essayJanuary 26, 2016
Within feminist spaces, it’s assumed that #YesAllWomen experience street harassment. The ways in which that harassment manifests—the age it starts, its intensity or form, the consequences of speaking out—may vary depending on one’s intersecting identities. But all women, we’re told, know the fear, embarrassment, and/or anger that comes with unwanted sexual attention.
It’s understandable why this presumption exists. When we’re all working from some shared kernel of truth, it’s easier to discuss the nuances, the differences, and the complexities surrounding that kernel. It’s easier to build dynamic intra-community conversations off the sturdy foundation of communal experience.
This is a useful assumption—but it’s a harmful one, too.
I’m a 26-year-old woman who has never been street harassed. I’ve never been catcalled on my way to school, honked at in a parking lot, leered at on a train, groped in a Starbucks line, or otherwise sexually harassed in public. I’m not afraid when I leave the house that I’ll have to fend off aggressive, demanding men. I don’t mentally chart various routes home, looking for the one where I’m least likely to be accosted.
I don’t know the fear, embarrassment, and/or anger that comes with unwanted sexual attention. A not insignificant part of me wishes I did, though.
I’m not just exceptionally lucky, or exaggerating, or somehow oblivious. I’m a wheelchair user: a visibly, physically disabled woman. And my wheelchair acts as a strange sort of forcefield. People register “disabled” before they register “woman” and the former always overrides the latter, because in our ableist society, a disabled body is necessarily a desexualized one. We are grotesque or tragic, freaks or angels, to be either feared or pitied depending on how the abled gaze lands that day. No matter what, though, we are not desirable.
Even into my early twenties, the fact that I was never street harassed seemed like one more piece of evidence to shore up the belief that I was sexually objectionable. Some treacherous and insistent part of me believed that I could obviously never attract any decent men, so enticing the most debased ones was the best I could hope for. If I couldn’t even do that, then maybe my body really was wholly worthless.
I envied my friends as they talked about how much it hurt to be reduced to nothing but a sex object. I hated that it hurt them, and I mostly understood why it did. I even knew that street harassment frequently escalated; that women who rejected the attention were sometimes physically hurt or even killed.
But as much as I hated my jealousy, I longed for one stray whistle to be aimed in my direction. Just once, I wanted a man to leer at me across a room, obviously imagining all the things he could do to my body. I fantasized about men following me across campus, calling, Hey, sexy! Why don’t you come over here for a minute, baby?
Why is my experience so invisible to the feminist community?
When I retreated to online feminist spaces—supposedly safe spaces—looking for community, what I found was endless discussions of the ubiquity of street harassment. Here was a universal consequence of sexism, misogyny, and rape culture. Here was something all women could understand and rally against. Here was our uniting experience.
I found feminism and I thought, Maybe I don’t count here either.
I don’t expect every conversation of street harassment to come with a disclaimer, and I certainly don’t expect to see myself reflected in every essay or article or tweet on the subject. But this admittedly useful assumption that “Women Experience Sexualized Street Harassment” is necessarily exclusionary. That’s not the intent, but as feminists ought to know, intent doesn’t erase harm.
No one means to imply that if a woman doesn’t fall into the majority who face street harassment, then they don’t count, but the implication is there nonetheless. Despite the best of intentions, the way feminists tend to discuss street harassment as a given reinforces ableist ideas of womanhood, because it’s only a given if your body is seen by the patriarchy as a sexual object. Mine isn’t.
Moreover, this assumption ignores a different form of harassment faced by those who are disabled. Harassment, after all, isn’t actually about sex, but about power—and my harassers hurt me through the power of desexualization. They use the same voice with me that they’d use with a 3-year-old. They pat my head like they would a dog. They stare at my chair while shushing their childrens’ innocent questions. It’s ableist rather than sexist street harassment (from all genders) that I experience.
This desexualization makes me vulnerable to abuse as well. While disabled women aren’t often seen as sexual objects, we’re more likely to be raped and sexually abused than our abled counterparts. When you internalize both the sexist idea that women are valuable because of their sexual potential (for men) and the ableist idea that you have no sexual potential yourself, you can become easy prey.
I don’t fantasize about being harassed anymore, but I did feel an undeniable thrill, just last year, when a guy messaged me on OKCupid with “suck my dick, sexy.” I didn’t respond, but I kept it in my inbox for a while. Its presence was almost comforting. Of course, that comfort was laced with unbearable guilt and self-hatred, but I clung to it nonetheless.
I don’t know if I’ll ever stop wanting that elusive patriarchal stamp of approval—or the feminist one for that matter. Maybe one day the way I relate to and interact with my body will mean more to me than how the rest of the world does. For now, though, it’ll be enough to speak and be heard.
Acknowledge me. That’s all I ask.
Lead image: SOZIALHELDEN