It is 7pm on a weekday night when I drive to the local shopping complex to get a few groceries. The parking slot I find looks directly into an Asian supermarket and, as I lock my car and step up onto the sidewalk, I pause at the entrance to debate whether or not I should go inside for a quick browse.
Amid my internal decision making, I am passed on the sidewalk by three men heading to one of the nearby eateries.
“Hey, check out that sexy piece.”
The unexpected voice crashes into my consciousness with rude abandon.
“Damn, wouldn’t mind taking it home with me for a bit of fun.”
Crude laughter, loud winks, stares that undress me like a dumb marionette. Unwarranted shame, masked fear, senses sharpening into fight, flight or fade mode.
Fight: Should I tell them outright that their comments are disrespectful and unappreciated? No, too risky. There are three of them and one of me, and even if it was only one-to-one, chances are he would take offense at my daring to stand up for myself and escalate a rude comment into rude action. Ironically, I will suffer less casualties if I don’t block the hits but simply take them silently.
Flight: Should I run? The nearest safe place (as in with other, hopefully less-threatening people) is the potato stacked entrance of the Asian store. But if I gallop off in obvious fear, it might spur them on to actually come after me as though this is some sort of sick game. And I’m not willing to dash into a crowd of strangers and bet that Captain America is somewhere in that crowd, ready to kick ass on my behalf.
Fade: Turns out the best response is the tried and true tactic of… nothing. Silence. Faking complete indifference. Or better yet, oblivion. Indifference is also risky, because what if that challenges them to further provoke some sort of reaction from “yon moody bitch”? Yes, oblivion is much safer and simpler all round. I heard nothing. I saw nothing. I am nothing.
For those of you who still make such assumptions, know that my wardrobe has nothing to do with this affront. It’s a winter night. I am wearing a straight knee-length skirt with thick winter stockings and heavy sheepskin boots. I am wearing two tops, one sweater, plus a jacket over that. I even have a hefty scarf wrapped around my neck.
But had I been wearing a summer dress and sandals, the paradigm should be unchanged.
I am a human being, and thus worthy of respect.
I am worthy of respect as the starting point.
But they throw out their loaded arrows. And I carry on as though such public abuse is normal.
Because for many women (or any other oft targeted group), it is.
We carry on with our errands as though we haven’t just shivered in real unease at a heavily intrusive commentary of us as something other than respected and equal human beings. We shake off the affront, we get shit done, we drive ourselves home, we down a glass of wine in the safety of our own home and remind ourselves that we are worthy of better treatment than this.
But the anger boiling inside is not so easily stemmed.
I have been told that such incidences are harmless immaturity or innocuous banter.
The truth is that “sexy street comments” are not designed to offer genuine appreciation of another person. They are instead destined to break me down from a whole, empathetic, compos mentis person, into a random assortment of indifferent pieces that can now be mocked or chased or downtrodden at whim.
Our generic acceptance of “small” incidents like this leads to “harmless jokers” becoming “known abusers”. Empowered and even justified in bigger, bolder and much more destructive actions which they now, “by right”, inflict upon those whom they deem different or, ironically, desirable.
Sexism, racism, gay bashing, refugee ridicule…
The problem is that all of this has become normal.
Anyone can be publicly called out for being fat, skinny, tall, ugly, pretty or just diverse. And we laugh off verbal bullying as immaturity or awkward flattery or the timeless “insecurity”.
But when to do something as mundane as grocery shopping means preparing for the real possibility of being made to feel stigmatised or even unsafe due to something as trivial as one’s appearance...
Well now it’s just infuriating.
I am tired of playing the hide-and-meek game.
Tired of pretending I am deaf, mute and too stupid to guess that the taunts are being pinned to my back. I am especially tired of being told that I should not be angry about this.
There is something sickening about a society carelessly yet collectively decreeing that anything beautiful or unusual must be either owned or destroyed. Somehow we have lost the art of simply appreciating things.
Somehow we have lost the art of appreciating humanity.
And until we pull ourselves together and take ownership of this folly…
Until we call each other out, not for looking different but for attacking differences…
Until women and races of every colour can walk the streets in open equality and respect…
I will continue to unashamedly walk with anger.
Emma is an Italian-South African with a New Zealand passport and an international heart. She spent years running a puppet ministry and directing student choirs, before working for a humanitarian organisation in New Zealand (7 years) and Papua New Guinea (3 years). Currently a nomad living between various countries and towns, Emma's deep joy is in writing, music, cooking up an Italian storm, and taking time to listen to people’s stories.
Read Emma's creative expressions at http://www.girlkaleidoscope.wordpress.com or https://pngponderings.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/finding-the-beauty/
Emma’s previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/emma-mcgeorge.html