The better you understand how sexual harassment functions, the easier it is to work against it.
One of the facts of life that I’ve come to know in my 50 years of learning is that, in general, members of privileged groups are oblivious to 1) their unearned privilege and 2) moments of oppression—or the possibility of it that lingers in the air—that people who are not members of privileged groups experience often, without warning.
I’ll pause here because I can already see some of you rolling your eyes. You’re about to click the ‘back’ button to read something else or shut down your laptop, altogether. Or maybe you’re about to write me off as a left-wing nutbar.
Don’t. Hear me out, instead.
Let me provide an anecdote to try to make my point about how social privilege works. Earlier today, I was walking in my Vancouver neighbourhood. Coming directly towards me was a woman. Visual cues indicated that we were about to turn onto the same sidewalk, she to her right and me to my left. Rather than rushing ahead of her, I slowed so that she could pass ahead of me. The result was that, for about 15 feet, I was following behind her.
For that brief amount of time, I wondered if she instantly felt self-conscious, fearing that I might have been checking her out from behind and assessing her sexually on physical attributes. I wondered if, in other places and at other times, she has been the target of unwelcome sexual leering and comments from boys and men throughout her life. I wondered about sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and even sexual assault at the hands of boys and men. Boys and men have been targets of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, too, but the difference is that girls and women are generally more vulnerable in public space than are boys and men.
As one example of male privilege, I can generally roam around in public completely free of the fear that I’ll be sexually ogled. Many women do not have that privilege. How they look and what they’re wearing have nothing to do with it because ogling is about men’s behaviour. Let me say that again: men’s behaviour. To believe otherwise is to support rape culture, which is the belief that women deserve what they get because they were in the wrong place, doing the wrong things, and wearing the wrong clothing. It is not just some men who believe such—let me put it politely—hogwash. Some women support it, too, such as socially ultraconservative women, religious zealots, and the like.
I am not saying that girls and women are passive victims, powerless to the unwelcomed leering and advances of men. To be a victim is to take on an identity of deference. Instead of victim as a noun, I prefer to describe targets of oppression with the verb form of victim, which is victimize. There is a key difference between being a victim and being victimized. The pervasive threat that lingers in the public air is that any girl or woman can be victimized in public space, at any time.
One of the defining characteristics of belonging to a privileged group is that most members are oblivious to how other people, by simple virtue of their not belonging to a privileged group, can be victimized through verbal or physical harassment or assault. Many men, for instance, do not understand how sexism and misogyny play out in small, discrete moments in the lives of girls and women, everyday. It doesn’t happen to most men, so we just don’t see it.
A complex problem is that if members of privileged groups don’t see the undeserved oppression of others, then chances are that they will remain ignorant of their own unearned social privilege. Unless you’re a member of a targeted group, it takes constant effort to see the oppression of others. It’s hard work. Let me provide three examples, setting aside so many others such as religious, cultural, able-bodied, and class privilege. Most men don’t see how they benefit from male privilege, despite how it plays out in their lives, everyday. Straight people have to work very hard at seeing their straight privilege. They can flaunt their sexuality, i.e. publicly announce their marriages and perform Public Displays of Affection without fear of getting bashed, while not having a clue that other people cannot. Take this unabashed celebration of hetero love, for instance. Notice that there isn’t a single gay or lesbian couple in any of the photos? That’s the usual state of affairs but many straight people wouldn’t notice. Similarly, White folks struggle to see White privilege; most don’t see it and many emotionally react against the very idea.
The difficulty in merely seeing the oppression of others is why educating for social justice is such a difficult enterprise. We who teach it spend too much time demonstrating that oppression exists in the first place. You might not be directly affected by it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t adversely shape the lives of people who are not you.
I’m not talking, necessarily, about overt racism, homophobia, and sexism. I’m not saying that men are bad people for having privilege, if “bad people” even means anything. Instead, I’m talking about social conditioning of prejudicial ideas that become normalized. The culture of misogyny, for instance, is mirrored in pop culture media, including toys for girls to instil passiveness, overt sexuality at younger and younger ages, and a princess identity that teaches her to defer to the prince who will supposedly sweep her off of her feet. I’m not against girls’ and women’s sexuality. I’m against the message so common in media and consumer goods that sexuality is all they’re worth and all they have to offer. That message is everywhere, all around us.
Fortunately, there are many men who recognize their social privilege as men. They also see how girls and women are potential targets of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, and how our media-driven, contemporary, modern society endorses girls’ and women’s inferiorization, hyper sexualisation, and degradation. Those are big words but they describe something real in the everyday lives of girls and women that most boys and men do not experience or even have to think about. That’s male privilege, right there.
Back to the woman who I encountered while going for a walk. It likely would not have been apparent to her that I’m gay (Well, it might have been apparent. Who am I kidding?) and not interested in her that way. But, in that very moment, my sexuality was beside the point. What mattered to me was that I take some responsibility for the possibility that she might feel uncomfortable with me, a male stranger, walking behind her. And so, I took it upon myself to turn the next corner instead of following her across the road, which I could have easily done. It was a tiny moment of awareness turned into action, despite how insignificant it seemed. It is these seemingly little daily moments that build a life based on responsibility and change.