Since I was a young and slightly overdeveloped girl on the streets of Brooklyn, New York’s East Flatbush neighborhood, I’ve endured street harassment in the form of disrespectful, intimidating, sexualized verbal assaults by strange men. Only recently have I truly begun to understand how my experience is part of a larger troubling pattern.
One incident in particular — and the reactions to it — forced me to contemplate what’s happening here. A winter night last year, as I made my way home on foot, a random holder of an XY chromosome slapped me on the butt, running away like he was Usain Bolt’s younger, shorter cousin as I turned to confront him.
It happened less than two blocks from my home — the stretch where you begin to feel that the hardest part of the journey is over. That I was so close to feeling safe made the act all the more a violation. It happened too fast, and I was carrying too many items, for me to do my assailant the physical harm that most people would have agreed the situation justified. The best response I could muster was to yell that he was “a f–king bitch!” as he ran away.
I realized how absurd this incident was. How disempowering. Not just that the man-child thought it was acceptable to put his hands anywhere on a stranger’s body without permission. Not that the best reaction I could think of was to attempt to emasculate him with an epithet. Not just that when I shared the story, a male acquaintance tried to convince me that the assault “was a compliment.” Not just that a male family member — who has two daughters of his own — mused that the size of my behind would have rendered me incapable of being fast enough to catch up with the violator.
It was that it was so typical. Just after I set about writing about the incident, a friend in London told me about a man who attempted to follow her and force himself on her as she made her way home one Saturday night. She was shaken but thankfully managed to fight him off. She wondered aloud to me if she had somehow done something that had inadvertently invited him into her space. I told her she did nothing that justified his actions.
Unfortunately, such is the nature of our collective consciousness regarding violence toward women: Whether victim or almost victim, we often cast the questioning gaze inward rather than outward to the larger values, language and definitions that provide the foundation for our expectations, reactions and ideas of normalcy.
My assault, and my friend’s, were symptoms of something bigger. That something is the not-always-literal violence but, rather, the constant lateral and psychological violence that too many of us are subject to daily. It is the assumption that women are somehow tractable and delicate but yet meant to bear the brunt of male aggression, sexual and otherwise. It is the experience of women who are raped and never come forward because they know their deeds and lives will likely be scrutinized more than their attackers’ will. It is the slut shaming — by men and women alike — that women endure for seeking pleasure that isn’t sanctioned by men or religion, whether through adornment, dance, sex or any of the multitudinous ways a person can truly inhabit her body.
It is that on average, female workers in the United States earned 80 percent of what their male counterparts did in 2013. It is the plethora of soldiers around the world who have raped women to demonstrate their power since time immemorial. It is the fact that the phrase “legitimate rape” was ever uttered and entered our consciousness. It is that what women do with their bodies is fodder for political agendas, and yet men’s bodies are rarely, if ever, subject to the same levels of policing.
There is an unspoken rule that seems to lead people — not just men — to believe that men’s actions are justified regardless of how they affect women. Speaking about this does not make me an angry black woman, a male-basher or the wearer of whatever other tropes you may be able to conjure. It makes me a truth teller, critical of male privilege and the inherent violence it enacts on everything and everyone touched by Western culture — whether tangentially or directly.
Privilege is infectious. It manifests itself in our politics and in our collective consciousness as well as on dark streets close to home, and in women’s lives around the world.
Niama Safia Sandy is a creative anthropologist, writer and aspiring curator of Caribbean heritage. This column was submitted to “My Thing Is,” a Root.com forum for personal narratives by its readers and contributors. The Root is a daily online magazine published by The Slate Group, a division of the Washington Post Co.