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If You Don't Take Women's Harassment Seriously, You Don't Want to Understand The Problem

01/27/2016 09:50 am ET | Updated Jan 28, 2016
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)
ASSOCIATED PRESS

On the night of January 22, 29-year old Janese Talton-Jackson was shot to death on a sidewalk by a man who was angry that she'd refused to give him her phone number. Her story is sadly reminiscent of Mary Spears', who was killed in similar circumstances in 2014. Every few months stories like these make it into the news cycle, even though related harassment and assaults are happening every day in the US and elsewhere.  When stories do surface, people express surprise, sadness and outrage, all of which seem to dissipate in a heartbeat. If there is more prolonged criticism, it often falls along racist, ethnic, nationalist, classist lines, despite the far greater prevalence of attacks on women by men in their own peer groups.

Consider the recent assaults of women in several German cities on New Year's Eve. Those events didn't mark Day One of gender-based violence Germany.  While the media and public were rightfully appalled by the mass nature of the assaults, "Arab-looking" men have no monopoly on street harassment, rape, gang-rape, sexual harassment and violence. One in three German women experience violence, primarily at the hands of their male German counterparts. Sixty-eight percent of German women report being groped on public streets, and 80% regularly alter their commutes to avoid harassment.  During the countries' annual Oktoberfest celebration, an average of 10 rapes are reported each year, but the estimated number of unreported rapes is 200. German law still require a victim to prove that they physically resisted rape. German media did not respond in outrage over the fact that migrant women face similar levels of abuse as German women do in refugee camps and as they make their way to new countries. According to Amnesty International, migrant women consistently report that "in almost all of the countries they passed through they experienced physical abuse and financial exploitation, being groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees." There's such a serious ugliness to the media outrage.

These numbers are mirrored in the US, where 71% of women report being followed and 57% of women report verbal harassment.  In Talton-Jackson's case, she and her assailant were strangers.  However, he had previously harassed another woman so persistently (once breaking into her bedroom to harangue her) that, feeling unsafe, she'd moved from the state she lived in.   According to a national Stop Street Harassment survey, forty-one percent of American women have experienced physically aggressive street interactions, including touching, flashing, and being forced to do something sexual against their wills. Seventy-two percent of women have changed their commutes to avoid feeling unsafe. Do people really want to think they do it because they want a change of scenery or are engaged in a spy fantasy?

Women everywhere, whether consciously or not, have to be vigilant about a broad spectrum of violence: street harassmentsexual assault, stalking, and both stranger and intimate partner assault.  One in three American woman has experienced domestic violence. One in six is stalked.  An American woman's chance of being sexually assaulted is one in five, one in three if she is Native American.

Through it all, girls are taught through silence not to say anything about their growing consciousness of double standards regarding physical integrity and freedom and young boys are wrapped in ignorance (including boys of color, who are also subject to high levels of harassment). Women are told to  "ignore" harassment, or to "stay inside," learn to "take a compliment," "fight back," or "focus on more important issues."  Anything but societal introspection about what goes into making a culture in which women encounter these levels of hostility to our full engagement, in the world. As full human beings and adults with rights.

I'm really hard pressed to understand what is trivial about the fact that girls and women, because we are girls and women, face the everyday possibility that we might be verbally and physically attacked, mutilated, terrorized or killed for not consenting on the spot to what some random man wants. Or what is trivial about coming to terms with the idea that -- at home or in public -- our physical integrity and consent to the use of our own bodies are not socially, politically, communally respected rights. If you are a transwoman (perceived socially as having chosen to walk away from the privilege of being male) or a woman of color, physical safety is doubly, triply compromised.

Even though there are many good examples of why we shouldn't, women can and do say no, sometimes successfully and in ways that are empowering. When we do, people applaud us, cheer us on, make videos that go viral. But, every single time we do so at great risk.  

Women. Don't. Have. The. Right. To. Say. No.

How many women have to die because they try to before this is taken seriously as a matter of public health and women's rights? "Just tell him to you aren't interested?" is a sorry and entitled display of a profound lack of caring about what happens to the person you are talking to.

