The Systemic Perpetuation of Sexism, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault
S everal posts popped up in my Facebook feed this week that got me thinking about certain cultural attitudes toward women in our modern society. I studied sociology in college so things like this fascinate me, and it makes it that much easier to see things when you’re actually a part of the group that you’re studying because you have personal experiences that serve as examples.
The post that started it all was a story about a 14-year-old girl in a neighboring town who hung herself in her bedroom with an extension cord after weeks of bullying at school, both in school and online, one incident of which included students passing around a photo of naked girl (no face in the picture) and claiming that it was her. That, in particular, really got to me because not that long ago, we found out that boys at my step-son’s school were trading naked pictures of girls from their school via text like baseball cards (and it’s not just happening at his school – there was a story on the news a few months ago about 300 students being busted at a school in Colorado).
We had a long talk about it – about trust, about how it affects the girls involved, and one of the things that I told him was, “Girls kill themselves over these things.” And now here we are.
Bullying is one dimension of this, but sexual harassment and sexual assault are another that I would argue most of us (us being women AND men) don’t really think about being a part of the issue. It got me thinking about my own experiences at that age.
When I was 13 years old, boys in my class bullied me. I had crooked teeth and braces and I looked like a gangly, awkward tween girl. They called me “rabbit” and yelled “Trix are for kids!” every time I walked by. I played volleyball and girls on my team would play as extra practice over lunch every day. The same boys would sit in the bleachers and tell me how horrible I was. I played drums in band and boys in my section would poke me in the chest with drum sticks and make fun of me for being flat chested.
One school year later, I went from looking like a gangly 13-year-old to looking like I was in college.
Beginning at age 14, I was sexually harassed and sexually assaulted on nearly a daily basis for the rest of high school. And it wasn’t just me. It was pretty much every girl in my class deemed worthy enough to be given attention.
Sexual assault sounds really serious to most people, right? How often does that really happen to someone? Do you know the difference between harassment and assault?
Harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.
Sexual assault is the unwanted, intentional touching or penetration of another person’s clothed or unclothed body, including but not limited to the mouth, neck, buttocks, anus, genitalia or breast, by another with any part of the body or any object in a sexual manner. Sexual contact also includes causing another person to touch their own or another’s body in the manner described above.
Effectively, when you go from verbally harassing someone with sexual commentary and remarks to actually touching them suggestively, you’ve crossed the line into the legal definition of sexual assault.
On a daily basis, I was asked questions (by the same boys who once made fun of me for being flat chested) like, “How big are your nipples?” “Are they the size of an eraser? Are they bigger or smaller than the eraser on this pencil?” “Show us your boobs.” “Flash us.” “How big are your boobs?” “What’s your bra size?”
The verbal comments became more and more intense as the years went by. Instead of just being asked blunt questions about my body parts, I was cornered behind walls and constantly pressured to “show us your tits.” All in a joking manner, of course. These were, after all, not your average, run-of-the-mill creeps. You see, these people were my FRIENDS. People in my social circle. People I considered to be my peers.
I would say it was probably around freshman year when verbal harassment crossed into sexual assault territory. My ass was slapped while walking down the hall in school, on average, three times a week, and generally by the same two-three people. Again… people I considered my friends. They might jokingly try to grab a boob every now and then. Or thump your nipple. The verbal comments continued as well. “Are your nipples hard?” “Hey… can you touch your elbows behind your back?” Giving you a hug and pressing up against your chest extra hard, extra long, just so they can feel your boobs.
It’s extremely difficult at this age to set boundaries. You go from being made fun of on a regular basis to getting attention from the same group of people. Sure, it’s not exactly positive attention, but you don’t know this when you’re 14. You’re just happy that people seem to like you now instead of telling you how ugly you are every day. So you allow it to happen, because the people who used to make you feel like an outsider are now including you in the group – as long as they get to touch your body.
This is where it begins. This is where rape culture starts. It’s all fun and games. And you, as a woman, get so used to it – so conditioned – that it barely even registers on your radar anymore when it happens.
When I was in school, sexual harassment and other unwanted behavior from boys and men alike wasn’t taken seriously. When I was in eighth grade, I was groped by a 5th grader on the bus. He got a verbal warning.
When I was 16, a 40-year-old construction worker who was contracted by my high school to do work developed a “crush” on me, I guess you might say, and followed me around school and even went so far as to ask me for my phone number. I had a male friend walk me to the bathroom every day during lunch because I was afraid I would run into him. I told not one, but two (female) teachers, and they thought it was funny. They did nothing. (Luckily, it just so happened that I was also friends with the son of the owner of the company. I told him, he told his older brother who worked for the company and visited the site from time to time, who investigated and removed the guy from the job.)
One of my guy friends slapped me on the ass right in front of our high school principle and it was brushed off like no big deal, just don’t do it again. But it did happen again. And again. And again. This also wasn’t just isolated to the same few people in my class. A guy from a neighboring school pinched my boob under the water in a hot tub, I suspect to try to find out if the rumor that the girls at his school had been spreading that I had gotten breast implants when I was 16 was true or not.
