I wear my headphones everywhere. When I'm out running, when I'm walking along country roads or through cities, definitely when I'm on any kind of public transportation, those white earbuds are buried deep in my ear canal. They are both a message and a defense. The message is: "Please don't talk to me;" the defense is blocking out any rude words from cars zooming by, or men walking towards me or sitting near me. I don't always have the volume loud enough, and sometimes can still hear what's said, or hissed, or yelled. But at least I don't give these guys the satisfaction of knowing I heard them.
It's just one of the costs of being a woman. One of the things you figure out as you grow up as a girl is how you're going to deal with the comments, the touching, the expectations. We're expected to smile, look pretty and appealing (but not slutty), and offer up conversation to men on demand.
If we don't, we're reminded by strangers what to do: "Smile!" (This has happened to me a few times.) If we say, politely but firmly, that we don't want to talk right now, we're called a name that rhymes with witch. (This has also happened to me a few times.)
Sometimes women are hurt or much worse for not doing what a man tells them to do, or expects them to do, or wants them to do.
Mollie Tibbets is just the most recent high-profile case in which a woman who stated her desire to be left alone ended up dead. Frankly, I don't know much about the political debate around Tibbets' murder — I sat that one out. What I do know is that she was killed for expressing the simplest thing: to continue her run in peace: "[Mollie Tibbets'] alleged attacker told police he started following her and that she got frightened by this and said she was going to call the police. That threat made him angry, he said, and then he blacked out and woke with her dead body in his car trunk," writes Monica Hess in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Yes, this is extreme and in the scope of things, a possible but unlikely outcome. I am not going to stop standing up to men's expectations when I'm just moving through the world minding my own business — though some women might, and I can't blame them. But even when it doesn't result in death, routine harassment of women has real mental and physical repercussions.
The ramifications of standing your ground
For example: When writer Roxane Gay wrote an opinion article about Louis CK's recent comedy performance in The New York Times, naturally plenty of people disagreed with her. I often disagree with New York Times opinion writers myself; I know how it goes. But the point of the form is to express an opinion. And when Gay expresses hers, she doesn't just get pushback on her ideas (which, to be perfectly clear, is fine to do), her very selfhood is attacked. She is harassed and name-called — for being a woman, for being a black woman, for being a gay, black woman. For being those things and having an opinion, she is attacked. Not her ideas — her.
Anytime I publish something new I spend the days around it being harassed, insulted, and degraded for having opinions. I don’t need a pep talk but today really sucked. It gets to you after a while.— roxane gay (@rgay) August 31, 2018
Gay isn't the only one. I have a friend who stopped writing about her opinions on current events not because people disagreed with her ideas, but because she received harassment and death threats for writing online as a woman — just for being herself. She was, effectively, silenced by bullies, proving this behavior isn't just so many words.
Plenty of other women, famous and not, have left Twitter or Instagram due to people attacking them for appearing in a beloved movie reboot or franchise — Leslie Jones of "Ghostbusters" and Kellie Marie Tran of "Star Wars," for example. For months, Tran endured harassment — because she's a Vietnamese woman — before deleting her Instagram account. Again, these women are verbally attacked and intimidated in the most violent ways, not for a bad performance in a movie, but because some people don't like that they exist in the movie at all.
And this goes far beyond celebrities or even writers who express opinions online. In Vermont, state Rep. Kiah Morris made the decision not to run for re-election because during the time she was in office, she dealt with near-constant harassment, including death threats and stalking, due to her race (she's black) and gender. "The last two years have been emotionally difficult for many. Political discourse, and in particular within the sphere of social media has been divisive, inflammatory and at times, even dangerous," Morris wrote in a statement.
In Iowa, Kim Weaver dropped out of her race against U.S. Rep. Steve King after, as The New York Times described it: "The neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer published an article (no longer available) titled, as Ms. Weaver recalled it, 'Meet the Whore Who’s Running Against Steve King,' increasing what was already an onslaught of threats." A record number of women are running for office in 2018, and the Times has detailed the threats and harassment they have received. (See video below.)
Intimidation tactics are amazingly successful
It doesn't help when people don't believe women who are afraid of the threats: "Death threats likely didn’t happen but a fabrication," tweeted King in response to Morris' withdrawal from the race.
This isn't just politics as usual. These are very real attacks in which the threats impact their target in the way they are intended — to intimidate and scare and ultimately, to change behavior.
"I felt unsafe throughout the entire campaign," Rebecca Thompson, who ran in Michigan in 2014, told the Times. "It almost seemed like psychological warfare, like they were trying to psych me out. It kept me on edge all the time, because I just didn’t know where I could go, anywhere in the city, without feeling like I was being followed."
Just like my own process of figuring out how to deal with harassment, the women running for office see the way they are treated as part and parcel of being a woman. "I didn't see any of the sexist remarks or comments as out of the ordinary, when I was running for office. Which, in an of itself is an issue," says Erin Schrode in the video above, who ran in — and lost — a Democratic primary in northern California in 2016.
This is, when you think about it, disturbing. Women have normalized the harassment they receive just for existing — from acting in a movie, to running for office, to writing articles to running outside. It's "expected." I do it when I pop my earbuds in. Schrode did it when she just kept on during her primary. Most women "just deal" — but it's exhausting.
This is unacceptable to me as a woman, and I'm sure to many men as well. This assumption that men can demand what they want from women starts with the small stuff — so no more asking for smiles, or hugs, and no more getting angry when we don't feel like talking or turn you down. We're just trying to do our jobs, or go to school, or keep our heart healthy and our stress levels down by going running. Or maybe we're just running for office.
All of us deserve to have our work critiqued but also to pursue our lives in relative peace. But right now, women expect not to.