I'm saddened by Janese Talton-Jackson's brutal killing. But I am enraged that attacks like this happen all the time and we continue to ignore the connective tissue and ask women to take a back seat to more pressing issues. Women are dying because of it, three a day at the hands of men they know. Last month, a man, angry that a woman had rebuffed him earlier in the night, knocked down the front door of her apartment and, when he found she wasn't home, grabbed her three month old puppy and threw it out of a third floor window. Last week, a man was sentenced to two years in jail for attacking his spouse with a hammer. Another was arrested for attacking his girlfriend as she tried to attempt leaving him. And yet a third was arrested after killing his wife for wanting divorce. This week, police in Florida are trying to locate a man who has been serially harassing women real estate agents while they work. Every day, thousands of women are terrorized by stalkers, only to be told that police can't help them till a crime has actually been committed.

Talton-Jackson was shot by a stranger, but in some countries, the most violent attacks against girls and women who reject men involve acid throwing. Here, its more likely, in the range of horror, to be setting a woman on fire, as happened in Pomona, California on Christmas Day. That might sound like an outlier, until you begin to look and see similar cases in Maryland,  Florida, Ohio, MichiganMissouri, Oregon. We measure what we care about and we don't keep systematized track of male-perpetrated, gender-biased cases like these and Talton-Jackson's.

The largely tolerated right and ability of strangers to harass women in public coexists with the largely tolerated right and ability of acquaintances to harass women in private.  A newly released study, for example,  found that sixty percent of women in Silicon Valley report workplace sexual harassment. Can't a girl take a compliment? Play with the big boys? One in three women said that they feel afraid for their personal safety because of work-related circumstances. Men might not mean to provoke fear in their clumsy and exploitative attempts to have sex with someone who is not interested, but they do it anyway because what they do doesn't happen in a social vacuum.

Which is all to say that it's no surprise that the physical reality of harassment and violence has a thriving corollary online. The 2014 nonconsensual sharing of stolen intimate photos of more than a hundred women celebrities was a high profile example of something that happens regularly.  Danielle Citron explores these issues in her book, Hate Crimes In Cyberspace, where she cites a study of 1,606 revenge porn cases that revealed  90% of those whose photos were shared were women, targeted by men they knew. A 2012 National Network to End Domestic Violence survey of US domestic violence programs reported that 89% of victims experience intimidation and threats by abusers via technology, including through cell phones, texts, and email.

From India to the United States to Turkey to the United Kingdom, boys and men are harassing, recording their crimes and abusively intimidating, threatening, and manipulating their victims. Then we turn their assaults into affective products using hashtags like #Jadapose#Slanegirl#Steubenville, or #HandsUpForRaehtah. Most cases though, we never hear about.

If these events had happened in, say, India, chances are you would have heard about it. If these, and countless others cases that don't get compiled in a sensible way, were happening in another country, our media would be all over how incredibly abusive, patriarchal, misogynistic that country's culture is. Instead, we get, from our highest rated news media outlet, "Men are going to be that way. What can you do?" Strong, move, America.

The male sexual entitlement that fuels so much of this gender-based violence is so wrapped up in how we teach boys to be men that it's hard to know where to start.  Once in a while an illuminating video, utilizing a gender reversal, makes the rounds and captures people's attention.  But, while videos depicting gender reversals are good catalysts for discussion and awareness, they are superficial at best and create a false equivalence. There is no gender equivalence because there is no systemic power inversion that would support it. Sexual entitlement doesn't exist in isolation, but thrives alongside political, economic and social male domination.  Girls are socialized to please other people because just the act of women saying "no" is fundamentally, politically and socially, disruptive. Combined with racial and class dimensions, even more so.  By far the easiest way to make sure women aren't comfortable saying "no' or expecting to be paid attention to when they do is to regulate women with gender and race-based violence or the threat of it and socialize them to limit themselves.

As is always the case, clearly not all men are to blame, but, as we keep asking, how are we supposed to tell?  What are we supposed to say every day?  It's so tiresome. But, not as tiresome as the response that men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes. Yes, men too, are subject to violence and its threat -- but almost entirely at the hands of other men. Additionally, men are no longer more likely.  The Department of Justice's most recent crime report shows that between 2004 and 2013 the rate of violent crimes against men and women reached equal levels of prevalence, crimes against men flat-lining, but against women increasing.

Anyone who waves off women's concerns about "something as trivial as street harassment," as I'm so often told, is actively, and now consciously, part of the problem.

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