The effect of harassment is cumulative, and I can’t shake the feeling that it’s contributing to complex trauma in ways we don’t understand yet.
In my post Sex Positivity and Sex Out of Context, I wrote about how I was harassed one time, and how having to set boundaries around when people can say/do sexy things to me is one of the ways I practice sex positivity in my life. While the incident itself sucked, what bothered me was its cumulative effect, the fact that it wasn’t an isolated incident:
I’m coming at this from the perspective of a woman whose college students have occasionally hit on her. Who has been catcalled and groped in public. Who has been slut-shamed. Who has been told that my sexual orientation is not real or valid.
Thank you, all: I get the message, loud and clear, that I am a second-class citizen because I am a woman in a misogynist society. I’m going to be sensitive to things that remind me of this fact, especially when I’m not expecting it.
It’s difficult to measure the impact of harassment and objectification on people, but I believe it’s a real phenomenon. Whether you absorb the experience and move on, or speak out and suffer even worse retribution, it’s something we need to be talking about.
Thus, I was pleased to see Jessica Valenti’s What Does a Lifetime of Leers Do to Us? tackle this very issue.
When a high school teacher asked me on a date just a few days after I graduated, I wasn’t traumatized. The day that an ex-boyfriend taped a used condom to my dorm-room door, scrawling “whore” across the dry-erase board, didn’t forever damage me. When I receive a rape threat via email, my life’s trajectory does not shift. But it would be silly to believe that who I am today isn’t in part created by the distinct combination of those moments.
Again, the point is that the impact of these moments – whether they’re outright abuse, or harassment, or microaggressions – is cumulative. A single misogynist (or homophobic, or transphobic, or racist) comment usually isn’t enough to cause one to come undone, but when that shit stacks up, it matters. Valenti continues:
For me, it’s not one particular message or adolescent incident that bothers me; it’s the weight of years of multiple messages and multiple incidents. It’s the knowledge that this will never be just one day, just one message, just one hateful person. It’s a chipping away of my sense of safety and my sense of self.
Part of the point of harassment – street harassment, catcalls, etc. – is to remind the marginalized class that they are not safe in public (at work, at home). It is, like Valenti says, a chipping away at one’s sense of safety and sense of self. There’s literally nothing women (or anyone) can do to deserve harassment, and especially in light of its cumulative and punitive effect, we need to keep talking about why harassment and other forms of sexism continue to flourish.
I wish I had an uplifting end to this post, but I don’t. I’m emotionally exhausted, and I don’t even get harassed that often. Which I guess I’m grateful for, but even being grateful for it reminds me how prevalent it is in other people’s lives and how shitty of a situation that is. So we’re stuck with a downer ending to this post after all.