Ah, summer. Enduring six months of a freezing New England hellscape in order to re-enter the world of soft, swirling sand dunes and jeweled salty ocean waves. The perfume of sunscreen. Living in the city, battling the humidity as I take my dog to the park. Existing as a curvy, white, queer femme, cisgender woman. Feeling men’s eyes travel over my ass and my boobs as I walk down the street, hoping with each step they won’t initiate skin-crawling, dangerous contact.
For many of us, especially in cities, the danger, fear, and anxiety around being hypersexualized, fetishized, or body-shamed due to our gender, race, and/or body size spikes during the summer. We’re wearing cooler clothes to deal with the heat and to let our skin breathe and celebrate the season. More of our bodies are visible in public spaces. And entitled, threatening men come out of the woodwork to assert their claim of ownership to our bodies, an ownership we never consented to.
In the summer, I find myself even more self-conscious about my body than usual. I almost instinctively try to suck in my stomach and slope my shoulders down a certain way as I pass groups of men in the hope no one will direct their gaze at my chest or, even worse, try to talk to me. I try to minimize the amount of space I take up, becoming a walking example of what feminist theorist Sandra Bartky wrote about almost thirty years ago:
“Woman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other.”
I used to assign my college students these words, and they ring just as true in my own life as they did in 1990 when Bartky wrote them. If I, as a former gender studies professor with a Ph.D in feminist studies and a writer at The Body Is Not An Apology, still grapple with wanting to shrink myself against the backdrop of sexual harassment and rape culture despite my intellectual commitment to not wanting to give a f*ck, then I can only imagine how everyone else is doing.
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In 2018, it’s not that perpetrators of street harassment have never heard of the idea that it’s shameful and repugnant to make sexual comments about strangers’ bodies. (Or if they have, they’re living under a rock.) It’s that they don’t care. They’ve been taught by society that they have the right to do this, to freely offer their public commentary and appraisals of the objects of their desire. This happens to fat people, especially women, all the time, who are daily laughed at on the street and discriminated against by hiring managers and health care providers.
I can’t even imagine what my life would look like if I’d been raised with access to the entitlement that drives street harassment. As a queer person who doesn’t date men, I’m used to having well-defined arenas (often online) in which to flirt and initiate dates rather than creepily verbally evaluating someone’s body as they walk by or screaming at them out a car window. But the purpose of street harassment is not to compliment or flatter: it’s to exert power over.
Street harassment makes those of us targeted by it feel unsafe. That’s why it’s called harassment. It underscores the fear and anxiety we live with daily that our bodily autonomy and personal space are not our own, always in jeopardy of being invaded from an outside source. It’s the constant, looming threat of rape. It’s the definition of what we here at The Body Is Not An Apology define as body terrorism. For trans women, especially low-income trans women of color, street harassment is too often connected to violence in its most literal, naked form: disproportionate subjection to hate crimes and murder.
It’s hard not to see how the ubiquity of summer street harassment fits into the twisted logic of my larger U.S. society, which vivisects so many people’s bodies under a microscope of ruthless appraisal and violence.
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This is a fact I can’t separate out from my daily summer experiences of harassment as I walk down the street holding my phone and anxiously, obsessively reading the latest news dispatches from my flailing, toxic nation. While I fear sexual harassment and its underlying threat of rape as I take a step outside under the summer sun, in other ways I am also protected by my whiteness, being cisgender, and my status as a U.S. citizen.
Black and brown folks in the U.S., meanwhile, are being daily surveilled and tracked as threatening or “illegal” by police, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and by suspicious white people of all genders who think Black and brown people don’t “belong” in public spaces. The government of my country is locking up children in cages and flying them to far-flung concentration camps as they deport their parents. The former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who instituted an official policy of body terrorism against Latinx people, was pardoned by Donald Trump in 2017. And the police continue to murder Black people with impunity.
Only some of us in society have the privilege of having our bodies coded as “neutral” in daily life. “Neutral” usually means a combination of white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, straight-sized, able-bodied, and economically secure. If you’re all of those things, you’ve hit the positive treatment jackpot. Those whose bodies are viewed as neutral in various situations often then think they have jurisdiction to intimidate, startle, threaten, or summon violent authorities on people who are just trying to go about their day. This entitlement represents the apex of privilege and reflects a lack of empathy for the person or group being targeted, an absence of feeling that seems to define modern American society.
We are living in dangerous times. We owe it to each other to watch out for one another, to pay attention to how the most vulnerable among us are being treated on public transportation, on the street, on the way home from the club, and on the side of the road being detained. Whether we are walking our dogs, wearing a bikini and lounging by the sparkling sea, or just trying to enjoy the warm weather with our kids without being shot by police or seized for deportation, the ease and merriment represented by summer are something that should belong to all of us.
A respite from terror.
[Featured Image: A photo of a person with long, dark brown curly hair and a red shirt. They are smiling. Behind them is a tree. Source: Pexels]