On Being a Woman in Public

Yesterday, Jezebel came out with a piece entitled “Being a Woman In Public“.  It describes the experience of being a woman on the metro being concerned about being trapped by a hostile, confrontational guy, and it’s a valid description of that experience.  But it begs the question: what does it mean to be a woman in public in the United States, and why is that such an issue?

Being a woman in public means contending with the idea that your body is somehow public property.  We see this issue all the time.  We see it in slut shaming, with the projection of society’s beliefs about propriety onto the appearance of women in public.  We see it in street harassment, where men feel entitled to comment on women and their bodies as they appear on the street.  We see it in stares and attempts to touch women and men trying to talk to women and calling them bitches when they don’t want to engage.

Being a woman in public means being concerned about safety.  I have noticed this not just in the United States, but in Kenya when I lived there as well: on public transportation, women tend to sit next to other women.  Jezebel’s piece, as well as my conversations with my friends, seem to indicate that I am not alone in my sense that I am safer sitting next to a woman on the metro or the bus than I would be sitting next to a man I don’t know.  This also has to do with the idea of a woman’s body as public property, the fact that a man might try to harass me if I am in a public space.  Being a woman in public means I have to worry about whether or not a man will try to touch me inappropriately or corner me in a public space.

Being a woman in public means I am forever looking over my shoulder, making sure I am not being followed.  It means I look for the best-lit walks home, and try not to walk home alone at night.  It means I have to contend with my parents worrying about me when I am out at night, because they are never sure if I am safe, even if I believe I am.  Being a woman in public means I have been taught to carry a whistle or think of keys as a weapon, while my male friends have not necessarily considered this.

But worse, being a woman in public means that I experience all these things and then have to contend with the fact that many men do not consider these concerns legitimate.  Men are not subjected to street harassment to the degree that women are.  Where women are actually driven from public spaces such as blocks or parks, men do not necessarily experience this in the same way, because they don’t experience the same concerns about safety in public.  Men aren’t concerned that they will be blamed for being attacked on the street based on how their shirt was cut or the fact that they are wearing a skirt.  Men are not afraid to sit next to other men on the bus.  And why should they be?  They’re not particularly likely to be harassed or threatened by those random strangers.  Their personhood is not in question when they step out their front door.

Whether we like it or not, the experience of being in public is gendered.  And this means that we need to do more to make public spaces more friendly for women.  Slate released a recent article about urban planning in Vienna designed to make the city more woman-friendly: the city improved public transportation, expanded sidewalks, and added better lighting, to make public spaces more accessible for women.  Egypt classifies street harassment as “public sexual harassment” and responds accordingly (or at least used to, there have been a few regime changes since I last checked), and organizations in the US like Stop Street Harassment continue to work to ameliorate these problems, and run interventions to help women take back the streets.

But we need more.  We need a cultural shift in how we think about women’s bodies and the ownership of them.  We need to end the excuse-making centered around the idea that “boys will be boys” or that women “consent into this” when they go in public.  Are women just supposed to lock themselves in their houses because men are failing to respect them on the street?  Ridiculous, America.  We need officials to take complaints of sexual harassment more seriously on public transportation, and we need to teach men not to harass women, and women not to accept this harassment.  Quietly moving on seems like a good coping mechanism, but it slowly but surely drives women out of public spaces.  It’s time for women to reclaim the experience of being a woman in public, to be in public without fear-~-and that’s the ultimate takeaway that Jezebel missed.  It’s not just that women feel threatened or uncomfortable, it’s a question of why-~-and a question of what we can do about it.


~ by Randi Saunders on October 17, 2013.

7 Responses to “On Being a Woman in Public”

  1. You make it all the way to the second paragraph before you begin to derail your own argument.

    “and men trying to talk to women”

    Really men talking to women is the problem? Should men never ever start a conversation with women and end the ones started by women as quickly as possible? Are you really suggesting that men freeze out women? Or was it “bitches” that is the problem. If this is the case you should let your racism show and call out blacks, not men, for using getto talk and street slang.

    Also, no men are not avoiding sitting next to men, just as women are not avoiding sitting next to women. The problem is not men men and only MEN!! A great many men avoid sitting next to women for fear of being falsely labeled as a harasser because his ass is wider than the seat, and touched her on a crowded bus.

    • All I was saying was that I and people I know have expressed discomfort and been harassed in public spaces. And I’m not being racist when I say that men harass women in public spaces–white men do this as well, and I have certainly been harassed, cat-called, and made uncomfortable by white men in public spaces. Don’t put offense words in my mouth. And I never said men freeze women out, I’m not even sure where you got that.

      The problem isn’t polite conversation. It’s men telling me that I’m too pretty to frown, as if I can’t have my own emotions. It’s men insisting they want my number when all I want is to go home (and not with them). Women don’t necessarily assume they are being harassed because a man sat near them or accidentally touched them–it’s when men put their hands on my knee or keep hitting on me that it’s a problem, and that’s all I’m pointing out here.

      • Ok, so it’s not just any conversation. It is just conversation that recognizes your femininity. Men should always treat all women as asexual humanoids. This really isn’t as unreasonable as it sounds. You’ve just got step one very wrong. Step one to making this happen is to convince women that they need to be the aggressor in romance. That women need to be the ones doing the pursuing. You also need to convince men that they are the prey. That men have enough value as people that women should be pursuing them, and it is women’s obligation to always make the first move. If the one and only thing men needed to do to get romantic attention was be male in a public space, then that is what men would do. No more street harassment of women. You won’t be bugged with attention you don’t want if there are already two girls chatting that dude up trying to get in his pants.

      • I’m not saying that men should never approach women; I’m saying that any time I step out of my house is not an attempt to attract a man, and when women express disinterest, they shouldn’t be called bitches or harassed. I don’t know why that is striking you as an unreasonable statement. It’s one thing to try to pick a girl up and another to not accept disinterest. I also think there’s a difference between a guy trying to chat up a girl and a guy making lewd comments about a woman’s ass in public.

      • There is little difference between dude chatting you up and dude making lewd comments about your ass. The only real difference is the tactic to get in your pants. If making lewd comments about women’s asses was not an effective tactic for getting into women’s pants, no one would do it. Again, women need to change this, men are incapable of changing women’s’ reactions only women can do that. Women need to change, not men.

    • Do me a favor, stop randomly taking things out of context when you’re making your arguments.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I had an experience last night where a man harassed me in the grocery store. I had to get a staff member to walk me out to my car for my safety. I went home thinking about how the “exchange” started with the split second of walking past each other, in which he recognized me as a woman and therefore a suitable subject for his… let’s call them comments. He probably was so in denial about his internalized sexism and superiority, etc. that he probably thought he was flirting! But in truth it was a kind of verbal violence that ended with me going home, hoping he hadn’t seen my license plate, worried about what might happen if he would be able to find me later when I didn’t have an escort. Just another aspect of being a woman in public.

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