Monday, August 10, 2009

Partner privilege, safety, and street harrassment

Via Twitter, I was alerted to this awful story of street harassment:
“‘Scuse me, sweetheart,” he says. I know he’s trying to hit on me, and I don’t want to talk to a man I don’t know. I continue walking, he continues calling at me.
“Excuse me, lovely…excuse me, sweetheart…hello?…hello?…hello?” I continued to ignore him and walk. Though it was daylight out still, the street felt isolated to me, and I just didn’t want to respond to him. He gave me a funny vibe.
He then starts calling me names.
“Yo, Bumpyface!” he says. “Bumpyface. You got acne. You’re a bumpyface. You’re ugly.”
I know I don’t have the best skin in the world, and I am very touchy about it. His comments were so cruel. I don’t get how I was so “lovely” that he wanted to talk to me one minute, to being an “ugly bumpyface.” I pulled out my phone to snap his photo to submit to your site. At the time, he (and his friend who was in the vehicle) were laughing and thought it was funny.
“That’s why I didn’t respond to you in the first place,” I snapped. “Men like you have no respect for women. I don’t know you, and don’t want to talk to strange men.”
I spoke in a calm manner, I didn’t curse, so I don’t know why the hell he went from 0 to 60.
He got in my face, started thumping his chest, and approached me as if I were someone his own size.
“What you say to me? What you say? Huh, huh? Say it again, bitch, say it again! Fuck you bitch! Take my picture, bitch! That’s right, bitch!”
I started walking away, and he followed me.
“Fuck you, bitch! I HATE BLACK WOMEN!” he ranted. “I’m tired of black women! Black women ain’t shit! Black women are ugly! I don’t give a damn about BLACK WOMEN! Stupid bitch!”
Street harassment is just one way in which I benefit from the privilege of being partnered. When I go in public, I'm usually accompanied by my boyfriend; when we're in clubs, at concerts, or just taking a walk, I am clearly marked by a man, and other men don't move in. When we walk down the street, I'm not demeaned or humiliated by the "compliment" of catcalls.

Being married, or partnered as I am, is a huge privilege in this society. Because I’m in a stable long-term relationship, a number of my woes are significantly eased. Renters are more likely to rent to me and my boyfriend than me alone. Once I’ve got a place, I’m able to offset costs such as rent, food, kitty expenses and birth control. Having a man in my home also makes me feel safer. When I invite men to my home, I know I can trust that they won't make unwanted advances and will respect my relationship with J. (I'm still scared of axe murderers though - but only when he's out of town).

Cis and hetero privilege is a major factor in solidifying this privilege. If I were with another cis woman, or if if she or I were trans, much of this privilege is mitigated or done away with altogether.* I would be harassed more instead of less, and would be more vulnerable to violence rather than less. My relationships are free of mockery and derision; they're not seen as sick or wrong. I don't feel any pressure to hide my love. Even though I'm in a non-marital cohabiting relationship, I'm not seen as outside of the norm: both mine and J's grandmas were pleased to hear that we made a more serious commitment by moving in.

Ditto for monogamous privilege. Because I only want to be with one person, I know that that choice will be constantly validated and rewarded rather than constantly questioned or seen as fake. I won't be seen as a sex maniac no matter how much I fuck. The success rather than demise of my relationship is assumed. Were my relationship to end, I would receive tons of sympathy from my friends; if I were polyamorous, I would be seen as deserving of that pain. And I don't need to hide many facets of my relationship, no matter how complex.

When we decide to make our connection permanent, we will be able to do so legally and know that our choice will be openly valued and praised by all. When we have children, our ties to them or the quality of our parenting will not be challenged. We won't be seen as a threat to our children, even if we were to abuse them.

White privilege is also a factor here. It further establishes that we are an "all-American" couple. People are able to project their best ideas of morality and love onto us, and see our relationship as more valid and successful because of the color of our skin.

But even with the above privilege, I still do not operate with total safety and comfort. In public, I habitually avoid eye contact with most men - I've found that eye contact is often taken as an invitation, and often brings on unwanted propositions. And occasionally a man will touch me without my consent.

On Saturday, I was younger than a lot of the crowd (and thus better fit into culturally imposed standards of beauty) and more actively feminized (long hair, significant makeup, contacts, short skirt). And I was subject to a lot of discomforting leers, and I didn't feel safe making eye contact with people around me, instead staring straight ahead when I walked to the bar or the bathroom. And one man did decide that he had the right to touch my waist to get my attention. But despite the discomfort I felt at the leers and the touched, I never felt unsafe. I always knew the touches at least would desist when J returned from the bar (or wherever). I didn't fear being alone temporarily, because I knew he was behind me.

