When I was on the T the other day, I watched a group of men harass a woman. They were in their upper-20s, visibly intoxicated, and grasping the aisle pole for support. One man from the group was sitting next to the girl, who was probably about 19, as his friends looked on and laughed in encouragement. I watched as he leaned toward her face and asked her a slew of questions: Where are you from? What are you doing later? Do you have a boyfriend? The girl shifted in discomfort, looking down and fumbling with her phone. I walked over to the scene, positioned myself in front of her, and looked at her with knowing acknowledgment and support. I watched as she pretended to call her mom and got off at the next stop.
After she left, the men drunkenly discussed what they wanted to do to her, and I felt my blood pressure soaring. After a few stops, the men began to get off the train, but not before one moved toward my face and told me, “Don’t worry about me, sweetheart, I just like being drunk,” as the smell of his liquor-laced breath invaded my space. I gave him a slight shove off the train, as he and his friends laughed at my anger. In that moment I was fuming, but also glad that I did something.
After the incident, a few people with whom I shared my story told me that they were worried for my safety. They said that I should not have intervened, that I should not have shoved this strange drunk man, and that I should have kept to myself. They weren’t saying that I was at fault, but their advice was influenced by the same lesson all of us have been programmed to live by: Society will not teach men how to act, so women must be taught how to behave. Well, I’m tired of always trying to be on my best behavior.
Due to our country’s long history of systematic oppression and a culture of sexism, I think it’s time we talked about changing how men act. The reality is that, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, “females ages 18 to 24 had the highest rate of rape and sexual assault victimizations compared to females in all other age groups.” This is occurring, in part, because many Americans are taught sexist beliefs starting in kindergarten. When I was a girl in elementary school, I was told not to wear tank tops, short shorts, or miniskirts. Before I had even hit puberty and developed my sexuality, I was being taught that my body was not my own to control, and that if I neglected the rules set for my body, the repercussions would be my fault.
The way women are micromanaged doesn’t end with clothing; it stretches into mannerisms and public behavior. And it goes beyond telling women not to be too flirtatious or touchy. When a woman is being harassed or feels threatened, the way I was on that train, she is given contradictory orders: either fight back, or be quiet and let the instance pass by. The former is common advice given to women being harassed on the street. A man yelled at you? Why didn’t you yell back and tell him to back off? It seems neither decision will please anyone, considering I tried to defend myself and was still criticized for my actions. It undermines the potential danger of the situation and also suggests the woman was in the wrong. The idea that the woman should be silent and ignore the harassment also places the women into a subservient position.
Since it seems that no matter how I behave, I cannot go a few days without experiencing sexual harassment in some capacity, I think it is worth trying to educate men on how to act. Imagine how different things would be if my elementary school teacher told the boys to respect me no matter the clothes I chose to wear, rather than telling me which clothes to wear. Of course some perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault are women, but an enormous amount are not. According to a 2014 report by The White House Council on Women and Girls, nearly 98 percent of assailants are men.
We need to change the way we educate men and women. If men are taught to respect women—to see them as people and not things—maybe we could make some big changes. We need more substantial gender relations and sex education courses integrated into our school systems. Right now, most men are not taught to refrain from harassing women on the street, at least not through more than a wag of the finger. Men are largely not taught how to address and understand signs of consent. Men are hardly taught much of anything when it comes to the appropriate way to treat women.
Instead, women are told to carry mace and hold their keys between their knuckles at night. Women are taught to be cautious when drunk and travel in a buddy system. Women are taught to be aware and vigilant for their safety, at all times, because they never know when a man who cannot control himself will harm them. That is the everyday reality for so many women. This kind of lopsided living style cannot continue.