It’s tough being a woman these days. Earlier this week a video was released showing what women deal with when walking down the street in public. In the video, an actress walked the streets of Manhattan for 10 hours and was subjected to dozens of catcalls and aggressive advances from men. In one case a man followed the actress for five minutes despite being ignored.
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for this woman and countless others who experience this daily. I guess I knew that this type of behavior went on, but I never appreciated the toll it could take on women until I watched this video. As a man, I’m never really concerned that a stranger will follow me down the street. It made me wonder how we got to a place where men have no reservations about making a woman feel uncomfortable.
Sadly, I have been disappointed in the tone of the conversations that I’ve seen as a result of this video. It seems that people are only focused on bashing men. To be sure, men must take responsibility for their behavior. However, I think this approach is an incomplete diagnosis of both the problem and the solution.
I don’t believe that men develop such bad habits in a vacuum, they are influenced in part by society. I wish more people would put two and two together by drawing a connection between our over-sexualized culture and its devolving impact on male and female interaction. At every turn we see the media using female sexuality to appeal to men. It’s not just internet porn sites. Men are regularly invited to objectify women in magazines and on television. For example, I have no idea why I should buy a web domain name from GoDaddy.com other than the fact that they use bikini models in their Superbowl commercials. Given this backdrop, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that a man might forget that the woman he’s openly demeaning is a human being and not an object for his viewing pleasure.
Also, we have to be honest with ourselves. If we can take off the “don’t blame the victim” hat for just a moment, we see that women play a role in this as well. The truth that we’re not allowed to mention in these conversations (for fear that we’re excusing bad behavior) is that some women have no qualms about using their femininity to get attention from men. Whether dressing provocatively or mutilating their bodies, using womanly wiles is the oldest trick in the book. My wife has told me that almost every group of friends she’s ever had always has one or two women that push the envelope to attract men or even advance their career. When women stoop to this level, they make it worse for others. Though I personally believe that a woman is worthy of respect even if she’s “asking for it”, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that men get mixed signals from women on how to be approached. To paraphrase a famous comedian, you can’t blame someone for expecting you to help them in an emergency if you’re dressed like a cop.
The point here is that cultivating respect for women goes far beyond wagging our fingers at men when they behave badly. Though, I strongly believe in personal accountability, we as a society also have to send a pervasive and consistent message about respecting women as people. I also think women have to take the lead role in addressing women who objectify themselves. These efforts may not eliminate street harassment of women, but it could make it more of an uncommon occurence than the norm.