No matter how successful, street savvy, or together a woman is, it only takes the briefest moment to remind her that she is nothing more than an object of sexual gratification in our sexist patriarchal world. To make matters worse, when violence does occur, it is too often suggested that somehow the victim brought it on herself. How many times have we seen that after an assault the question quickly becomes, how much did she have to drink, what was she doing in that location, and (my personal favorite) what was she wearing? All of these questions suggest women are somehow to blame for the crimes committed against us.
In an incident that has recently gone viral, 18-year-old Aaron Morris grabbed a woman’s behind at a North Lauderdale, Florida, Walmart and justified his actions by claiming “her booty looked so good, I just couldn’t resist touching it.” Clearly, Morris believes his attraction justifies his actions, but what is more disturbing is the fact that his supposed reason has become the punch line of various jokes, with people commenting that the booty should be introduced at his trial. By turning Morris’ alleged assault into a joke, people have minimized the idea that women have the right to live their lives without fear of assault. Morris’ actions, as well as the public reaction, are a manifestation of rape culture.
The truth of the matter is that to be a woman in this world is to be subject to all kinds of indignities based in gender. It means that in public spaces, even when engaged in the most benign endeavors, we have to guard our person, while men occupy space at demand and walk freely. Look around at a mixed-gender room and you will see that women attempt to make their bodies as compact as possible, while men sit with their legs spread and their bodies largely sprawled about because of a sense of not only safety but also entitlement. With each act of assault, or street harassment, we become less free. Though these incidents happen on a daily basis, they are not deemed important enough to be part of our national conversation. Yet all women have at least one story to tell about experiencing something like this.
I was 13 years old and on my way home when I felt something pressing against me from behind. I wasn’t sure what it was and assumed at first that because the train was so full it was simply a matter of high traffic. It wasn’t until I looked down and saw an arm wrapped around my thigh that I realized what was happening. I suddenly became aware of his hot breath on my neck and I remember shivering with revulsion. I looked up at the man in front of me, my heart filled with fear, praying that he would say something. I continued to feel the press of my abusers erection against my buttocks, but felt paralyzed to do anything, and it only stopped when my abuser had to switch trains. I never saw his face, but I will never forget the fear I felt that day or how by his actions my personhood and right to bodily integrity was erased, simply because I dared to occupy a public space as female. I felt dirty and cheap through no action of my own. We always hear about the fast-assed little girl, but what about the girl who becomes a victim because we live in a culture which teaches men that such invasions are a right of passage? What about the fact that we live in a society which teaches that female bodies are objects or commodities to be bought and sold at the whims of men?
The Hollaback movement was created specifically to give voice to the daily assaults with which women are forced to deal. It currently has activists across 50 cities and 17 countries and communicates in nine different languages. Women are attempting to stand up and hold abusers accountable, yet, in the face of all we have done, the assaults continue without abatement, and popular culture continues to encourage them. No matter how much effort women bring to putting an end to these kinds of assaults, nothing will change until men universally decide to police their own behavior and respect the bodily integrity of women.
These crimes against us are not harmless, nor are they victimless, and whether we acknowledge it or not, they have become a part of our psyche. We are encouraged to take self defense classes to protect ourselves, but where are the social lessons to boys and men that teach that assault is not a right of masculinity but the sign of a predator? Where is this justice and equality in this situation? These everyday assaults are not minor incidents because they represent the perverseness of rape culture. If a woman cannot go about her daily affairs without worrying about unwarranted and unwanted attention or physical attacks, then we are still not equal and none of us is safe.