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I was outside the Back Cove Hannaford, loading groceries into the backseat of my car, when a scene unfolded right before my eyes. Two fellows outside the giant automatic doors hollered at a young woman who was exiting. I wasn’t quite sure what was said – but it startled the woman enough that she turned her head in their direction. This seemed to encourage the louder of the two men, who launched into increasingly graphic requests for her to give them even more attention. It was sooo cliché it was utterly dismissable – it was as if this guy had distilled every word, phrase, and grunt, and inflection that the “men-are-pigs/construction worker/street hustler” stereotypes have to offer.
Except this wasn’t a movie, or a coffee break joke, or an amusing anecdote shared by a friend. This was real, and I was staring at it.
Each and every one of us has a myriad of options when the street harassment card is dealt – whether we are the victim or the bystander. But what was really going on here? Was it a fact that these two men had transformed a woman’s innocuous visit to the grocery store into something she did not want? Was she appalled? Maybe she was even fearful. Or… was this perhaps appealing to her? Or maybe just slight discomfort. I didn’t know. How WAS I to know? But wait – how were THEY to know, either…?
What was apparent was that the woman had focused her gaze on the ground in front of her, she’d drawn in her shoulders and arms, and quickened her feet – scurrying steps interspersed with little gliding hops. She looked like she wanted to be anywhere but right there, in that parking lot, subject to a random act of sexism.
And the men were laughing. The laughs mixed with resentful chatter, now that she was getting into her car – damned if she did. Damned if she didn’t. But at least it was over. For now. This time. Phew.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. I wish I could say I had never seen this before, and that I’d never see it again. But that would be an outrageous lie. I CAN say that it’s never happened to me. But then, many of us men can say that. Many of us know nothing of the irritation, disgust, and/or dread that acccompanies such experiences.
If we listen to the women in our lives we hear these stories – sisters, girlfriends, aunts, partners, coworkers. It is an everyday hazard of merely walking outside in a populated place. Because it’s normalized, should we just learn to live with it? Should we – and by we, I actually mean women – accept that our personages are intrinsically on display for the world to notice, make comments, and feel free to engage us? Where is the boundary? Can one man’s flirtation be another woman’s harassment?
Aren’t we all just getting too sensitive and PC for our own good? Shouldn’t we all just lighten up and laugh it off? Look, I’m all for personal freedoms, but is a harmless little whistle or well-meaning compliment really an infringement…?
Back to the afternoon at Hannaford. I got in my car and made a little loop so I could pass by those two men. They were walking away, still yukking it up and I stopped and rolled down the window. A thousand things were racing through my head. “You two disgust me!! Do you have any daughters?? How dare you harass that woman!? I wish you were made to feel like a piece of meat every time you went outside! Fuck you for making men look even worse than we already do!” Some classic male responses, interestingly – outrage, anger, and violent retribution!
I didn’t actually ever say any of that. As a man, I understand the sometimes very volatile nature of confronting other men on their behavior. (Men, after all, get to fear men’s violence, too) Instead, I took the “I don’t know you guys, and you probably didn’t mean anything by it… BUT, I think that was some pretty offensive stuff back there, and that woman didn’t deserve to be treated like that.” They got angry and indignant. “Who the hell do YOU think you are? It’s none of your business WHAT we do!”
“Well, you kind of make it my business when you’re yelling across the parking lot. Look guys, I’m not trying to judge your character, I just think you can treat people with more respect. It’s about respect. Know what I’m sayin’?” They seemed to soften a little bit and the “eff you” rhetoric shifted to “Hey, man, we’re not trying to hurt anybody. Yeah, it’s not very respectful…”
I drove away under no delusion that I had “fixed” these men, or that I had chivalrously fulfilled any enlightened-man-to the-rescue quota for the week. It was about seeing injustice, calling it out and imploring the offenders to – at the very least – think about those actions a little more carefully. That sequence of accountability always begins with one’s self.
I hollaback because I have women in my life that I care about deeply. I hollaback because I know that I inherited an unjust power, privilege, and influence – merely because I was born male. I hollaback to demonstrate that men can be part of the solution! I hollaback because feminism and all forms of equality activism benefit humanity. I hollaback to help shape a world where we can all be free to be who we are when we want. I hollaback so that my future daughter can be valued and respected for the entire palette that composes her being!
In honor of Black History Month, and his recent birthday, I’ll leave you with another man’s words that were aimed at a not altogether unconnected societal ill.
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr
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