Why you don’t have to respond to sexual harassment like a superhero.
Content warning: sexual harassment, sexual assault, and spoilers for Captain Marvel.
A few weeks ago, a man shouted ‘nice tits’ at me as I was walking into town in the evening. As I was walking away, trying to stop shaking, I sent a text to my friend: my next response to a random telling me that I have ‘nice tits!’ will be ‘thanks, do you want to see my dick?’
Coming up with a one-liner that I wish I’d been brave enough to throw back at him stopped me from wondering if it was my fault because of the tight-fitting vest top I was wearing. (It wasn’t.) Imagining turning around to shout at the guy who’d decided that he was allowed to comment on my body was fun. Imagining explaining why what he’d said was unacceptable let me reclaim some of the power when I was feeling scared.
I always feel scared when I get cat-called. I’m lucky that it has never gone beyond a guy telling me how much he loved my belly when I was wearing a crop top at Pride, or a group of guys discussing whether I was over eighteen when I was wearing short shorts as I walked home late at night. I have never been sexually assaulted, and honestly, at times I’d struggle to describe even these incidents as sexual harassment. That’s too strong a word, surely, for a couple of words that I should be able to shake off with a flippant retort.
Except it’s not. I walk away from each encounter when men sexualise my body without my consent feeling sick – I don’t need to downplay that. I feel scared and nauseated, adrenaline pumping through me as though my body was ready to run. I know – because I’m an afab person* in a sexist society – the statistics on how likely it is that I will be sexually assaulted before I’m twenty-five. My fight or flight response kicks in because my body knows that one day it might save me.
The fight or flight response is a normal reaction to sexual harassment. And, what’s more, it’s that putting your head down and walking away – a little faster than before – is often the safest thing for us to do. While I fantasise about turning around and giving the men objectifying me a lecture on feminism, I don’t expect I’m ever going to do it. Once again, the world has taught me that telling a man how misogynistic he is being is often not safe – especially when we’re alone, especially at night.
Yes, me asking the next guy who catcalls me if he’d like to see my dick would be a power move, but it could also be dangerous. It wouldn’t be my fault if me saying that lead to an escalation – it is never the victim’s fault – but when friends tell me to “stay safe” when I’m walking home alone in the evening, I think part of that includes “don’t try to have a rational debate and/or argument with the man who has just catcalled you.”
I am proud of being an angry feminist, but it is not always safe.
This is where I think mainstream media lets us down. Yes, it was empowering to see Captain Marvel respond to a man saying “What, no smile?” by demonstrating exactly how strong she is… but not all of us have superpowers. Not all of us can blast a man across the room if he tries to grab us – in fact, very few of us can. Captain Marvel might be able to threaten the man who told her to smile, but most of us can’t respond to everyday sexism that way… and we don’t need to.
You don’t have to respond to sexual harassment like a superhero. It doesn’t make you any less of a feminist if can’t shout back at someone who has just shouted from their window that you should show them your tits. You’re not required, in a moment when you are being objectified, to come up with a witty retort to prove how strong you are. Yes, we need strong women in mainstream media standing up to sexism, but we can’t let that put pressure on us to react in a similar way when we’re in situations where we’re not safe.
Sexual harassment is not your fault, and it’s completely ok to throw up rather than throwback a funny, feminist one-liner.
*An afab person is someone who was assigned female at birth.