The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly : Coming of Age as a Sex Object -- Part II: The Bad
While assault and violence are not always par for the course, harassment and victimization are. Harassment and victimization include non-violent acts of aggression. This is where pernicious misogyny lives. It is harder to deny a punch, a kick, or a slap than it is to deny a micro-inequity, tacit discrimination, mistreatment masquerading as propriety or, worse, flattery. The “Bad” of sexual objectification is its casual existence in everyday life. This is the truly hard part to eradicate.
I was around 20 years old when I came back from a legislative internship in the Texas House of Representatives. After spending five months on a small stipend living in Austin and commuting to Houston to see my husband, I was finally home. I was also unemployed and having no luck finding a job. By way of random connections, a Houston lawyer found me and offered to hire me. He would pay me $500 / week to work on an anti-tort reform campaign. That was fine by me. Week after week, I phone banked, block walked, gave talks, wrote talking points, and debated physicians who were convinced that tort reform would drive down their insurance rates. (It doesn’t, but that’s a subject for another day). I rarely if ever spoke to him or saw him. Every week, I would just get a check in the mail. Toward the end of the campaign—which we lost—my employer and I met up. I don’t remember the context but it was likely a campaign event of some sort. He was drinking, I wasn’t. At one point, I got up to leave. It was getting late and I wanted to get home. He followed me out of the bar, staggering, and started telling me how much he liked me. I was uncomfortable. He was at least 20 years my senior and married. I too was married. I got into my car, somewhat hurriedly. He leaned against my window, telling me how lucky my husband was. Then repeating that sentence. Then saying it again. I pushed the button to close my window. He put his hand inside the window, trying to push it down. I kept closing the window. Finally, he yanked his fingers back, prying them from where they were stuck, and I sped off. I was done with the campaign, so this didn’t matter a whole lot but I can easily imagine a scenario where someone really needed the money and had no exit strategy.
In my twenties, I worked at a large Houston law firm. The lawyers I worked with, including the men, were great co-workers. My boss was an exemplary individual. However, they could not control the other lawyers—those outside the firm—I would interact with. On a trip to Mexico, I was greeted by four local attorneys not affiliated with my firm. They were going to guide me through the next few days while we took depositions in local tribunals. We jumped into a car. Two of them were in the back seat with me, one drove, and another was in the passenger seat. The conversation quickly turned to my family life. I told them I was married to a medical student. They all told me that the wife of a medical student is never the wife of a doctor because physicians upgrade as soon as they graduate. If that wasn’t insulting enough, they then proceeded to try to convince me to sleep with them because my marriage was doomed anyway. Let me add this for color: I was very obviously pregnant during that interaction. These are not unique experiences and they forever color the way women move through professional settings. How so? It takes more energy to get through every interaction because we are negotiating a myriad of would-be transactions and interactions that men get to merely foist on us.
Sexualization of women in professional settings saps their energy. It detracts from their performance because it forces them to focus on what they are saying, what they are doing, where they are seated, what they are wearing not merely from a professional perspective, but from a sexual and intimate one. Imagine trying to negotiate a very important deal with someone who constantly wants to discuss the curtains. Now imagine that you aren’t allowed to talk about the fact that they want to discuss curtains. And if you do raise it, they will call you a liar and interfere with your career. See how it gets harder? That, right there, is the mental load created by sexual objectification of women. Similarly, more verbally aggressive forms of objectification similarly restrict women’s ability to move through the world with the same freedom men have.
Catcalling and street harassment also fall into this category of ubiquitous low-level aggression. As young as the age of 11, men whistled, tongue clicked, or yelled as I walked by. Some would approach me, terrifying me in the process. Public transportation was the worst. The proximity and lack of exit strategies trapped me with lecherous men. Nobody ever stood up for me. I learned to shift my weight, change seats, stand elsewhere (if possible) in the tacit and often futile attempts to put some distance between me and grabby hands. At 18 I moved to Houston. I consider myself lucky for living in a place like Houston where foot traffic is non-existent. By being in a car whenever I had to get from A to B, I finally avoided the daily dose of harassment and unwanted contact that pervaded by teens. However, when I travel to pedestrian cities, like New York, Chicago, or Boston all of my defense mechanisms kick in. I start thinking about how close I can get the Uber to the front of my hotel, I ask drivers to drop me off as close as possible to my destination, I cross the street when there is a crew or large group of men ahead, I avoid dark streets, I know where the lit sidewalks are, I slip my keys between my fingers….The list goes on. And I am not alone. Perusing https://www.ihollaback.org/ underscores just how mundane my experiences are. My experience of fear--yes, fear--is so mundane it makes me want to scream. Women walk around feeling at best uncomfortable and at best in fear.
When was the last time you experienced fear? Are you a woman? Think of a man close to you. When was the last time he experienced fear? I mean real fear. The pounding heart, the frozen thoughts, the tensing shoulders, the hole that forms in the pit of your stomach, and that sense of impending doom. Think for a moment what a privilege it must be not to experience that feeling every week, every month, every year. Yet, women do.
The ever-constant street harassment, compounded by the overall lack of security, the way women are dismissed when they do report, and experiences of physical assault instill women with fear. It is hard to talk about. It is hard to even admit that I am scared of something but that knotting of the stomach, tensing of the shoulders, shallow breathing and triggered reptilian brain are undeniable. That is fear. Most importantly, other than being unpleasant that reaction is exhausting. It takes energy: physical, mental and emotional. Not only for me but for women worldwide. The “bad” of sexual objectification lies right there.
Both of the scenarios above illustrate that fighting for our humanity takes a toll. Whether we are fighting to be seen as professionals, worthy of respect, or as humans worthy of safety, we have to fight through a layer of systemic misogyny. The time, energy and work that it takes to do that immediately get redirected from our other endeavors. While we have to battle on multiple fronts men don’t. While we are calculating steps between an Uber and a front door, men have leisurely conversations about their next big deal. While we try to stay safe from one block to the other, men get to relax as they take a walk through their city. The list goes on.
The “Bad” of sexual objectification is that women are locked into a constant negotiation: for power, for recognition, and for the right to move around freely. We know we deserve better; do you?