Thursday, July 28, 2011

On Harassment and the Marking of Visible Womanhood

[Trigger warning for misogyny, rape culture.]

So, yesterday we had this great thread about how telling people to "smile" is not merely impolite, but a gross disrespect of agency. As frequently happens in such threads, there was also discussion of other types of street harassment and getting hit on.

Often, we contributors/mods have our own private conversations about topics being discussed on the blog, especially when we want to chat about something tangential that would be a derail to the main point. Yesterday, in tandem with the aforementioned thread, we were talking about the truly fucked-up scenario in which women who deviate from traditional definitions of womanhood, or whose appearance is nonconforming to beauty standards, are excluded from such discussions by virtue of having rarely or never harassed in that way.

It's an important conversation, and it deserves its own thread.

It is a conversation I've had before with trans women, with fat cis women, women with noticeable physical disabilities, and with a women who has severe craniofacial deformities—the "I don't want to be treated like a piece of meat or an object or a possession, but because Visible Women are treated like pieces of meat and objects and possessions, the fact that I'm not makes me feel like I'm not even a woman" conversation.

The conversation about feeling excluded from the sisterhood, because you haven't been harassed in the way most women talk about being harassed.

None of the women with whom I've ever had this conversation want to be harassed, nor do they want other women to be harassed, either—and yet there is something akin to envy they feel, sheerly by virtue of being on the outside looking in.

Simultaneously, they feel guilty for feeling that way, because, to a harassed woman, there is nothing enviable about being harassed.

Except, of course, for how there is—because being harassed is a routine part of the Visible Woman's experience. And as long as women's value is determined by objectification, to not be objectified is to feel unvalued, even if to not be objectified is what you want.

This, of course, is not a commentary on women—objectified or not, feminist or not. This is a commentary on the Patriarchy, and how unfathomably fucked-up it is that a failure to be treated poorly—not in exchange for being treated well, but as an alternative to not being acknowledged at all—has the capacity to make women feel worthless.

What a choice: Acknowledged but harassed, or ignored and denied recognition of one's womanhood.

It's a terrible predicament, this place of horrible and shameful "envy," that most women (especially feminist women) probably experience at one time or another during their lives. An older woman finally free of being hit on and cat-called and told to smile may suddenly "miss" the harassment the despised, because its void is not born of a long-sought respect, but of a silent commentary on her diminished worth as a sex object per the Patriarchy's horseshit standards. Two female friends of different races might alternately "envy" each other for the unique forms of objectification by which they're respectively targeted: She gets harassed by people who ignore me because she looks like the Girl Next Door. She gets harassed by people who ignore me because she looks Exotic. Etc.

Knowing how fucked-up it is doesn't change that visceral feeling of alienation: We are all too keenly aware of the narratives used to marginalize us.

And this "envy" is not just about being recognized as a woman; it's also about getting access to the tables at which women sit.

I have had friends who have never been raped confess to me with wracking guilt that they "envy" my history, because to have survived rape is to have earned admission into what can be a very tight-knit group of survivors, not unlike a group of veterans who emerged from the trauma of war as "brothers," having experienced something outsiders cannot understand and sharing a bond outsiders cannot penetrate.

They needn't feel guilty: I understand what they are saying. They don't want me to have been raped. They are not minimizing it. They don't want to be raped themselves. They are simply acknowledging a feeling born of the reality that so many women are victimized by sexual violence that it can feel, to women who have not been, that a key part of what defines womanhood is missing from their histories.

We all view, if not consciously, sexual violence and harassment as a sort of rite of passage, a fire through which we must pass on our way to womanhood. To be denied that trial, even though we don't want it, is to be denied as Woman.

I can think of few things that more poignantly underline how truly and comprehensively woman-hating the Patriarchy is than its creation of an "envy" to be hurt, just to feel like a complete woman.

[Commenting Guidelines: Please note that if your immediate response to this is to assert that you've never experienced this "envy," that may well be a function of privilege. Visible Womanhood is an indicator of privilege—cis women tend to be more visible than trans women, straight women more visible than lesbians, white women more than women of color, able-bodied women more than women with disabilities, etc. I strongly encourage you, rather than reflexively challenging the concept, to listen to the experiences of less privileged women which will certainly be shared here.]