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Thursday, September 23, 2010

By any means necessary (2002)

Ilana Sichel's column ("Stamping out chauvinism," March 19) sheds light on an important yet largely ignored issue: sexual harassment. However, I disagree with her when she says throwing water on her harasser was "overly confrontational" and not an example of "channeling frustration into resonant action." That man's harassment was overly confrontational, and this important fact cannot be ignored when analyzing a woman's reaction to sexual harassment.
Women are expected to do one of three things when faced with sexual harassment: So-called weak nonfeminist women are expected to either welcome the harassment or ignore it (while cowering in shame and fear on the inside) while so-called strong feminist women are expected to politely, calmly give their harassers a two-minute crash course in feminist theory to explain why harassment is unwelcome and, in fact, dangerous. Any reactions other than the above three are considered to be "reactionary," "overreacting," "too confrontational" or "crossing the line."
I assert that any reaction to sexual harassment is acceptable, and this most certainly includes physical reactions.
Sexual harassment, sexist jokes and other verbal sexist actions contribute to a rape culture that permits and even encourages violence against women. However, explaining this concept to a friend who's just unknowingly told a sexist joke is a bit different from explaining it to a complete stranger who is sexually harassing you. Friends should listen to your thoughts, consider them and alter their behavior accordingly because they respect you as a human being and as an equal. Sexual harassers, on the other hand, view women as objects instead of humans and as subordinates instead of equals. Therefore, they have no reason to listen to women's objections to sexual harassment, and no reason to stop. They harass because they can.
Physically violent reactions speak to harassers in terms they can understand, because the threat of physical violence is how harassers speak to us, as women. When a man harasses us, his words are backed up by the implicit or explicit threat of violence and control. Therefore, we fear him. He does not fear us. His actions have no consequence.
So let's talk to harassers in language they understand. If they tell us our breasts look nice today, let's throw water on them. If they follow us down the street and whistle at us, let's kick them in the groin. If they touch us without our explicit permission, let's break their noses.
Sichel is correct in that one act of physical violence against a male harasser will most certainly not put an end to his harassment of women, it will not stop other men from sexually harassing and it will not destroy the rape culture. However, when Sichel threw water on her harasser, he ceased his unwelcomed advances. He may harass again. However, if the next woman he harasses throws a rock at him, and the next sprays mace in his eyes and the one after that elbows him in the gut, there's a good chance he'll stop harassing. He will realize sexual harassment does, in fact, have negative physical consequences for him. He may not fully grasp radical feminist theory, but as women who have to cope with violence, fear and sexism on a daily basis, we are not obligated to teach men how and why to stop harassing, beating and raping us. This is men's responsibility. If men want to have discussions about feminism with their women friends over a pizza and some sodas, that's fine, but as women we do not bear the burden of erasing sexism.
I do understand, however, that some women may have reservations about hitting a man instead of explaining why his sexist actions are unwelcome and harmful. For these women, I suggest combining the two: Explain how sexual harassment contributes to a culture of violence against women while you are kicking him in the kidneys.

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