Women put up with catcalls, lewd jokes, and being objectified every day, and society tells us to let it go. But we’re sending the wrong message.
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I’m sitting in a lounge, waiting for a flight, and I’m livid. Twenty minutes earlier, I was in the security line at Heathrow, going through the strange airport ritual of a usually private act: undressing. As I approached the body scanner, I removed my coat, jacket, sweater, and shoes. The screening agent standing on the other side said, “You look beautiful in black.” He was relaxed, friendly, and ebullient. I thought about telling him why this was not okay but decided it was not worth the effort, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Then he erased the benefit and the doubt. As I started walking through the device, keeping my expression neutral, he told me to wait, step back, and stand still. I did this while he appraised me. Now, technically, this is his job. He also tells men to wait, stop, walk, and inspects them physically. But then, as he looked me up and down, his smile grew broader and he said loudly, “Look at that,” shaking his head back and forth, before waving me through.
I instinctively surveyed the area, aware that he’d spoken within earshot of at least ten other men—five passengers milling around behind me, one standing next to him, and four nearby screening agents. There was no other woman near me. I wasn’t in any physical danger, but this wasn’t about physical danger. It was about power, fraternity, and masculinity.
The TSA agent could have insinuated what he was thinking without uttering a word, but by speaking out loud he signaled two important things. First, that not only could he tell me what to do with my body (inherent in his job description), but also he could speak openly about what he thought of my body and do so with impunity (his masculine prerogative). He elided the two because he could. Second, he was issuing an invitation to the men around him to enjoy looking at me with him. He certainly wasn’t instructing me to “look at that.” Like a typical street harasser, he did what he did as a show for other men, a common habit in environments where men dominate.
Once I collected my belongings, I located his supervisors, two women. I described simply what had happened—this is what he did and said. I did not identify him; instead I suggested a clearer communication of policies prohibiting this behavior, stressing that this was not about one man, but about the entire environment in which he was so comfortable doing what he did. The more senior of the two women looked immediately agitated, and said, “One of our staff? Show me who he is.” Then, she insisted she had to get his side of the story. His side? Two sides? “There are no two sides,” I said. Commenting on women’s bodies and appearances in this context is unacceptable and harassing behavior—that’s it. She again asked me to accompany her so the man could tell “his side.” No, I said, that’s her job, not mine. That’s when she asked me, “Do you have any witnesses?”
As we stood there, a catalog of research flew through my head. I realized I was doing what most women do when confronting a sexist aggression: I was more assertive in my imagination than in actuality. Studies show that in 75 percent of cases of everyday discrimination or harassment women think about confronting their harasser, but only do so in 40 percent of cases. When women struggle to name the sexism, or to make direct challenges, it is because the problem is so diffuse. There is a slippery diffusion of responsibility, tremendous pressure to stay polite and quiet, and, almost always, a fear of retaliation. In my case, as my brain screamed, “F******G HELL, are you KIDDING ME?” my mouth said, “Pardon me, ‘witnesses’?”
“Did anyone witness what you described?” she insisted.
I went from being tired, dismayed by his behavior, worried, and disappointed by her response to adrenaline-filled, clear-thinking and physically aggressive. I put down my bag, took off my backpack, dropped my coat, stood so that I was clearly taller as I responded, “Are you serious? I am the witness. I watched him do this and then told you.”
The shift of tone was noticeable enough that another supervisor, a man, came over. They huddled around me, once again asking me to wait so we could all hear the man out. Surely, I said, I did not have to explain why people in positions of power and authority should never comment on a woman’s appearance and body. The only appropriate response was: “I am sorry this happened, we will make sure it doesn’t again.”
