There have been over 4,000 pieces written on the Clarion Content in the last six years, more than 300,000 words. The following are some of the words I am most grateful to share.
It is a hard story. But listen up. It is our story, our world, our responsibility.
Public Harassment, it’s a shame. Stop it.
by: Janice Smith, Agent of Change, Durham, NC
I was 16 when I got my first job. There was never a debate as to where I would submit my first application, as I’d been eating at Friendly’s Family Restaurant for all 16 years of my life. What I didn’t know at the time was the many ways it would open my eyes to a world completely new to 16-year old me.
The first time I can remember it happening I was scooping ice cream at what we called ‘the fountain’, in the middle of the service area, right next to the kitchen. Standing only 5’ 4” then, this required me to bend over every time I went in for another scoop. It was a slow day, probably around three in the afternoon, and the cooks seemed to have some extra time on their hands. They decided to spend this time staring through the small window in the swinging kitchen doors the entire time I was scooping ice cream, resulting in a large variety of comments and cat-calls. This was the first time I can remember getting that feeling where chills shoot up and down your body and you feel totally, completely exposed. Despite the fact that I was wearing clothes, I might as well have been naked. That’s how vulnerable I felt.
I wish I could say this was the last time, but that is not true, or that I was the only one, but that is not the reality. Once I noticed this behavior existed, I began catching every look and hearing every comment. The newly discovered feminist in me finally had a vocabulary for it, and I was more than ready to bring this to the attention of the managers. That’s what they were there for, right? To protect us as employees, to make sure it was a safe and ‘friendly’ work environment, and to make sure that everybody was following the rules. But I’ll also never forget the look they gave me when 16-year old me went to them with multiple reports of ‘sexual harassment’. It was a look of dismissal. A look of entertainment at this naïve girl who didn’t yet understand that this was the way the world worked. Followed by the quickly offered response that they were sure it was just a ‘joke,’ that ‘nobody meant any harm,’ and perhaps I should wear looser pants.
Shortly after this conversation, word got back to the cooks and it only got worse. More comments, more obvious staring. Sexual harassment? They’d show me what sexual harassment really was. Especially since we had both heard the same message: they were doing nothing wrong. And the management certainly wasn’t going to do anything about it.
And like women all over the world, I took it. I needed to make money. I had friends there. I only had a couple more months until I went off the college. We all have a list of reasons.
Eventually my time at Friendly’s ended, and off to college I went. Now it was my sophomore year at American University when I was sitting through a course titled ‘Critical Issues in Justice’. Our reading preparing for that class had been about sexual harassment lawsuits, and as a Women & Gender Studies major I was excited about the conversation that was sure to follow.
It was about 15 minutes into class when a professor posed the question: “How many people in this class have been sexually harassed?” My hand immediately went up, recalling not only my experience at Friendly’s, but the many other experiences that had followed it. When I looked around the class, to my shock, I saw no other hands, and despite knowing that this was statistically impossible, I suddenly regretted putting my hand up.
Could this be true? Was I really the only one in the class who had an experience like this? Or was I the only one who knew the name for it? OR, had they already learned the lesson that I had failed to internalize from my Friendly’s experience, but was about to have reinforced here?
Having no other choices, the professor called on me to offer some of the details of my experience. It was too late to take that raised hand back. I had volunteered. So I answered his probing, personal questions and recounted my experience at Friendly’s. This example seemed easier to explain than looks or comments that I sometimes received on the street, or the inevitable honks every time I chose to run on busy roads in either running shorts or spandex leggings.
His immediate response when I finished?
“Well, what were you wearing?”
The back and forth between the professor and I could generously be described as ugly, but if we accounted for the extreme humiliation that I felt when being subtly called promiscuous in front of a room full of my peers, it was much brutal more than that. Scarring, perhaps? I still wonder how much the other students in the room knew what was happening and the seriousness of what he was doing and what I felt.
I have to believe that some of the other women in the class saw what was coming, and were abler than I in avoiding it. Had they had been conditioned by previous experiences of speaking out? Had they learned the lesson my complaints and the response at Friendly’s had failed to embed in me? All of this in a class titled ‘Critical Issues in Justice’. Ironic, to say the least.
This time, as compared to my 16-year old experience, I was older, better educated on the issues, and braver. I immediately opened my syllabus to look-up the professor’s office hours, and I put that visit on the top of my to-do list. At the first opportunity, I charged up to the second floor, walked straight into his small corner office, and told him exactly what I thought.
