I had an interesting series of thoughts this morning as I was looking at a stranger’s butt. Okay, let me back up a step. This weekend a friend shared with me that her teenage daughter experienced her first encounter with street harassment. The encounter was actually quite alarming, and as a former investigator one of my first thoughts goes to the perp’s MO, as in “I wonder what about her hair style and clothing style attracted this guy. I wonder what about the way she was walking made her his target.” The way the incident happened, there was something about her that this guy felt made it worth his while to engage with her in a very threatening manner. In this encounter, she wasn’t simply walking by on a sidewalk and he chose to cat call her. In this instance he put himself in her path, stopping her in her tracks thereby treating her as an object to be moved or disrupted, as opposed to an autonomous human being with thoughts, feelings, and purpose.
So this morning I was running an errand and a guy cut right in front of me while I was walking. He seemed preoccupied and I genuinely think he never saw me. But since he nearly crashed into me, I took note of what he was wearing and what he looked like. What stood out to me was that his shorts were so low his entire butt was visible. He had underwear on, but his entire backside was showing above the top of his shorts. I find this fashion trend absurd, but it got me thinking about my friend’s daughter.
This young man is likely not going to encounter any street harassment for having his butt hang out or his underwear showing. No one is going to think he is “asking for” anything, be it verbal sexual harassment to rape. His public display of his underwear will not be mistaken as an invitation for sexual assault. He won’t be labeled a slut or a whore. I bet no one will even tell him to pull up his pants or invest in a belt. No one will police his body, make assumptions about his sexual history, nor assume he’s going to end up working a stripper pole.
He’s just a guy with his ass hanging out.
Girls, you get to play by a different set of rules.
Think about life now for my friend’s daughter. She is a young teen who is now indoctrinated into the club of women and girls who know that no matter what we are wearing or what we look like, at any time we can encounter street harassment from men. I was fourteen when this first happened to me. I felt embarrassed about my body, I didn’t want the sexual attention the way it was being given. It made me feel cheap. I wished my boobs would go away because as excited as I was to get them, so far they were just causing me trouble. I was scared to tell my mom about it, even though she and my dad had raised me to expect respect from people and how to stand up for myself. It took some older girls taking me under their protective wings to teach me that when street harassment happens there was nothing wrong with my body and that I should be proud of it.
The summer it happened these older college girls taught me that I wasn’t the problem, the boys and men doing this were the problem. It was the guys on the street, the pervy dads in the bleachers, the guys on the other school’s soccer team, the construction workers at the job site. They were the problem, the thoughts they were voicing and the actions they were choosing to follow through on. THAT was the problem. Not a fourteen year old girl walking down the street.
These older girls helped me develop some tactics to deal with guys like that. Sometimes you make a joke of it or flirt back and then quickly leave to dissipate the situation. Sometimes you act like a hard ass and use foul language. Sometimes you just ignore it. Sometimes if you get groped you throw a punch or a knee to the groin. You do whatever you have to to stay safe. Sadly, I think I was well into college before I even knew the term “street harassment”. It was happening to me and my friends and we didn’t even know what to call it. We just thought it was “guys being guys”, but that assessment isn’t very fair to the guy friends we had who acted respectfully towards us and around us.
These situations happened to me regularly, and it had nothing to do with how I was dressed or what I was acting like. I was just a girl who dared to take up space in public and that fact alone made some guys think I was their property. And so it was with my friend’s daughter this weekend.
So while I’m looking at this guy’s butt hanging out of his shorts this morning, I started to think about him, my friend’s daughter, and what I try to teach parents about media literacy and how media and marketing impact our kids. I started to connect some dots, see if you follow along:
From infancy boys are taught to be rowdy rock ‘n roll bad boys who are little masters of the universe and tiny stud muffins.
From infancy girls are taught to be sweet and pretty, things to be adored and kept beautiful while pleasing everyone around with the sweet prettiness.
These messages are all over media, apparel, toys, and are relayed by people who interact with our children.
It isn’t long before boys are sold messages about being aggressive and violent as a direct biological tie to their gender.
Similarly, girls get the message very early it is never too early to start being sexy and taking steps to gain the attention of boys.
Girls learn that boys are aggressive by nature and are the default gender the world revolves around. Boys learn girls are supposed to be hot and a prize to be won.
What they don’t seem learn is that each are intricately layered human beings deserving of respect.
Enter media like video games and movies that depict adult content for children who do not have the capacity to understand and digest it. Specifically, extreme violence and unhealthy depictions of adult sexuality that usually involves disrespect, pain, and even violence towards the woman.
Unless taught by his family, a boy is less likely to learn from our culture that girls and women are worthy of respect and equality or that aggression does not make you a man.
Unless taught by her family, a girl is less likely learn to offer herself as a whole person rather than a sexual object or that she can be many things without needing the approval of men.
And then our children grow up to become teens with hormones. In high school, many girls have their first sexual encounter with an overwhelming majority of them self reporting their first time with sexual intercourse was under coercion. Boys report being pressured to have sex.
By the time they are teens most boys will have seen very little media that respects women and most girls will have seen very little media in which women ask for or take respect. Then we consider all of the advertising they have seen up to this point, the vast majority of which shows women as objects to be used for male sexual desire.
They’ll grow up even more and become women who will earn less than men, have less chances at career advancement to the highest levels, will have less opportunity to hold public office, will experience sexual harassment in the workplace, and will find family-work balance very, very difficult to achieve.
So when I look at a stranger’s butt and think about my friend’s daughter being harassed while she is out for walk I, also think about how this fits into the big picture in how we raise or children and what messages we choose to accept or reject. I think about how I try to teach parents to see the forest through the trees, and that while one gendered item or media component may seem trivial, it all adds up to a deep, dark forest we have to shepherd our children through. We also have to teach them how to find their own way, because we won’t always be by their sides.
Thankfully this weekend my friend was not far behind her daughter and scared off the creep who put his car in the way of a fourteen year old girl walking on a path, and leered at her though the window. I am relieved nothing happened to the girl. I am angry a man thought he could act this way toward a young woman. At the same time, I am heartbroken she came home and told her mom, “I hate being a girl.”
And that is why I will always challenge the status quo when it comes to gender stereotypes and sexualization in childhood, and why I teach my children to do the same. We are short changing our children, and in doing some we are bankrupting our entire society.