I’m sure the man had no idea that any of this was going on in my head as it happened. Like many men, he’d be stunned that something so minor and common could possibly matter. From this perspective, he is also among many women who welcome this kind of attention as flattery. The women’s demand that we hear him out suggested that if only he could explain, I might see that I misunderstood, and mischaracterized what he did. If I listened to him maybe I would forgive any “personal” offense and, thereby not implicate the larger culture and its tolerance for the behavior, a professional and political reality. Many conservative women I know would openly scoff at my complaint. Why, they insist, with visions of peak 1980s George Will dancing overhead, be a victim? Responses like these are predictable in the sense that they reflect beliefs about oppositional gender binaries and justify systems in which “boys will be boys” and, if a woman is hurt in the process, she must have one something to deserve it. “Victimhood” is, in this framework, also, guilt. So, take a compliment and move on. Why the fuss?
Why? Because moments like these are where the rubber hits the road and I am, like most women I know, exhausted. If I’d been a Black woman, the interaction could have easily devolved into a more invasive and even dangerous direction. I can name each time I have confronted a man acting in these ways, including in security lines. However, I have never reported what happened in an airport. So, what was the difference this time?
It was his smug fraternal signaling and the obliviousness of my fellow travelers. I’d be very surprised if even one of the ten men within our range was even minimally aware of what was going on, even as he implicated them by performing a subtle rite: making a woman uncomfortable by sexualizing her on a whim in a ritual of male bonding. The men and I were doing the same things in the same place, but having starkly different experiences.
Interactions like this one are happening in the presence of men 24/7 but, importantly, they are often happening because men are present. This harassment, for example, had less to do with me as a person than with his putting his masculinity on display for other men. That display is a key component of homosociality, in which boys are socialized to use girls and women to impress other boys. Homophobic bullying, denigrating girls and femininity using sexist humor and, notably, objectifying and harassing women are typical examples. At its most extreme, homosociality is the lever of gang rape, a fraternal bonding practice. Girls learn early to navigate the demands of homosociality on the boys and men they know and encounter.
Masculinity that is constructed this way is damaging to us all. It’s going to take a powerful rending, a transformation of life as we know it to change this. Mainly, it’s going to take a radical re-envisioning of what it means to be a boy and then a man because right now homosociality, and the sexism it sustains, are baked into dominant understandings of power and masculinity.
As a society, we are contending with what it means to seriously tackle the obvious unfairnesses of gender discrimination and violence, especially the brute force variety evident in #MeToo stories. However, the real work of ending discrimination is not in challenging the blunt, but in challenging the banal. The insidious power of microaggressions is that you look like an idiot for challenging something so common and “insignificant.” It’s like a pointillist painting: one small dot layered on top of another. No one alone represents anything that means anything, but put together over time, they make up a vivid, powerful and coherent picture. The frame that bounds our lives is one in which the performance of masculinity continues to be more important than the rights, needs, dignity and safety of girls and women. Getting angry in these moments, situations of insult, humiliation, threat and risk, is rarely an option for us, even if it is the most rational response and one that, in men, would be seen as normal and justifiable.
Acts like the one I endured from this man are hostile reminders of precarity; they chip away at women. One of the reasons it’s so hard to defend ourselves is that we are socialized to bite our words and swallow our pride. Anger is still a taboo emotion for girls and women and so we display it very cautiously. We internalize fears of being called crazy, irrational, ugly, or worse and we anticipate mockery and retaliation. Studies show that in 75 percent of everyday incidents of sexism, racism, anti-semitism or heterosexism, women think about assertive responses, but we only stand up for ourselves 40 percent of the time.
So many days I stomach the small acts of sexism that I encounter, allowing them to ripple out into the larger universe. On this day, I was unwilling to walk away. Instead, I got angry, made uncomfortable work for some women, and possibly “ruined” an “innocent man’s” day. As I left, the senior supervisor stopped me to ask what it was I wanted, if I didn’t want to file a report against him. This was the easiest part of my day: I want, I said, for no other girl or woman to have this experience again. That requires that men pay attention to how women are moving through the world, and understand why the differences matter.
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