“To start with, even posing that question in a public environment was inappropriate and invasive.”
“To then follow it up with an insinuation that I had done something to deserve that kind of harassment was not only politically incorrect, but emotionally insensitive and the complete opposite of what we should be learning in a class on social justice!”
“Lastly, I hope you realize the strong message you sent every female in that room with your actions. Whether you intended to or not, you taught them the incorrect definition of what sexual harassment actually is, and what will happen if they ever talk about or report cases of sexual harassment.”
Did my rant in his office accomplish anything?
I’m still not sure.
It did make me feel like I had done something to stand up for myself, which was important enough to justify it to me. And I hope that it causes him to think twice every time he talks to a young woman, every time his mother or daughter walks into the room, and every time he teaches that lesson. I hope that never again does another student have to put up with his public interrogation or humiliation. My decision to act on what he had done, my ability to critique it in mature, contextual language in some way made me feel like I had grown since those days at Friendly’s, and that I was now more equipped to handle situations like these in the future.
So here we are today, eleven years later, I am now in living in ostensibly liberal, cosmopolitan, Durham, North Carolina. This morning, when temperatures reached record lows, I was standing in line at the downtown post office. Before you ask, I was wearing my fleece-lined leggings, warm boots, and a hoodie. As I was waiting for the clerk to weigh my packages, I noticed a man behind me in line with his phone out. Not in a ‘I’m texting a friend’ or ‘Checking my email’ kind of way, but in a ‘I’m holding it vertically pointed right at your ass and taking a picture’ kind of way. I’ve taken enough iPhone pictures to know the difference, and it was immediately clear this man was taking a snapshot.
Again, I got that all-too-familiar chill. Top to bottom, nerves tingling, couldn’t possibly feel more exposed, kind of chill. Where am I? Where was that strong girl who charged into the Ward Building ready to demand an apology now?
11 years later. 11 years older. Should I have been 11 years stronger? Shouldn’t my toolbox should be full of 11 years worth of ways to respond to this situation?
Instead, I just stood there shocked. And secretly wishing that I had a pair of baggy sweatpants in my backpack I could put on.
What was he going to do with that picture? Keep it on his phone? Text it to somebody? Post it online?
All I could do was give him my very best ‘Are you kidding me?’ stare. When he finally noticed (it took a good 30 seconds), he fumbled around and dropped the package he was mailing, along with his phone. The phone landed screen up and my suspicion was verified when I could see the camera app open. He looked embarrassed for a minute and quickly slid it into his pocket.
I spent the next two minutes thinking about what I should say to my harasser, but ultimately I said nothing. Not because I was being the bigger person. Not because I didn’t know what to say (I had 7 different options), but because I was too scared. What would he say in response? What would those around us say? How many of them would then look at what I was wearing and make the same insinuation my professor did 11 years before? I didn’t even give him one last glare as I walked away.
I’m left with the question ‘Why not?’. If I know better, if I KNOW this was inappropriate behavior, if regardless of what anybody else calls it, that head-to-toe feeling tells me everything I need to know about whether or not this type of behavior is acceptable or harassing, then why did I do nothing? Probably the same reason I’ve debated whether or not to leave my name off of this piece. Because sadly, a large number of you will read it and ask the following question, even if only in your head, “Well, what kind of leggings were they? How tight? Could you see through them?”
How pervasive is the cultural message if I (and other women) can hear the derisive critique before we even defend ourselves?
So what do I expect to come from writing this? Similar to my experience at American University, it will start by giving me a bit of personal peace. While I might not have done anything in the moment to address the violation, I have done something. But more importantly, perhaps men who read this will think twice in the future.
It is inappropriate to take pictures of women in public without their consent. It is inappropriate to stare and use your eyes to publicly undress someone. It is inappropriate, harassing behavior to catcall women in the street.
All this is inappropriate no matter what they are wearing, no matter what time of day it is.
It probably won’t stop the thoughts, as we’ve all been socialized for lifetimes to have them. Men objectify women. But if culturally and personally we can recognize these behaviors, think about the impact of them on the other person (think about them as a person), and stop ourselves from expressing them, we will slowly find ourselves small steps closer to a world where someone (or everyone) else in the post office line would have stepped up, called this man out and shamed him into stopping what he was doing.
Feature photo credit Alex Sandifer.
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