The Hidden Sexism

How the lie of 'she asked for it' starts small.

BY LIZ RIGGS LIFE June 04, 2013

It’s 6:00 in the evening on a Friday, and I am walking through downtown with two friends. It is still light out, and the sun is setting over the new convention center. I am wearing a backwards baseball hat and jeans I spent too much money on. One friend is wearing jeans and cowboy boots. One is wearing black leggings and a green shirt. We are walking down a city street, and we are girls.

Apparently, that is all that matters.

Two men in front of us turn around—three, four, five times before they say something. I comment back, and they see this as an opportunity. They ask if they can join us. There are two of them, and there are three of us. It is daylight, still. We should be okay. Yet, we run across the one-way street, dodging oncoming traffic, and escape into the evening, where, oddly enough, we are headed to hear a handful of Christian musicians.

I am walking to a wedding in Cincinnati, wearing a dress and a jacket, and a man leans out his window and shouts something out to me about how I look. It is 4:00 in the afternoon, I am alone, and I throw up my hand in disgust. He makes a right turn, and I go into the nearest business.

I am everywhere, anywhere, nowhere: it doesn’t matter. I have a face, two arms, two legs and I am a girl and men think they can shout at me.

I did not ask for this. It is threatening. It is violating. It is sickening. It is harrowing.

Possibly, you don’t ever do this to women. Maybe you say things like, “I appreciate you!” or “It’s your inner beauty that counts!”

But maybe you’ve glanced down their shirt in the copy room on accident five too many times.

Or maybe you don’t say these things to girls while they walk down the street. Instead, you say them to your friends, inside the tiny cracking walls of your apartments. So no one hears; no one gets hurt. It’s a just between the guys.

And then, just like that, it becomes easier. The first time a comment slips out in a kitchen amongst a bunch of guys, it’s an accident. Then it becomes a joke. Then it becomes commonplace. Then it becomes real.

Suddenly, private conversations aren’t private anymore. The reticence becomes a whisper. And the whispered jokes become catcalls. And the catcalls become skin-crawling remarks and actions and movements and gestures that twist up our stomachs and force nervous lumps into our throats.

And we did not ask to be silent or fearful. Because the woman who says something back is causing a scene. The woman who is alone is dumb. The woman who says nothing is scared. The woman who runs is even more scared. The woman in too short a dress is “asking for it.”

I did not ask for this.

I did not ask to have people sling objectifying “compliments” at me as I’m walking down the street.

Just because I am a woman does not mean I want to be shouted at. Don’t I deserve better than that? Don’t we all?

It’s easy to argue that, as a country and a society, we have come an extraordinary way from the days of outward and blatant disrespect and disregard for women. Women can vote! Women can go to school! Women can work! Women get paid equally (sometimes)! We don’t make them cover their heads or their bodies or their faces. We don’t keep them from places or businesses or opportunities.

And yet, have we, as a society, made equality safe for women?

We think we are keeping women protected. We pride ourselves, in America, with our equality and our rights and our fierce working women. And yet, we still scare women with our eyes. With our indelible words. With our exploitation and our magazines and our catcalls.

Do men know what it feels like to be looked at like we are looked at? To have gawking, bugging eyes glancing over your skin and body like it isn’t even your own? Like it isn’t even a body? To feel someone’s gaze penetrate through your clothing like that?

Is it possible to consider what that does to a woman’s dignity? To her spirituality? To her emotional security and stability? Those kinds of feelings do not build up the strong, confident women our country boasts it has empowered. They do not help show women they are loved and valued by their Creator. They do not build up women of strength and independence; they create women who cower.

I am not a supermodel. I do not look like Naomi Campbell or Britney Spears circa 2001. I am a normal, 25-year-old girl. I have arms and legs and hair. And no matter what I look like or what I’m wearing or who I am, I did not ask for this.

But sometimes, sometimes, men can make me feel like I did.

Liz Riggs


Liz Riggs is a freelance writer and English teacher in Nashville, Tenn. She eats stories like grapes and has a very serious appreciation for macaroni and cheese. Follow her on Twitter at your own risk @riggser.

3 thoughts on “The Hidden Sexism

  1. This is quite possible the best article I’ve read on this subject. Ever. Thank you, Liz, for writing with such honesty, integrity, and authenticity. For challenging us all to think differently about something “that’s always just been.” I appreciate you sharing these thoughts!

  2. Jordan,

    I understand your point that men AND women are both creatures of sin and that nothing can fix change a person’s heart other than the grace and mercy of Christ, but to offer a react to these basest of comments from strange men “with a soft answer, and a truthful word” or “with love” in the Christian/humanity sense, it just gives these men an invitation to continue a conversation with us. When we (women) have no intention to acknowledge them in the first place.

    When you are a woman, walking alone, or in a group or in sweats and look like a mess, you are unfortunately always on guard. The only thing we women can do to protect ourselves is to always be aware of our surroundings and never lose sight that no matter how many “good men” are out there (and there seems to be less and less of these men in the world), there are also going to be the bad ones, the ones that seem to think its OK to catcall, whistle, honk their car horn at us when we’re out for a run, make comments about our dress, shoes, hair, when we have not made any invitation to do so other than be a woman.

    So I kindly disagree with your solution.

    You say we control ourselves. This is how we (women) control and protect ourselves. How can a man control himself and protect himself from a woman looking at him in fear/disgust/indifference when his actions are rude and disrespectful? It’s a basic human reaction that woman respond the way she does towards an unwanted advance. It is our defense, and it’s sad that we have to be on the defensive, that we have to worry about our safety even amongst a group of friends for an outing.

    It is not upon us women to change the way a man thinks or acts (the only change we can affect on people is on our own children, youth that we mentor, friends etc.). We cannot change the common catcalling male by simply responding with kindness and love, when their intentions are already way down the road and into the nearest motel.

  3. yesterday, walking down the street i made eye contact with the person staring out a truck window, and i knew he was going to say something. my eyes almost pleaded, please dont. i planned in my head how i would make him understand that he has no right to tell me anything, compliment or not. i wanted to respond, who are you to tell me anything, to think you are higher or more powerful than me and that gives you a right to dish, name, judge, and label me as anything. we are the same. you cant do that. he kept going, without yelling. im thankful for that, i only wish the several times before had been without the yells, hoots, and calls. because like you, i end up feeling like i deserved it.

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