Pssst…my sexy friend…

This BBC article about street harassment was posted to the CODE RED facebook page.  The poster noted that “there certainly is a great deal of ‘seepsin’ in the Caribbean.”  By seepsing she is refering to what Trini’s call “sooting” or the way men use a hissing sound to get women’s attention when they are walking in the street.  Someone else responded that

I like this article, but how would you get a message like this across in the Caribbean where culturally male-female relations are often viewed as “the hunter and the pursued” and how will you define boundaries? E.g. what would be an acceptable method of indicating attraction / asking someone out to dinner without be labeled a stalker.

The central idea here is that men have the right to initiate sexual contact or indicate sexual/romantic interest and that there must be a way of retaining that right that does not count as harassment.  (And certainly, many women have countered that they quite appreciate unsolicited compliments.)

I responded to the post by seeking to connect street harassment to other the forms of harassment women face which, as Caribbean legal feminist scholar, Tracy Robinson, points out, do not even have a name in law.  I offered a personal experience of 18 years of harassment in my home and the chronic harassment of women students of the University of the West Indies just because they are women:

Aside from street harassment of women by men there is also the harassment of women in their homes. Just recently a man broke the windows of two women UWI students within 30 minutes of each other and threatened them with sexual obsenities of what he would like to do with them. The police were called. Just last week I woke up to a man standing outside my bedroom window with a flashlight trying to look inside. This was around 4:30 am. Having endured this kind of harassment since I was 11 years old I did not bother to call the police.

Then this week a Nation News columnist proudly relates the uninvited comments he said to a young woman because in his opinion she was inappropriately dressed.  Clearly,  he does not view his behaviour as harassment:

Walking in front of me were two women, one of whom wore an extremely short skirt, which was made of a light material. With every step, she was trying to hold the skirt  to prevent it from blowing up but the wind was winning the battle.

As she climbed the steps, she struggled to keep the skirt down, and I asked: “Why yuh trying to keep it down for? You dun know you put on that skirt to show off de stuff, stop pretending! If yuh uncomfortable wearing it, why yuh put it on in the first place?”

He then goes on to state how he selects his wife’s clothing to ensure that she is appropriately dressed:

Last December, I spent four days trying to find a dress for my wife to wear to a wedding. I was so disappointed and frustrated that almost every single store I visited only had dresses with a low neck, which was designedto reveal cleavage.

Whether it is the husband as benign patriarch lovingly selecting his wife’s clothing or publicly disciplining another woman about her choice of clothing,  I am disturbed by the ways in which women’s bodies become property and are then policed and disciplined.

Students at the prestigious Yale University filed a title IX complaint against the university for failure to properly address incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault which has resulted in a “hostile environment.” In the words of complainant Hannah Zeavin, this campus climate “precludes women from having the same equal opportunity to the Yale education as their male counterparts.”

These disciplining and policing behaviours circumscribe women’s access to the public sphere, preserve unequal gender relations and contribute to a sense of fear among women.  Women then police themselves, for example, by curtailing their own movements.  The irony is, however, that the same kind of treatment you receive in the street may be brought to your very doorstep.  Not even the home then is safe for women.

I want to draw a connection between the supposedly innocuous behaviours such as “tiefing a wine” or uninvited flirting and those which seem obviously reprehensible like rape.  They all stem from the unacknowledged and unquestioned male privilege and men’s assertion of their right to control women’s bodies. And as the Yale law suit highlights, women will not allow these harms to go unchallenged.

This post is but a small intervention in the hopes that it would inspire those who wear their privilege so proudly to rethink that privilege.  To begin to see the harmful in the seemingly innocuous.  As feminists, we are often accused of preaching to the converted but I know for a fact that CODE RED’s facebook page and blog are read by those who are decidedly not feminist and who as it stands have a mainstream media platform which allows them to reach a wide audience.  I have opened the dicussion.

Original note posted on the SEEING RED blog here

Read the note on the blog for the links to all the articles referred to (am too lazy to re-insert all the links here).

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