Published on October 1,2012 at 8:00 am in Noteworthy
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This summer, I spent my time away from the Boston area in New Orleans, Louisiana. I could easily turn this into an I-had-a-great-time post, but I’ll spare you the details and just say that I enjoyed my time. Unfortunately, however, my time was not free from street harassment, and I thought a lot about the difference in my experience with street harassment in Louisiana in comparison to my street harassment in and around Boston. While harassment on the street is about power and privilege, regardless of location, I did notice a few main differences in my experiences.
People were friendlier on the whole:
Now, I know I’m making a HUGE generalization here, so let me clarify – when I say friendlier, I mean more likely to engage strangers in conversation and to carry on that conversation for longer. On any given walk, bike ride, or bus trip, I was engaged in conversation by men and women that was polite and comfortable. I share this for a reason, though – to some degree, this cushioned the blow of harassment because the lines between harassment and conversations were more blurred.
know both men and women are likely to engage me in a nice, comfortable conversation, I’m not so afraid of being harassed, and an older man calling me “baby” or “honey” doesn’t feel quite as scary. In Boston, where people are less likely to approach me without a specific reason, harassment, as pretty much the only “communication” I have in public space, comes as a not-so-pleasant surprise, leaving me feeling more unsafe.
Benevolent sexism is more prevalent in every situation: Now, again, I know I am speaking in generalizations, but in my experience, I was baby, honey, sweetie, and every other infantalizing, belittling pet name under the hot, Southern sun. I got every door held open for me, heavy things carried for me, and men practically threw their coats over puddles for me. I heard the word “chivalry” spoken with pride at least a hundred times. Sure, I experience these things in Boston as well, but often out of habit and obligation of the men around me. This wasn’t habit or obligation for the men in Louisiana – each time I was “helped” was intentional and in alignment with a set of values that was clear. Acts of (gendered) kindness were something men thought I deserved, not something I should be grateful for, the way I experience these acts in the North. I certainly didn’t always love being treated like a princess who couldn’t do anything, but I was treated with kindness, and 9 times of out 10, men took no for an answer, even if they were shocked or confused.That’s something quite different from my everyday experiences in Boston.
Okay, so maybe this didn't actually happen
Many men were comfortable admitting they didn’t understand. In Massachusetts, we love nothing more than being snobby academics who are constantly engaged in intellectual pursuits. And we’re totally not ever racist, sexist, agist, classist, or homophobic (just ask – we have very old, poor, gay black friends and don’t even women should earn 80 cents on the dollar). It’s this attitude, this perception that we all know better, that forces our “isms” – in this case, sexism – to be more insidious. We liberals in Massachusetts may vote pro choice and donate to Elizabeth Warren, but these same liberal men refuse to stop holding the door open for me, saying that if we were really post sexism, I would shut up and say thank you. Men in Louisiana, having grown up in more open sexism, didn’t quite understand why it was such a big deal for me to open my own door, but on the whole respected my decision, and wished me a good day at the end of it! I didn’t get one argument about why I was wrong for thinking or feeling that way.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that there is something better or worse about either situation. However, it is easier to address something that is in the open, whereas something sneakier is difficult to even identify as sexist, nevermind address it with an action. I also don’t mean to imply that I felt less harassed in New Orleans – I was harassed just as often on the street by men of every age, class, and race or ethnicity. (I even hoped for a Hollaback! New Orleans to vent some of my frustrations, but no such luck.) What I do want to do is break the myth that street harassment levels are somehow correlated with the amount of positive legislation for women coming from a state. I’m happy that we vote for women in the state of Massachusetts, but why can’t we use that same support for women each and every day to make change in our regular lives? When I’m being followed home from work, I don’t particularly care how Massachusetts votes. When a man yells lude comments at my girlfriend and me, I’m not reminded of some liberal rhetoric. We in the Boston area are not superior to the rest of the country, and we still have a long way to go.
What have you experienced in your travels? Let us know!
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