The fascination with my breasts didn’t end there. From 17 on, it wasn’t uncommon for young and adult men – I’m talking 30+-year-old total strangers – to walk up to me on the beach or at the pool and ask me if my breasts were real.
In college, the comments became far more lewd and much more thinly veiled. Actually, they didn’t bother to veil them at all. I recall a guy I had just met at a party asking me, “Do you like big dicks or do you have a shallow vagina?” Having your ass grabbed by a random stranger at a bar was a regular occurrence and any attempt at rejecting a guy’s advances was typically greeted with anger.
A guy tried to get me to go home with him at a party one night and when I told him no (rather politely, I might add) he persistently continued to attempt to talk me into it, eventually yelling at me in the middle of the party that I was “making a huge mistake.” Another evening I was out at a bar with a bunch of guys I’d known since high school. One of them was completely shitfaced and kept making inappropriate sexual comments. I ignored them, thinking he was just drunk, but things kept escalating until he finally screamed in my face in the middle of the bar, “You want to fuck me! I know it!”
I was with a group of girlfriends at Mardi Gras once and a group of guys yelled for us to show them our boobs. When we said no, they told us to “drop dead.”
While walking home from work one evening, a man I passed on the street greeted me. I didn’t hear him because I had my earbuds in, but as I took them out, I heard him yell, “SKANK,” because a single woman traveling alone at night didn’t immediately return the unsolicited greeting of a strange man on the sidewalk.
At this point, it becomes a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation. You do it, you’re a slut and a whore. You don’t, and you’re told that you should die. The subtle statement here is that, ‘You exist for my pleasure and it pleases me to subjugate you. And if you don’t allow me to subjugate you, you don’t deserve to live.”
I personally knew multiple girls in my sorority alone who were raped at college. None of them reported it.
My senior year, I recognized a police officer who was working at my sorority’s formal. He’d pulled me over and given me a speeding ticket a year or so before. He told me at the party that the next time he pulled me over, if I wasn’t wearing underwear, he’d let me go.
It didn’t end when I graduated from college, though. It just shifted back into a more subtle form.
My 32-year-old boss at my first job out of college telling me that I had a nice rack. The fifty-something-year-old president of the company at my fourth job telling me and two other women in the office that we can lay out on his office balcony in our bikinis any time. That same president telling a former employee that he’ll sign her document if she comes back tomorrow and wears a skirt.
With that company, it wasn’t isolated to just him. Another male employee, in his 40s, slapped me on the hip as a greeting before a meeting one day, just an inch shy of hitting me on the butt.
In a company that only had seven female employees (out of around 40, globally), three of us were in our 20s and worked in marketing. During our global sales meeting, in a room of 30 people – all male, our National Sales Director (also male) introduced us and remarked, “Don’t we have the best looking marketing team?” Of all the things he could have said that were actually relevant… like how hard-working we were, how talented we were, how dedicated we were, he opted highlight how we looked by parading the three of us up to the front of the room and immediately drawing attention to our bodies. I can’t even begin to explain how dehumanizing that is.
When I pointed this out to another executive (also male) in the company, I was told that I should take it as a compliment. I had other male friends tell me the same thing.
I’ve also been told the same thing about cat-calling and various other forms of verbal harassment. “It just means you’re pretty!” No. It doesn’t mean I’m pretty. It means I’m a target, and not only are you telling me that I should just accept unwanted negative attention in the form of verbal and physical harassment, you’re telling me that I should LIKE it. That’s fucked up.
Sexism is just as much a part of this issue as harassment, and it’s often what lays the foundation for harassment to occur. As a woman working in corporate environments like this my whole life, I’ve had to try twice as hard to be taken seriously. We all do. It’s having the salesmen in the company treat you like a secretary when your job is media relations. It’s owning your business and walking into a meeting with a male client with a male team member who WORKS FOR YOU, and having the client assume that the man is your boss. It’s having your boss brush it off when you bring up something you’re upset about because you’re female and you’re “just being emotional.” It’s being called “sweetie,” “honey,” and “kiddo” on a daily basis by your older male clients when they would never refer to you that way if you were a male.
I was introduced to the head of HR for a division of a fortune 100 company at a casual event where he candidly told me, with zero shame and no self awareness that the practice is discriminatory, that they don’t hire women because “they tend to get pregnant and quit.”
One of my clients at an advertising agency I used to work at would verbally abuse me on the daily and scream at me on the phone to “get your head out of your ass,” until he looked me up on Facebook and decided I was attractive. My office phone rang approximately 10 seconds after accepting his friend request. As soon as I said, “Hello,” he said, “Why didn’t you tell me you were a looker?” And it was all “honey,” “sweetie,” and sunshine from there on out. Which to be honest, was preferable to being treated like a piece of shit on a regular basis.
When you haven’t learned to set appropriate boundaries, and when your attempts at doing so have regularly been met with threats of violence or directly negative commentary, subjugating yourself in order to keep the peace becomes a viable option for you. But it does nothing to rectify the culture that exists and in fact, perpetuates it.
