As I waited in line for my very overpriced coffee in a semi-crowded Starbucks on a Wednesday, I noticed two guys…two men checking me out. As I attempted to ignore their blatant staring, I noticed something else. These two men were old enough to be my father, they were with their young kids, yet their ogling of me never ceased. But my level of safety and comfort quickly diminished. I wondered what I had done to set off their staring. Was it what I was wearing? A quick glance down at my t-shirt and too-big shorts told me no. Was my bra strap showing? Again, no. What was it that I had done wrong that they were staring at me in this way?
Nothing. I had done nothing wrong to attract their very unwanted attention. The only thing I had done was step foot in the store to feed my caffeine addiction and to read my book. That’s it. I wasn’t flirting with them, I wasn’t planning to interact with them in any way besides standing in line, and yet somehow I thought it was my fault that they were looking at me. And this interaction didn’t happen in a new, strange environment. It took place in the white, middle-class suburbia that is my hometown.
Now all of this took place in the span of five minutes, but in that time, I realized something.
How can one tell the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to harassment?
It’s a thin line…one that’s based on communication and societal perceptions. It’s forged from years of harassment and opposingly, years of kind words. The line is different for every person. But the line will always be thin between “love” and harassment.
The question is, is what do we do as a society about that line? Or is it up to the individual to understand their own boundaries? When does one cross the line?
In order to understand the thinness of said line, here are some examples of lines that I’ve heard in the past. Try to figure out which ones are “love” and which are “harassment.”
“Hey girl…oh you don’t wanna say hi to me? I get it.”
“You look beautiful today.”
“Hey, pretty mama how you doin’ today?”
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“You should be flattered that someone wants to compliment you.”
Think you have the right answers?
The answer was that all five of them could be considered harassment when you take into account the context they were in. Two of them included an attempt to touch me in some way (one grabbed my arm, the other went for my ass). Three included smiles and winks, none of which were reciprocated by me. All five produced the response of me walking quickly past them with my head down and my heart racing. See what I mean?
See what I mean?
In today’s society, the line is so thin that we are often hyper-vigilant in our quest to stop harassment. We are so afraid of making a commotion, drawing unwanted attention to ourselves. In the case of many women, myself included, we are wary to speak up against our harassers, because it could very well lead to more abuse or even physical violence.
If we expect this type of backlash and violence, what can we as a society do about it to prevent it from happening in the future?
I believe that we should teach people how to understand the difference between “love” and harassment. What I mean by this is that through education and prevention, we can help prevent everyday sexism and harassment. Of course, this isn’t a task that will be accomplished in a day. This is something that has been happening for decades, and sadly it may take time before we can truly acknowledge the irreparable damage.
Just because it’s always happened, doesn’t mean that it has to continue.