It's often said that women are asking for sexual harassment through their choices of clothing, or even that they secretly wanted it, and that if women don't want to be harassed, they should just cover up more. But a Facebook post about street harassment by Christen Brandt just proved that this popular notion is complete B.S. Street harassment has nothing to do with the victim and everything to do with the perpetrator's sense of entitlement.
Brandt is the co-founder and Director of International Operations of She's the First, which provides scholarships to girls in low-income countries. According to her Facebook post, as she was walking through a New York City subway station, a man said to her, "Damn, you have some great legs." She ignored him, but the popular advice that if you ignore someone they'll leave you alone didn't work. She wrote that he followed her, asking, "Did you hear me, honey? I said you have nice legs. Damn! Thank you."
As she pointed out, the "thank you" revealed the sense of entitlement to women's bodies that street harassers feel. It was "as if my give inches of legging-covered skin were there for him," she wrote. "Given as a gift wrapped in brown tights. Existing in the world for him to appreciate, or not."
The incident revealed another important characteristic of street harassment: As Brandt put it, it didn't matter that her skin was covered from head to toe in winter clothing. "All women have these moments. All of us. And yet the world acts as if it's still our problem to fix."
She posted a photo of what she was wearing, telling people to think of it "next time you wonder whether your skirt is too short, next time you ask your teen daughter to change her clothes, or the next time you hear about school dress codes in the news." Here it is:
That is the outfit that supposedly "invited" her harassment.
It shouldn't be surprising that women are sexually harassed in clothing that's not revealing given that it happens every day, even to Muslim women wearing hijabs. Sexual harassment occurs in cultures that teach men they're entitled to women's bodies, and no amount of cloth can block out that kind of intrusion.
These instances of harassment that occur when a woman is dressed conservatively, walking in a safe place, and doing everything else "right" are not the exception, Brandt tells Bustle over email:
Often, women who share their experiences of harassment are told, "You shouldn't have dressed that way/been there/said that/done that." In this case, I couldn't have been dressed more conservatively. I was walking confidently. We were in a well-lit, highly trafficked area during morning rush hour. I didn't do anything that could be construed as "wrong" or "asking for it," and I still got followed. And I know that this isn't what most people picture when they think about street harassment, but it is the norm.
Another common myth about sexual harassment, Brandt said, is that it's flattering. In fact, now that her story has spread, she has been getting hateful messages telling her to take the compliment. "Here's my measuring tape for whether something is harassment or a compliment," she said. "Would you say it to your sister?" She explains another barometer with a colorful image:
Imagine your mom (or Aziz Ansari, or a talking kitten, or some other non-threatening but awesome entity) following a man through a subway station, yelling at him about how great his yellow tie looks with his gray suit. Ridiculous, right? Now repeat the scenario, but an angry man takes the place of your mom. Scary, no? I'd feel bad for yellow-tie guy. That's harassment.
Unfortunately, Brandt, like every woman espousing feminist views on the Internet, has also run into accusations of being anti-men. Instead of blaming men for street harassment, though, she wants to include them in the movement against it. "We need men to step up and say, 'This isn't okay, and I'm not going to stand by or support any man in my life who thinks it is.'" She adds that every time a woman shares her story, she makes street harassment a more real, tangible issue for people who haven't experienced it.
"What happened to me was so common it's almost banal," she says. "But I have to believe that street harassment is something we can put a stop to, and I do believe we can — if we have men on our side."
Image: Courtesy of Christen Brandt