Today I discovered the Hollaback! campaign, an organization that uses social networking and mobile technology to draw attention to instances of street harassment, condemning it and offering a network of support to victims of it. Personally, I think this is really great, having been in situations where I feel overtly threatened in a public place where everyone pretends they don’t see what’s happening. The campaign has mobile apps that allow you to share incidents of street harassment and even mark the locations where it’s occurred to keep track of high-risk areas. The idea is that by making street harassment visible, publicly condemning it and its perpetrators, and “having each other’s backs”, we can start to shift the social dynamics that lead most people to turn a blind eye or make excuses for harassers.
Reading all the material on the Hollaback! website got me thinking about street harassment, and I recalled a story my roommate told me. Last Friday she wore this fantastic brown dress to work. It’s structured, professional, elegant, and it really brings out her natural curves. Apparently, some neighborhood men decided to appreciate it by yelling “Hey baby!” out their car windows at her.
This is not an appropriate response to a beautiful woman on the street.
I realize that it is not feasible for a man in a moving car to take a polite and non-threatening approach to introducing himself to a beautiful woman. However, as Hollaback! points out all over their website, sexual harassers aren’t usually looking for dates. They are aggressive, posturing, combative. It’s not a compliment; it’s a challenge.
But Chelsea wasn’t afraid of those men (probably because they were in a moving car); instead she thought, “Yeah, I look good!” I’m glad she had that reaction (though I would have preferred that the men yell “You’re beautiful!” out the window rather than “hey baby!” Much classier), because women are still entitled to feel sexy and beautiful.
I am not going to cover up my body just to avoid being ogled. (It doesn’t work in any case, as even women wearing burkas are routinely harassed and groped. Clearly it’s not an issue of clothing.) A harasser’s unprovoked behavior is not my responsibility. I love my body and I love to wear flattering, beautiful clothes and strut around feeling utterly fabulous. I also love to be complimented. I do NOT love being reduced to a sex object, and that’s what “hey baby” does. I am not your baby. I do not know you. I do not want you. I will not tolerate your challenge or your obscenity.
There is a difference between admiration and objectification.
Society has forgotten this simple fact. We admire beautiful things. We stand at a distance from them to better experience the whole picture. With permission, we come closer and get to know them and absorb the subtleties that make up a glorious whole. We use objects. We consume them and use them over and over again until they are worn out, broken, and no longer serviceable. Admiration is a feeling. Objects have no feelings.
Try to remember which is which.