Before I got married, one of my favorite pastimes involved taking a book to my local tavern after work and tearing through a chapter or two while I sucked down chicken fingers and beer. I found that the cacophony of clanging glasses and laughing drunks provided me with a sense of inner quietude I lacked at home, where I was often distracted by my own solitude.
When I started dating my wife, she was amused by my routine, and slightly envious. For a woman, she explained, it would be nearly impossible to sit alone—anywhere—and remain undisturbed for very long. I didn’t give that much thought until about a year ago. Kate and I were sidled up to the taps at a Chestnut Hill watering hole having a bite when we noticed a young lady leafing through a magazine at the end of the bar. Sitting beside her was a well-groomed, middle-aged man who was apparently convinced that any woman out in public unaccompanied must be secretly craving the attention of the opposite sex. We watched for more than 15 minutes as his clumsy efforts to charm her were met with icy indifference. But instead of getting the message, he pressed on undeterred, fixated in his belief that the girl’s mere presence gave him tacit approval to act like a boorish ass.
In the wake of the horrific rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi—and news of the grotesque sexual assault perpetrated by a group of high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio—I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how hard we men make it for women to be, well, women.
Before you accuse me of making sweeping judgements against an entire gender—or unfairly pegging Chestnut Hill Romeo as a closet rapist—let me say that I believe most men treat women with respect most of the time (at least they think they do.) But if you want to understand what women endure on a daily basis, take a minute to step outside of your chivalrous self-conception and consider what “maleness” represents for a girl alone in the city. The things we take for granted—like sitting in a bar, going to a movie alone, running, or even walking home after a long day of work—come with added burdens for our sisters, wives and daughters for no other reason than that they carry a spare X chromosome in their DNA and a vagina in their pants. If you have the nerve to be born beautiful, dress nice or stay fit, you might as well hang a sign around your neck that says: “Creeps Welcome.”
I haven’t always been a picture of sensitivity. I was rattled out of my complacency after my wife’s 24- year-old daughter came to live with us last year to complete her first year at community college. Like most urbanites her age, Megan—a stunning, six-foot-tall red-head who is blessed with her mother’s natural beauty—relies on public transportation to get around. Our neighborhood isn’t so bad, but to get to the train she rides to and from work each day, Megan has to brave the bustle of Kensington Ave. and traverse about a quarter-mile of post-industrial wasteland bordered by several residential blocks where cardboard and plastic film have been deemed suitable substitutes for glass windows.
The day she moved in, I bought her a little pink canister of pepper spray to carry with her. But even a canister of kick-ass is powerless to soothe the angst of a beautiful girl surrounded by classless men intent on getting into her pants. It seemed like every day she had a different story: The leering, the cat calling, the choruses of “Yo Baby” and “Hey Mami!” Sometimes the aggressive flirting began in Center City and followed her all the way home.
Concerned by what she was hearing, my wife asked me a simple question: “Is Megan in any danger?” The answer I gave, which I regret to this day, was a very male-centric, “Don’t worry, it’s all talk. She’ll be fine.” It was an honest answer, I think, but it was also the wrong answer. Street harassment may not cause physical injury, but the violence is real. It’s sexual assault with a smile, no less intimidating than a grope or a smack on the ass. Now we make sure one of us is available to pick Megan up at the train each night after work.
Megan’s story is hardly unique. Studies show that as many as nine out of 10 women have been harassed in public at some point in their lives. Almost all have been the target of leering, honking or whistling, and more than 80 percent have been treated to a vulgar or sexist comment, or sexually suggestive gesture. Even more troubling: Three-quarters of females report having been followed by an unknown stranger in public.
In some places, women, and the men who love them, are fighting back. In Egypt, where women for years have faced what can only be called an epidemic of sexual harassment, vigilante groups have sprung up to go head-to-head with aggressors in the street. Here in the U.S., grassroots efforts like Stopstreetharassment.org and the Hollaback! movement teach girls how to respond to street harassment and encourage them to share their stories with others. But ultimately it’s up to us as men to start being protectors of women instead of aggressors. “No means no” doesn’t just apply to sex; women don’t wear a sign inviting us to invade their personal space.
Let’s say we try to have a little more class hey fellas?