Every day, I walk 8 blocks down Fifth Avenue to work and then back again. Now that the weather is getting nicer in New York, I especially look forward to these walks when I can sip on my latte, do some window shopping, and bask in the sun before August rolls around and the hot air suffocates so much that it is unpleasant to be outside for a minute, let alone walk ten to work. However, there are often days that—weather problems aside— this walk turns from a pleasant moment of serenity to a time that ranges from annoying to scary. Sexual harassment is what I’m talking about, and there have been times when I’ve been harassed by five different men in the course of 10 minutes, or these 8 blocks to and from work. The type of harassment and specific remarks or actions vary—sometimes men whisper things like “sexy legs” or “nice ass” as we’re passing each other on the street. Other times the harassment is more threatening. I’ve had men follow me a few blocks before, and once even saw a man masturbating in his car while staring at me and saying things to get me to look over at him. While some of these incidents are obviously more dangerous than others, the collective effect makes me feel degraded, objectified, and many times, straight up scared. Even in my own neighborhood oftentimes in the middle of the day, my feelings range from annoyed at best to extremely fearful at worst. After these incidents occur, I find myself wishing I could disappear, that I could walk up and down Fifth Avenue completely unnoticed. But this thought itself is enraging—shouldn’t I have a fundamental right to walk to and from work without the constant fear of physical or verbal sexual assault?
The title of this post is something that male sexual harassers often say to women—“Hey baby, let me see a smile!” or some related version. Men say this to me, and to many of my colleagues and friends, as we’re going about our business—walking to work, waiting in line at the grocery store, on the subway. I don’t know about you, but I rarely have a smile plastered to my face at all times while I’m just living my daily life. Men seem to expect me to, however, and this expectation undoubtedly is related to their view of women and their gender roles. Women exist for men’s pleasure and use, whether it is functional, aesthetic, or sexual. Related, some men feel entitled to expect and demand women to act a certain way, and think nothing of trying to enforce these roles via sexually explicit suggestions, remarks, or gestures. This dynamic is pervasive, and can just as easily happen on Fifth Avenue as in a work environment.
Fortunately, as a civilian I am protected by equal opportunity policies and anti-sexual harassment laws that permit me to sue my employer for sexual harassment and have access to other forms of redress should this kind of thing happen in the workplace. I can also choose to leave my job, to quit at the drop of the hat. Many women are not afforded this luxury, however, if quitting a job because of sexual harassment means descending into poverty. Yet, despite how imperfect civilian workplace sexual harassment policies may be, they provide a lot more protections and forms of redress than the sexual harassment and equal opportunity policies in the U.S. military. Rape and sexual assault survivors in the military also find themselves in precarious positions, and are often left vulnerable and hopeless. Imagine being raped by your commander (boss/employer) and then being forced to work with him, in close, intimate quarters, every day! While I can easily choose to avoid Fifth Avenue or even duck into a public place for refuge, military women are forced to walk the equivalent of Fifth Avenue every day. And forget privacy protections—even though in recent years the military introduced a “restricted” reporting option that allows sexual assault survivors to receive healthcare and treatment without having to name their assailant, anonymity is unlikely to be preserved in practice. In fact, the DOD recently found that over half of sexual assault survivors who didn’t report the incident chose not to because of fear of retaliation or reprisal.
SWAN has been instrumental in persuading members of Congress to introduce legislation that would fill some of these gaps in military policy and ensure survivors of rape and sexual assault in the military are protected. Hopefully one day soon servicemen and women will have the same options I have to escape and address rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. But the underlying cause of sexual violence—an infectious combination of power, misogyny, and sexism—needs to be eradicated before women in both the civilian and military worlds can walk to work without fearing physical or verbal sexual assault.
Photo by Lida Rose (CC BY-ND 2.0)
DMDC 2010 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of the Active Duty Members – Department of Defense, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response
Lawmakers Propose New Protections for Military Sexual Assault Victims – Stars and Stripes