Note: I am aware that harassment crosses all kinds of gender lines. I have known men who are harassed by women in the workplace and am sickened that their charges are not taken seriously. Below, I am speaking from my personal experience as a woman who gets harassed by men. Though I fully acknowledge they exist and do my best to speak up when I can against those who trivialize their plight, I cannot speak for those men who are harassed by women.
One of the more active ways to cause change is to make actions so costly to those who perpetuate them that the harms outweigh the benefits for them. As most people are not monsters, simply creatures of both habit and opportunity, they will not continue doing something that is more trouble than it’s worth to them.
Enter the Hollaback! movement and similar movement to end street harassment. Their aims are, for the most part, to enforce laws already on the books prohibiting sexual assault: for the police to take such charges seriously and prosecute those whose actions make the daily lives of girls and women so much more difficult. The efforts made have been successful both in terms of leading to more convictions and in changing the culture around street harassment. Where many girls and women have walked in fear and shame, they have begun to more confidently assert their right to walk in the world without feeling unsafe.
As a dweller mostly of suburban spaces myself, I never accepted the status quo in cities, that I was to somehow expect and accept harassment. Before I had even once walked around as an unveiled young woman in a city, I was a supporter of Hollaback. At no point, then, had I ever been used to the idea that I should always feel unsafe in my daily life. Not for me was the silent complicity taught to me by both my peculiar upbringing and by society as a whole, oh no: I fought back. I taught those street harassers what was what — that I was not a piece of meat to torment for their sick amusement, that women have the right to live our lives in peace, that their petty exercise of power did not render me powerless.
Then, as so often happens, I realized that I had a blind spot, one far more applicable to my suburban lifestyle: men at work.
I’m not talking about the stereotypical leering construction workers, although they can and do fall under this category. I speak of men who, under the auspices of employment, use their paid time to harass women. It occurred to me that I could easily raise the social cost of being a jerkface to women while at work. While men on the street have all the right to say what they want to a woman as long as they do nothing physical, employees are usually obligated by their employment to be professional. Why not enforce those obligations?
This might seem harsh to some. Is it really fair to cause a man to be professionally disciplined or even to lose his job because of some unprofessional conduct? Given the sheer audacity of using paid employment time to sexually harass women in crass fashion, I would say so. Personally, it bothers me that I have unemployed, underemployed, and nervously-employed friends while disgusting jerks get to feel so confident in their employment that they harass me when I’m a customer. Economic times being what they are, there is likely a queue of at least half a dozen eager and smiling job applicants lined up behind every complacently-employed harasser. If they feel brave enough to harass me while on the clock, I can be brave enough to report just how well they are representing their employers to the appropriate authorities.
This revelation did not occur to me in an academic or online context, but after a specific incident. I’d suddenly had enough of being treated like a piece of meat by people paid for the time that they were spending harassing me. I began affecting them in a way that they understand: in the wallets. I’ve taken to meeting their audacity with my own and hitting them exactly where it hurts.
I express this not to pressure less bold or privileged women into action, but in the hopes of waking up others capable of such action who have drowsed away on the matter for all too long. It is not okay for someone who is acting in a professional context to treat you so unprofessionally, and unlike in the case of street harassment, you have recourse that likely won’t affect you much at all beyond the negligible amount of time it takes to write down a name, find a manager, and have a conversation.
Let’s make it harder for harassers to get paid time to do their dirty deeds.