Gender In Crisis: His Territory Or Mine?

I'm continually amazed by street harassers’ use of innuendos and double entendre. Such as: backhanded talk about “melons”, mutterings about “junk” – and still one of my all-time favorites, “I want to be your toilet paper.” Harassers are certainly masters with their metaphors. In the process, they redefine words by giving them totally disgusting and obscene meanings. When did my melons become their melons? When did I become their mommy?! Who knew that a household item like toilet paper could even be used that way? What’s next? Windex? I can only imagine: “Oooh. I bet you’re a dirty girl. Spray on. Wipe off.” Eww.

Manipulating this kind of language is a way for street harassers to verbally and physically stake out territory in what might be described as a sociological crisis of meaning. This crisis negotiates the terms of what and how being gendered a woman means with respect to the everyday and the universal, the public and private, and the individual and community. Each incident of street harassment signifies a crystalized moment of this crisis: suddenly my melons become their melons.

The word, crisis, is apt here. Harassers are carrying the torch of a type of verbal sexual power coercion that has historically engendered very real, material effects for women. Harassment has driven countless women out of their jobs; stifled their income; discouraged them from seeking an education; isolated them from community involvement; given them debilitating ulcers, depression, insomnia, and PTSD; and derailed their sense of self-worth and confidence. Not to mention the ultimate fact that harassment often precludes brutal assault:

“About a year ago, I was aerobic-walking near a mall, for exercise. It wasn’t very late, just past dusk. It was the summertime. It was nice out. As I went by one of the stores, a man standing outside said hello to me, and just to be polite, I smiled and said hello back. Then he started to follow me, keeping talking to me. I was only a few blocks from home, so I started to run. The man started to run too, and he caught me and raped me. At gunpoint. They never caught him.”Interview, from Carol Brooks Gardner's Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment (1995:p. 2).

This woman’s testimony is chilling. She testifies as to how street harassment constructs public space as a violently exclusive and prized territory - and simultaneously, as a gendered territory. Men's ability to govern public domains, to go wherever they want and do whatever they want to whomever, is an incalculably valuable privilege. But, it’s not innate or guaranteed. Such territorialism has to be rigorously maintained; especially now, when women are transgressing liberally into transnational networks, institutions, and power hierarchies. And especially in relation to geopolitical contexts currently obsessed with shifting markets and meanings. It's like a Coca Cola commercial. We all know about the pervasive availability of Coke. Yet, the Coca Cola company still feels the need to bludgeon our senses with advertising, huge billboards, and TV commercials, year after year, in fifty different languages. Are we all suddenly going to forget about Coke if the commercials stop coming? What if they just stopped commercials for one year; would we all convert to Pepsi? Maybe we would. The repetitive influx of messages and the billions of dollars spent on advertising must have some vital purpose in maintaining the status quo of compliant Coke consumers for generations, as well as maintaining such steady profits.

The same thing is happening with street harassment: the public street I’m trying to walk on has to be repeatedly staked out as the street harasser’s property. Women need constant reminders - in fifty different languages - for street harassment to have its desired effects. Women who want to maneuver easily and possibly even be respected in any public space are reminded by harassers that they are ironically trespassing on public property. Specifically, women are reminded that the possibility of shifting meanings about gender is a dangerous enterprise. Street harassment claims women’s bodies in speech-acts of gendered terrorism as anything but their own territory.

This might be why it is seemingly still effective on a local level (i.e. Boston...) of the street harassment diaspora for women to use behavioral modification strategies to prevent crime which etiquette books began encouraging in the 1970’s. For example, how does the “ignore it” response harrow back to 19th century etiquette writers’ advice to “…encroach as little as possible on the public by speaking as little and as quietly as they [can]”Passing By, (1995:21). Women still may feel safer when they’re accompanied by male escorts in certain places or at certain times. In the 70’s, this corresponded to the proper etiquette of providing male legitimacy to female public presence. Only thirty years ago, if driving at night, women were also advised to put a blow up doll in the front seat, since the mere illusion of a man was safer than appearing to be alone. The blow-up man functioned as a built-in advertisement for someone who complied with social norms. It also reaffirmed the very definition of a woman who was safely and obediently traversing in public.

There are versions of this 70’s mentality that are still thriving. For example, what was the woman’s crime in the above epitaph? That she spoke in public? Reminder: don't say "hello" to men who speak to you. I recently admonished my boyfriend for dropping me off in an empty parking garage about ten feet from my car and then nonchalantly driving away before I got inside. I only belatedly realized the incredulous implications of being a woman left alone for two seconds. But why wouldn’t I be afraid? After all, I’m still socially herded according to outdated etiquette standards. Reminder: if I happen to disobey certain social norms and am then verbally or physically assaulted, I’ll be the one readily punished with even more gendered reinforcement: it’s my own fault for getting assaulted because I didn’t take proper precautions to stay in the presence of a man, shut up, be modest, carry around a fake man, taser gun or mace (even if it’s illegal in MA…).

Underlying these examples of gendered representation is this ideological venom: it's always already the woman's fault because she didn’t use common sense, because common sense historically dictates that she shouldn’t be there in the first place. The message bludgeoning our senses is loud and clear: His world. Not hers.

Carried to its extreme conclusion, when the harasser talks about my “rack” that way, or rates my outfit, or puts a price tag on my body parts, the same territorial message dictates that the only surefire, 100% way for me to effectively diffuse problems like this, is for me to practice total abstinence (the Christian Coalition cheers!) from public space and just stay home, locked up in my house, with millions of alarm systems. Where have we heard this before…? Hmmm… Oh yes. Women’s place is in the home.

In 2007 and counting.

Written by Michelle Riblett. Creative Commons 2.5.

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