Friday, December 9, 2011

Stranger sexual harassment part 2

In October, I went to the National Lawyers Guild Annual Convention in Philadelphia. I traveled by plane with several fellow female law students, and after we arrived, one of them told the rest of us about her experience on the flight to Philly.

To give some background, this woman is a passionate advocate of women's rights (among others), and I consider her to be someone who is sure of herself and her values. She stands up for herself and holds several leadership positions at King Hall.

She had a window seat on the plane. A man, maybe in his late-twenties to mid-thirties, occupied the seat next to her. When he sat down, he made some small talk, took up both armrests as most men tend to do (the topic of men thinking they are entitled to space over women is for another day), and she put on her headphones when the small talk ended. The conversation did not consist of any talk of a sexual nature, nor did she make any indication that she was interested in him. Shortly thereafter, she felt something on her leg. She looked down to see that the man had placed one of his fingers on the side of her thigh that was closest to him. She said nothing. He then placed more fingers on her thigh to the point where, eventually, his entire hand was resting on her leg. She said nothing. He then proceeded to move his hand up her leg toward her crotch, and right before he got there, she shifted her weight and crossed one leg over the other, forcing him to remove his hand.

After she told us this, my first response was, "well, did you punch him in the face?" She said that she didn't say or do anything. She said that she was absolutely terrified and shocked that it was happening and simply froze. She didn't know what to do, and she didn't feel comfortable confronting him despite the fact that his touching was completely unwanted. Her mind was screaming with things to say, but she couldn't make them come out of her mouth. I was shocked. I thought to myself, if I was in that situation, the moment that man's finger touched my leg, I would have blurted out, "why the fuck are you touching me? Get your hands off of me!" I was absolutely flabbergasted that this intelligent, strong, feminist woman sat there in silence while a stranger groped her.

Another female fellow law student responded by telling us about her experience on BART not that long ago. It was fairly late at night, she was riding home on BART with a female friend, and an Oakland Raiders game had just ended. Two drunk, middle-aged men who had just left the game sat across from her on the train. They immediately hit on her and her friend, talked about their bodies and appearances, asked them very detailed and inappropriate questions about their sex lives, and made gestures and comments regarding specifically how they would have sex with them. She and her friend mostly blew them off or ignored them, but when they started talking about how they had daughters that were her age, she asked them how they'd like it if older men talked to their daughters the way they were talking to her, to which they replied, "whatever. I don't care." When she continued to be non-responsive to their harassment, they called her a dyke, saying, "what, you don't like the cock?" They then tried to talk her and her friend to giving them a "lesbo show." They endured the harassment until they got off the train. She said that she felt intimidated, especially because there were two older men who were drunk and very verbally aggressive.

Again, I was floored by the fact that both of these strong, pro-feminism women just sat there and allowed strangers to sexually harass them. I wonder if, in light of the research done by Fairchild and Rudman, these experiences contributed to either of these women feeling self-objectified.

After I heard the stories, I imagined how I would have reacted if I were in those situations. My impulsive response was that I would be very confrontational and make it clear that their behavior was not acceptable. But would I? I thought back on the times that I've been sexually harassed by a stranger, which thankfully has mostly been verbal harassment. I ignore it and I try to avoid the harasser. I apply a theory that I learned while studying Psychology in undergrad which is used when children engage in attention-seeking behavior: extinction conditioning. I ignore the harassing behavior so that the person doing it learns that he doesn't get a response when he harasses; if ignoring the behavior happens all or most of the time, eventually he will learn that harassing doesn't result in getting attention or getting girls. I realize that in this situation, as the research suggests, ignoring the harassing actually has the opposite effect.

In doing research for this blog, I came across some articles that reveal how countries have actually attempted to address the issue of stranger harassment. In India, women were getting groped and yelled at so frequently that the country created the "Ladies Special" - an all-female commuter train. Mexico City introduced women-only buses that are marked with pink placards. Japan has also experimented with female train cars.

But these are only surface-level fixes to a pervasive problem. Some have argued that it's sex discrimination itself - segregating men and women because men can't control themselves. In part 1 of this blog, I discussed how the research shows that there has been little attention paid to the problem of stranger harassment. In these countries, it seems as if attention is being paid to it, but not the right kind of attention. If the people who implemented these segregated transportation systems really want to fix the problem of stranger harassment, they're going to have to go deeper than pink buses and trains. They must address it at the legislative and judicial levels. Keeping men and women apart during transportation will only stall the harassment; holding men accountable and providing recourse for women who get harassed will curb it.

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