I just ran across a (very) short film made by a Belgian woman, Sofie Peeters, about how bad the sexual harassment can be in some of the streets of Brussels.  There’s a lot going on, in this video, in that most of the men who harass her and the other women she interviews are immigrants, and lots of those (it seems) are Arabs, but this is one of the big talking-points of the day, right?  What does the hijab mean?  Really?  What does it mean?  How does sexuality work in Muslim cultures?  And whom does it empower, whom does it deprive of power?

I’m not really sharing this video so I can start a conversation about Muslim gender roles, though.  Mostly, it’s because I’m amazed that Brussels, “the capitol of Europe,” has redneck sexual harassment in common with backwoods Knoxville, Tennessee.

For years, I have avoided walking in certain parts of my neighborhood because I know I’ll be harassed in some way, whether I’m wearing a dress or a sleeps-eight tent.  On Central, near the up-and-coming Old City, it’s common for a car to slowly pass me, turn around, and follow me, while the man driving tries to get my attention.  After several seconds of me walking faster, he’ll drive off.  Once, this happened while I was walking to the coffee shop at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning.  While Central and Magnolia are known for being shady spots, I know that no-one could mistake me for a hooker.  Seriously.  Our downtown hookers are broken-down, in the sense of broken-down.   In the sense of missing teeth, and fingers.

Walking down Broadway to the Kroger also is a gamble.  More often than not, I’ll be whistled at, honked at, or simply stared at in an aggressive, lascivious way.  Once a man pulled up beside me while I was crossing a parking lot and asked me if he could give the pretty lady a ride, ha ha.  Another, staring at me while waiting at a street corner to cross,  told me he wished he could take me home.  There’s a small park near my house, First Creek Park, that I used to cut through on my way to Kroger.  Once, walking through this rather secluded and dirty park, I was stopped by a man who talked to me awkwardly for five minutes before asking me if I could please go home with him, please.  Please.  And the amount of “Hey baby”s yelled out of car windows just aren’t worth counting.

None of this is unusual (ask any woman who has walked around in these areas), but it’s not a drive-by shooting, either.  I’ll admit that.  Sometimes the honking, the yelling from cars, and the hey-I’m-looking-at-your-boobs-and-I-couldn’t-care-less-that-you-know-it stares are really not worth mentioning.  Some men have so little social awareness that they probably don’t know any better, and some may intend a drive-by honk as a compliment.  Perhaps.

The more overtly inappropriate advances, however, just aren’t frequent enough for me to get upset about them.

I just don’t walk to Kroger, even though it’s less than a mile away.  And I don’t walk downtown alone.  And I don’t walk around in upper First Creek Park, my neighborhood’s green space, ever.

So, what are your thoughts?  Kayla’s new Femme Vitale blog has got me thinking about women and empowerment, lately, and I wonder what there is to be learned about street sexual harassment, either in Brussels, or in Knoxville.  Obviously (if you watched it), the harassment in Peeters’ video is much more extreme than anything that’s happened to me in Knoxville.  But what about sexual harassment, really?  What’s the point at which it’s too ridiculous to ignore?  Is the solution for sexual harassment to avoid entire areas of one’s neighborhood, or city?  Is it to ignore advances, or react angrily to them?

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