Joe Samalin explains how his male privilege allows him to choose to ignore the reality of street harassment, simply because he can.
During a sexual violence prevention training with 40 enlisted air force men (‘airmen’), one young white man stood up and said that he had never thought about this issue before, until early one morning during a deployment overseas a few years ago. As he awoke and poked his head out of his tent he happened to see a friend, a female airman (females are ‘airmen’ too), walking by at a fast clip, her head down. He wished her good morning, but she ignored him. He called out louder, and a third time, with no response. He then ran out of his tent and caught up to her, asking why she hadn’t responded.
She seemed startled and he asked her if everything was ok. She told him that she was on her way to the chow hall for breakfast, and she hated the walk. It was a long one from her tent, and she got through it by keeping her head down and muscling through as best she could. He was 110% stumped about what she meant. Rather than explain, she told him to walk with her, and he agreed.
As he described that walk to the chow hall you could see he was viscerally reliving the experience. He said he didn’t know what to expect, what the issue was. And yet as they walked, he became aware of a strange sensation. At first he couldn’t put his finger on it but it grew, and eventually he knew exactly what it was. It was the feeling of being watched. As they walked, every single tent they passed opened. Men’s eyes were on them. Throughout the entire walk.
“Well, not on us,” he explained to us. “On her”.
Although the men were not looking at him, he said he physically felt their gaze and it was overwhelming. The men didn’t say anything during the walk. Didn’t catcall, didn’t threaten. But he said they didn’t need to. By the time they got to the chow hall he was physically shaken. He had never known that this was her experience every single day going to breakfast.
It was that walk to breakfast that led him to eventually become an Air Force Victim Advocate for survivors of sexual assault on his base.
To this day the memory that airman shared remains one of the most powerful examples of a man coming to the realization of how we as men are expected, trained, taught, raised, socialized, bullied, threatened and beaten into notseeing the epidemic levels of violence against women and girls all around us, let alone doing anything about it. It illustrated how powerful a look can be, how the public harassment of girls and women does not even have to be verbal to cause harm. How blind we as men allow ourselves and each other to get away with being.
And yet even though we are socialized and taught as such, it is still our choice as men to engage in the harassment of women and girls. Or to not. It is our choice and our privilege as men to ignore that street harassment exists, and its effect on the women and girls in our lives and countless others we will never meet (and who deserve every bit of respect and safety as do our mothers, partners, daughters, and sisters.)
In March 2012, right before International Anti-Street Harassment Week, I was working with a friend, my partner Bix, and others on a video modeling how men can challenge street harassment. As we filmed “Shit Men Say To Men Who Say Shit To Women On The Street” I had my own moment of truth. My partner was harassed during the shooting of the video – and none of the men involved, myself included, even noticed. This is the inherent injustice: my male privilege allows me to choose to ignore the reality of street harassment and other forms of gender-based violence, simply because I can.
Helping men reach their own moment of recognition of the true scope, scale, and impact of street harassment is one of the most important first steps to engaging men to challenge it when they see it and to change the culture that allows it.
Originally appeared at Stop Street Harassment
Joe Samalin and Stop Street Harassment are not affiliated with the Good Men Project. Copyright: Joseph Samalin. All rights reserved. Reprints or reposts with the permission of the author.
Photo: Flickr/Hello Turkey Toe