Valerie Steighner authored a powerful essay titled “My 11-Year-Old Daughter Just Got Catcalled for the First Time and I Don’t Know How To Teach Her to Protect Herself From Predators.” Please read it. Here’s an excerpt:
She is 11 years old. She just graduated from elementary school and still plays with small plastic animals. And now along with vocab words, I have to teach her how to protect herself from disgusting men.
I told her that what that man did is called catcalling and catcalling is aggressive behavior and the best action is to ignore it. Usually, men that are willing to yell slurs about you and your body, if provoked, can be unpredictable and dangerous; it’s best to keep walking; don’t make eye contact and stand tall.
I felt so defeated as the words came out of my mouth. Basically, there is nothing we can do, but pretend it’s not happening….Obviously, I was sexually active all through my twenties, but there is a difference from being what others want and finding what you need…The predator lives everywhere. He lives on our streets, in our grocery stores, on our billboards and in our malls. He constantly reminds us what our value is and where we belong. How do I teach her to catch him, see him and to protect herself from him? How do I teach her that her body is not a source of shame but a source of power and strength? How do I teach her to hear the predator’s words to know what they mean and still stand tall and confident? How do I teach her to protect herself and still be open?
It sucks. It sucks that this has to happen to my daughter in 6th grade. It sucks that it’s only the beginning. It sucks that she has to learn about her body in the context of men noticing it.
What also sucks is that the problem is a failure of ethics and civilization to move fast enough. Men are programmed to want sex and to procreate, and once upon a time in America the kind of conduct a disgusting 50-year old focused on the writer’s barely pubescent daughter was a cultural norm. In some places, it still is. Women had no other function but to find a man, have his children and make the home run smoothly, and not finding a man was, in some settings, a catastrophe. In the American West, a woman in her thirties who was uneducated and unmarried was very likely to end up a prostitute: it was the single largest occupation for unmarried women. When so many women are whores, men get in the habit of treating women as whores, and women who don’t want that fate will provide positive reinforcement to flirtations that are really harassment and disrespect. [You can find the many Ethics Alarms posts related to this topic here]
Old habits supported by hormones, traditions and bad role models—like, say, Jack Kennedy, Joe Biden and Donald Trump–will die hard or not die at all. In many ways, the culture still supports the ugly behavior Steighner’s daughter experienced. Many ways. For example, in a current Geico commercial, the Gecko shows his trophy accompanied by that briefly popular song “Whoomp! There it is!,” which is essentially street harassment in song form. You will also hear it in sporst stadiums.
Eventually women, many of them, will give in, or up,and either submit to the ancient rules of the male dominance sex game, engage in equivocal and inconsistent conduct depending on their mood and the man involved, exploit it, or try to fight it. All are understandable options; none are perfect, or even adequate, though they may work for individuals in individual cases.
Men, with some justification, feel that they get mixed signals. I recall witnessing a famous encounter in a D.C. association workplace where a lovely and well-endowed female employee loudly reprimanded an older male executive for appearing to look at her chest. He immediately pointed out that she was hardly modestly dressed (cleavage in the workplace!) and said, equally loudly, “Don’t give me that. If you didn’t want guys to look, you wouldn’t dress like that.” And, in truth, she did want guys to look. Just not that guy.
I know I was confused by the rules growing up. I was raised with a brilliant younger sister, and by a mutually respectful mother and father who taught gender equality and manners, with no exceptions. As I result, I was always uncomfortable with any flirting as I passed into junior high and high school, nor could I react to it, or most of the time, detect it. I was polite, treated my female classmates with respect, had lots of female friends, and didn’t have a date until I was sophomore in college. Meanwhile I watched young women I wanted to know better get involved with jerk after jerk. (I also found out that some of my female friends spread rumors that I was gay. They were hot and I never tried anything. Obviously I wasn’t interested.)
All that was before the feminist movement, which just made things worse. An ethical culture would have figured out a way by now to ensure that people still have love, romance and babies without men acting like Alley Oop and women acting like helpless sex objects. We just haven’t, and everyone is confused and angry. The sexual assault witch hunt on campus is just a symptom of this ethics gridlock. Writing about street harassment a couple of years ago, I wrote…
“The amazing thing is that this kind of ritual harassment would vanish with some slight behavioral additions to our culture, many of which once were the norm, habits of good conduct like etiquette, manners, consideration, civility, fairness, kindness, respect, and the Golden Rule. They could become cultural norms again, and rather easily, I would think, with an increase in responsible parenting, a responsible popular culture, and the development of role models with integrity. Not featuring serial and unapologetic sexual harassers as stars of sitcoms (Charlie Sheen) and political conventions (William Jefferson Clinton) would help; so would a serious effort by Hollywood not to trivialize workplace harassment as cute or amusing, as in the long-running “Cheers,” or in current TV dramas like “Criminal Minds” and “NCIS.”
Today I think that was far too optimistic and flip. Yes, widespread respect and civility toward women would be an improvement, but I don’t know how respectful new gender roles that lead to healthy relationships can be devised that don’t still pay tribute to biological imperatives. Signalling a desire for an intimate relationship sometimes—most of the time?—requires crossing lines of decorum, making assumptions, and risking being seen as rude, presumptuous, or sexist. So does training for the time when such desires are serious, yet this is a culture that arrests 13-year-old boys for stealing a kiss.
I don’t know what the solution is.
I just know the current situation sucks.