuse of power to gain sexual favors is always sickening. An unwanted physical, sexual intrusion is indeed, sexual assault. And sexual activity without consent, (or the ability to consent) is rape.
By naming it, we educate ourselves and our daughters. If you have a teenage daughter in your life, and you have not had this conversation, now is the time. While hopefully, she will never be the recipient of workplace harassment or assault, she most definitely will be subject to continual sexual assessment and harassment by peers and strangers alike on a regular basis for many years to come. When these wrongs occur for the next generation (and they will), girls and women need to be heard. Our sons and daughters can identify what is happening and put the shame and blame squarely where it belongs.
He may be a stranger, a co-worker, a loved one, a pillar of the community, a boss, a friend, a mentor. He may be rude; he may be clueless, he may be creepy, entitled, angry or aggressive. Whatever the case, we need to say it out loud, and obviously, we need to say it more often.
Let’s be clear about this. It’s not her…it’s him.