“Leaving my house is a political act.”
— Gwendolyn Brooks
Mary Spears was murdered this past weekend during homegoing celebrations for a family relative in Detroit. According to witnesses, her killer asked for her name and number, which Mary Spears refused to give.
Spears’ death is the nightmare of so many women who find themselves approached by men in public. After news broke of her murder, my timelines were full of women proclaiming, “This is why I will never date again,” or “I’m never leaving the house.” It is an unsafe world out there for us, and Spears’ death reminds us of that.
That a simple “No,” won’t be enough (because so often our words have not been enough) is something most women have already known, and in response, we have created and shared tools that got us out of a situation more than a few times.
I went to a college for women, and the topic of student safety, particularly as it relates to street harassment and sexual assault, was a part of orientation. It included a little talk by the head of student safety (campus police for many institutions) who gave us the number of the security office on campus. It was suggested that we use it as our own when asked for our number on our jaunts about town. We were also given a whistle that could fit on our key chains. I was sure that it wasn’t needed, and was directly proven wrong on my first trip out. This was the first of many lessons. It was in my late teens that I took up the habit of adopting a name other than my own when pressed for it, that I learned to smile sweetly and walk swiftly. (I was always “late to work.”) It was at school that I learned the hard way that responding, “I’m not into men,” was heard as an invite rather than a rejection. This was a particularly rude awakening when Sakia Gunn was murdered in 2003 for stating just that in response to a man’s advances.
This is the thing: Never dating men again won’t save you. That presumes that queer women, and gender non-conforming folks are not subject to harassment, or the added threat of corrective rape. Saying that you have a man won’t save you. Being in the company of friends and family won’t save you. Mary Spears said and did and said all of the things that many of us know to say and practice as routine safety measures. But street harassment, and its hype boy, hegemonic masculinity have already written the rules for engaging with women. Within those rules, women are property and if HM is feeling gully enough, it doesn’t even matter that you belong to another man (as per the rules of hegemonic masculinity to respect another man’s “property”). At that point, you are collateral damage in a potentially deadly dick fight that your harasser is having with himself.
Sometimes, the tactics for self preservation work. Sometimes they do and interactions with brothers on the street feel like slight annoyances. Sometimes they take a toll on my spirit and wreck my day. I end up replaying all of the ways that I could have not been grabbed, groped or berated for rejecting a man I just met. Sometimes it creeps on the inside and I start to contemplate my value — sometimes.
As for these orientations, for the talks with girl children — they are bogus. They are bogus insofar as they are asking us to play at a game we’ve already lost by even having received the so-called catcall. I know that I am echoing what many advocates against street harassment have said, but if recent public discussions on this are any indication of having been understood, I suppose another iteration won’t hurt:
Take the burden of “keeping safe” off of women. We aren’t safe. That’s done. We were unsafe before we left the house. Sometimes we are unsafe in our homes. Shrugging of street harassment as “men just being men,” and characterizing it as flattery only reinforces the rule of HM that women must be, at all times, at the mercy of the men around them. This is an opportunity for men and masculine of center folks to check yourselves, your friends, your brothers, and your family members on how you and they interact with women.
Hegemonic masculinity doesn’t relegate itself to men interacting with women. It also operates when men interact with men. It is the little voice that says, “I ain’t no punk.” (Peep the homophobic slur.) Hegemonic masculinity mandates patriarchal order and by definition, patriarchy demands that men and masculinity rule. HM must rule the bodies of women, and the bodies of men perceived as weaker. The very idea that a woman’s attention should be towards a man who hollers at her off of the street on the sole basis that he hollered is an example of how this rule operates: You better come when I call you.
The assumption that one has the authority to control the movement of bodies is the work of hegemonic masculinity. It is the same assumption these police officers had when they busted the car window and tased a passenger in front of small children after being stopped for a seatbelt violation. Hegemonic masculinity works on all of these levels and controls and affects all of our lives. You better come when I call you.
Okay, so you wouldn’t do such a thing. You wouldn’t kill a woman for rejecting your advances. You, dear police officer, wouldn’t tase an unarmed man. That ain’t the point. We don’t know that. And why should we? We don’t know that you won’t resort to violence in order to salve your ego. Just as I am sure that Mary didn’t know when she did all of the right things not to get killed that day.
Mary’s family is in need of donations for her funeral costs. At the time of writing this, they have almost met their goal. You can donate here: http://www.gofundme.com/fhjfgg.
Resources for the weary (but not by any means exhaustive):
Find out more on stopping violence against women of color at http://www.incite-national.org/.
For updates and testimonies, follow the hashtag #YouOKSis on Twitter.
www.stopstreetharassment.org has a great list of international and US resources here: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/online/
Want to learn more about hegemonic masculinity? See Byron Hurt’s Hip Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes and Jackson Katz’s documentary Tough Guise.