UPDATE - Stephanie of The (not so) Little Things responds here.

*Language changed here - h/t to voz.


  1. My partner and I usually don't feel safe being physically affectionate in public until after we've both had a good look at the environment and gotten an idea of whether it's safe, where the exits are and if there's any high risk types around (groups of macho looking guys tend to be a high risk type).

    It's pretty awful how much notice gets dropped on us when we just hold hands together in the mall.

    A lot of times, to attempt to reduce the feelings of powerlessness, we'll hold hands on our way out of a restaurant, our heads held defiantly and tall.

    It helps a little bit. But that fear is always going to be there, unfortunately. Because society is filled with homophobic, misogynistic assholes.

  2. Catcalling is the worst. The anecdote you referenced in this post was terrible :(

    This past weekend I was in a bachelorette party of six girls wandering around DC... this post really resonates with me after that.

    The only male attention I received that I would consider to be positive was an old italian man who watched us pass and said, "The six musketeers! Beautiful!" That's not so bad, you know?

    The other male attention we got ranged from boner-to-ass action on the dance floor (and I have no idea who's did that to me, it was so uncomfortable though, I just sort of froze) to a bunch of guys in a car shouting, "HEY WHITE GIRLS!"

    It's just... what is that stuff supposed to accomplish? Is it too much to ask to go dancing with friends and not wind up with anonymous man parts up in yo business? Ugh.

  3. I'm fascinated by the Madonna-whore complex and the cult of virginity and all that mad stuff, because gender and sexual politics are endlessly fascinating to me.

    As a single cis white woman, I'm learning how to deal with unwanted attention in public. My first instinct is to shut people down immediately, often encouraging reactions like the one mentioned in the quoted section, or similar.

    I'm confident and somewhat good-looking, but I'm not usually the "pretty" friend, so when I shut down a guy that I'm not interested in I get subjected to abuse, as if I should have been grateful for his attention when he was interested. It's taken a long time for me to learn how to let that roll off my back, even though I know that type isn't worthy of my time or attention.

    These days, though, I'm experimenting with different reactions. I've never been one to allow guys to buy me drinks if I wasn't remotely interested, but as one gorgeous friend puts it, "I let them know they're only buying my drink, I'm not hooking up with them. And if they still want me around, I'll take advantage of them until they stop." It's been a stance of conflict for me, but an interesting one to approach from an objective perspective. Is that attitude feminist, by twisting patriarchal, bullshitty ideas to your advantage, or is it only permitting those ideas to persist because she's not actively rejecting them?

    Well, that was a longer post than I expected, and not as coherent as I'd hoped, but it's been on my mind.

  4. I don't know if there's anything I hate more than street harassment.

    Once I was standing at a bus stop, surrounded by men, when two young boys came up behind me and started mimicking like they were having sex with me from behind. I didn't notice until I realized all the older men were giggling and so I glanced in the opposite window and saw the reflection of them doing this to my back side. I flipped the fuck out on the entire group. My fight/flight response told me to FIGHT so I screamed loudly at the two offenders and the entire group, told them all to be ashamed of themselves, etc, etc. I can be scary when my fight instinct kicks in. I'm a scrapper. They were humiliated, and I can bet you they would think twice about doing it to another woman now that I went postal on them.

    Living in the city, I was a victim of the cat calls all the time, and men would pull over and try to get me in their car, thinking I was a hooker or something (while I'm out doing my laundry in a scrunchy and pajamas - seriously people) so this stuff totally infuriates me. I told my husband I never felt so murderous as when I was being harassed on the street. Given a gun, I might have pulled the trigger.

  5. Thank you for posting this. I have actually been in a position where I was at a club alone and a guy wouldn't stop hitting on me, so I asked a guy who I had just met but who was there with his girlfriend to help. Once he put his arm around me and told the other guy to get lost, I was left alone. I hated that I couldn't express non-interest in the first guy without being seen as a possession of the second, and appreciated the second guy for suppoting me without question.

  6. Ugh. That is so offensive and infuriating and frightening. I'm sorry you had to be the subject of this crap.

    The things about catcallers is that they are abusers. Even if the encounter starts with a "compliment", making you feel good is not their purpose - hurting, scaring, humiliating and putting you in your place is. There is absolutely no response to catcallers that will guarantee safety, unfortunately, because some of them will escalate even if you don't respond at all, much less respond in an angry way. But through painful trial and error, I have concluded that non-response is the best policy, because angry response will just about guarantee assault.

    A couple of weeks ago, a guy came up behind me on the street and grabbed my crotch. Now I carry pepper spray on a bracelet on my wrist every time I leave the house.

    Thanks, men. Thanks for the awesome times.


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