You think threats of violence are not the norm? Watch this.
The internet – particularly when it comes to sports – is especially brutal, as you can see from this video. I had my own experience with this, though nothing to the degree that these women have had to endure.
I was an avid sports fan, especially of college football. Shortly after I graduated from college, I began following a sports blog that was written and maintained by a group of guys who went to the same college as I did. I was a pretty regular commenter and they got to know me. One of the guys thought it would be cool to write a post about the fact that they had women on the site who were just as knowledgeable and interested in sports as they were – and cute, to boot. So he surprised me with a little shout out on the blog and included a picture that he’d pulled off of my Facebook page that happened to be a full-body photo of me in a cocktail dress on New Year’s Eve. Naturally, a reader of the blog immediately made disparaging comments about my body and said I had a “gunt” (gut+cunt).
It doesn’t stop at work and it doesn’t stop when you get off your computer. It happens to women, somewhere, every day when they leave their house. Cat calling. The occasional physical intimidation. Walking down the street in New Orleans having a bouncer run out and grab you, and start dragging you toward his bar yelling, “White girls with booty get in free,” (that happened to me) or having a 6’2” total stranger come up and press his body against you and start telling you all the things he wants to do to you (that happened to me on the same trip, in the same city, on the same street just a couple of blocks before).
I’ve gotten to the point where I just look down, say nothing, and keep walking and pretend it’s not happening because especially when it’s a total stranger in the street at night, you never know when they’re going to pull out a gun and simply shoot you. And yet, this is the response I received when posting about my dislike of cat calling on Facebook:
It’s not just an American thing, either. I was told by an employee of the resort I stayed at in Mexico that I had big “chichis” and he’d like to take me to his hammock. Two men from the same group of Canadians at a hotel pool in Las Vegas thought it was ok to put their hand on my thigh under the water in the pool or to “hug” me – men I had barely spoken to for five minutes.
I think a lot of people, men in particular but even some women, think these things aren’t commonplace. But they are. I’d say I get cat-called, on average, once a month (but now that I’ve moved to a bigger city, it’s more like every time I leave my house). It just happened again this past Monday.
At 31 years old, I went back to my alma mater for Homecoming and had my ass grabbed by unidentifiable strangers three times in single evening. I didn’t even bother to cover the lewd remarks made to me at bars in my adult days.
There are a lot of women out there who probably never thought THEY had ever really experienced it because they have become so numb to it. But I’m betting after reading this, it’s making you pretty aware of it and you may be recounting all the times that you’ve been subjected to unwanted sexual advances.
It’s easy to look at all of these things independently and dismiss them as isolated incidents because many of them are so small by comparison to an actual rape. And when you do that, it becomes easy to tell yourself that this problem doesn’t really exist. But when you look at it in it’s full context, the frequency with which it happens, the various settings in which it takes place, and the fact that it’s coming from a wide range of people and demographics who all happen to be heterosexual men, you begin to see the pattern emerge (as an aside, I’ve never been sexually harassed or assaulted by a transexual woman, not once, so that whole bathroom argument kind of goes out the window).
It’s subtle and it exists just beneath the surface. It bubbles up from time to time. Sometimes tiny little bubbles that seem barely consequential, and other times a splash here and there. But make no mistake – it’s there. It exists.
Your wives are experiencing it. Your daughters are experiencing it. Your sisters are experiencing it and your mothers are experiencing it. And it’s sending subtle, subliminal messages of fear and intimidation that are destroying their self-worth, and have been doing so since they were old enough to start thinking for themselves, as this 14-year-old girl proves in her poem:
When people talk about systemic oppression, THIS is what they’re talking about. This is how racism survives. This is how sexism survives. Because we ignore it and refuse to acknowledge that it exists and look at small incidents on an individual basis without looking at the full context of what occurs day in and day out.
These kinds of cultural attitudes, from a sociological perspective, take generations to change. So to think that everything is just fine today, when it really hasn’t been that long, historically, since women were even legally recognized as people (you read that right) is ludicrous.
Until 1971, private employees could refuse to employ a woman with preschool children. That same year, the Supreme Court, believe it or not, finally declared women were “persons.”
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, a woman couldn’t start a business without her husband’s permission. She couldn’t open a bank account without his co-signature. She could be denied government assistance if there was not a father in the home. She could not hold an office or be ordained in any mainline denomination.
In many states, she was not allowed to serve on a jury. Pregnancy was a fireable “offense.” Until 1964, deaf women could not vote.
When the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established, in 1964, it received 50,000 complaints of gender discrimination in its first five years.
What’s the solution here? How do we fix this? Becoming aware that it still exists is the major first step. Start taking it seriously is the next step. And then actually doing something about it in your own life is the next after that. Teach your children how to respect one another. Learn how to build their self-esteem instead of tearing it down. Talk about sex in a healthy way. The only way to change this mentality is to raise confident children who are comfortable setting boundaries and don’t feel the need to assert dominance over another person.
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