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Spencer-Salmon '14: The problem with Thayer on a Friday night

Thayer on a Friday night. You're on your way to an adventure — you hope — or maybe just burrito-bound. You're out with your friends and maybe a bit more dolled up than usual. There's an odd mix of leering bikers, the occasional homeless person and your fellow students out searching for a little excitement. And then it happens — the inevitable yell from a half-rolled down car window. The repeated up-and-down look from the group of guys loitering outside CVS. Yeah, you think. I wore a short skirt. I consider it a celebration of the still lovely weather and the fact that I do not yet have cellulite. "Nice legs, baby," they shout.

I wonder if you'll still like them after they've kicked you in the face.

Not all of my fellow students mind — some see it as inevitable — but the fact is that most men are physically stronger than women. Being harassed on a crowded street on a college campus is unlikely to result in violence, but it can be a scary experience nonetheless. And it happens everywhere — one informal survey by a graduate student at the George Washington University found that 98 percent of women have been harassed on the street. Why is it that, in a developed country where women supposedly have the same rights as men, our bodies are still considered fair game for public scrutiny — to the point where it's considered normal to be harassed on the street when you're just trying to get from point A to point B?

And yet we usually just roll our eyes and walk on, heels clicking, because that's the price you pay, right? Not everyone thinks so. Ihollaback.org is a site where people post pictures of their harassers online. The ‘about' section purports, "We believe that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified. Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence okay."

The fact is that sexism and violence against women are real, but they are woven more subtly into the threads of modern culture than they were even 20 years ago. We sing along to popular songs with lyrics like "bitches ain't shit but hoes and tricks." We're flooded with ads on a regular basis, many of which feature women's bodies as objects used to sell everything from fancy casinos to sandwiches to power tools. In movies, women get to look pretty and moon over men as they fight crime, save the world, have hilarious adventures and pursue their dreams.

The media does not reflect an equal culture, yet more women than ever are going to college and prioritizing careers over having families. Ours is a society full of contradictions where "feminism," as a term and as a movement, is hard to define. At Brown, we have the FemSex workshop as a safe space to discuss female sexuality, but plenty of us — from both genders — still toss the word "slut" around in casual conversation to describe our peers. Feminists are not fighting for the right to vote or get divorced or have access to contraception anymore — not in America, at least — we're fighting for the right to just be.

Some might say, "If you dress a certain way, you're asking for it." "Rape culture" is the term used to describe beliefs like this — beliefs that encourage sexual aggression and violence against women. Of course, very few people are actually condoning rape. It's much less overt than that — it's creating a society in which we blame the victims of such crimes for ‘inviting' themselves to be raped. For dressing a certain way. For being too sexy.

Is every catcall a precursor to sexual violence? Of course not. Sometimes it is just something to roll your eyes at. For some, it is just a sign that they look good. But it is often much darker than that, because it means that we are teaching young men that boys will be boys — unable to control themselves in the presence of someone they think is attractive. And we're teaching young women that they should be afraid, because that's just how the world works.

I don't have a decent solution for catcalling or harassment or sexual violence, but I do propose that we all think more critically about the everyday details of our lives. Watch for your own double standards. Are you blaming someone for acting within his or her most basic rights of self-expression? The next time you're out on a weekend night, pay attention to the part you're playing as you walk down that crowded street.

Camille Spencer-Salmon '14 is a neuroscience concentrator from Miami, Florida. She can be reached at camille_spencer-salmon@brown.edu


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