Sometimes it is only in the absence of something pervasive that one has normalized that they are able to truly reflect on it.
Which is why it hit me very hard this morning when I realized that in the three weeks I have been in France, I have not experienced nor witnessed a single incident of street harassment.
Let me repeat that: not one instance of catcalling. Not one drive-by yelling. Not one ‘hey baby’… and yes I know what that sounds like in French. Not one man following me after I refused to engage him. Not one.
Now, I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen here. I’ve only been here three weeks. I’m sure it happens to women at some point. But in Portland, especially in nice weather when I dare to show my arms or my legs, it happens to me every day. EVERY SINGLE FUCKING DAY. Not just to me, but to women I walk by over the course of any given day. It happens constantly.
To be fair, I’ve been approached by many men on the street. And some of them definitely had unsavory intentions. I had a drunk man bluntly ask me to go home with him to have sex. I’ve had several ‘photographers’ approach me and ask me if I would be interested in being their model. I’ve had men not-so-subtly undress me with their eyes. And I’ve had several folks say things to me that I didn’t quite understand due to the language barrier but I knew were along the same lines.
But every single time, EVERY SINGLE TIME, when I politely refused, the conversation was over. They were polite, apologetic (even the drunk guy), and went on their way. Nobody acted out the angry, entitled shit-fit that’s typical in such situations on the streets of America. Nobody lashed out at me, nobody followed me yelling, nobody called me a bitch or a whore, nobody treated me like I was their property, none of that.
And mind you, this is quite a patriarchal culture. I would never try to argue otherwise. In that way, its not much different than America. I’ve been treated patronizingly by men. I’ve been talked down to, been talked to like a child. And I’ve witnessed that dynamic between men and women everywhere I go. But despite the patriarchy, there’s a deep respect that is shown towards women here that is completely absent everywhere I’ve lived in America.
And that respect is reflected in the way women behave here. They don’t walk around in fear. They don’t walk with their heads down. They don’t play the eye-aversion game with the intent of avoiding street harassment. They walk down the streets proudly, dare I even say they ‘strut their stuff’ in ways that I would never dream of doing so in America due to the fear of street harassment.
So what is it about American culture that so deeply ingrains the permissiveness that men think they have to treat women as they do on the street? And what can we do to change that culture? Because I must say – the only thing more wonderful than being about to go an entire day without experiencing street harassment is to go day after day after day after day without experiencing it.
You know what it feels like? It feels like freedom.