Verbal Harassment of Women

If you were to open a web browser and search up the phrase “female traits” the first result would be a pop up list of words such as nurturing, sensitive, sweet, passive, cooperative, modesty, and emotional. If you were to then search the phrase “male traits” you would find the words: strong, courageous, independent, leadership, and assertive. What’s the difference between these lists? You may have thought that the female traits seem outdated; modern women are no longer expected to stay at home and be passive, sensitive, or modest. But did you also think the male traits were out of touch? 

None of these traits are inherently a part of either men or women when they are born but the ideals behind them are pushed upon them as they grow up. So while they are not automatically a part of each gender; by associating women with being submissive and men being dominant, it sets women up to tolerate intolerable behavior and men to believe that they have a right to act intolerably. 

We live in a patriarchal society. This isn’t to say that we haven’t made a lot of progress over history towards equalling women’s and men’s rights but it does mean we are not done yet. Women still have to put up with a lot more than men, especially when it comes to harassment. 

This article will focus solely on the verbal harassment of women by men and the effects it has on women. I’m writing this to point out how every day women face harassment and microaggressions which sometimes even they don’t notice. I’m also writing this so that men can become more aware of this issue and how they can be guilty of harassing girls without even realizing it. This is not to say that women are not guilty of harassing men as well or that men do not harass other men. Anyone can harass anyone; and all of these issues are extremely serious. But for the sake of this article it will focus only on this one dynamic between women and men. I would also like to note that the mistreatment of women goes far beyond verbal abuse, and that this article is not meant to pass over that fact, but simply focus more on one specific area of the mistreatment of women.

When beginning to talk about why men harass women and how it affects them we need to first understand the origins of this mistreatment. From a young age, girls are exposed to this issue and often do not even realize it. “In kindergarten, if a boy pulls your hair or teases you, everyone tells you that it’s because he likes you. But that tells girls that when boys are mean to you it’s a sign of affection, and it tells boys that that’s how to get a girl’s attention,” said Tessa Lippmann (’21). No one is born with a bias; the beliefs and ideals we have are all learned behaviors. So to instil a sense of normality about this behavior in both boys and girls at such a young age is significantly impacting how they then view this issue down the line. 

“I blame society, more than I blame young boys,” said Lippmann. With behaviors such as “hair pulling” and “teasing” being reinforced, it fuels the sparks of harassment which if not put out can become very dangerous. One of the phrases which bothers me the most is “like a girl.”Growing up, especially when competing against boys in gym class, I would be told I “run like a girl.” To me, I have no issue with running like a girl since I am a strong and confident girl. But the insinuation from a boy that doing something “like a girl” is a bad thing is what makes me mad. In fact “like a girl” is such a common phrase amongst kids that not only have you most likely heard or used it, but it’s not often reprimanded because it’s so common. Even now, 8 years after I was in elementary school, I still hear this phrase all the time when I’m around kids. 

Using someone’s gender as an insult is damaging and leaves them with a sense of inferiority. These playground insults also set the stage for girls to have internalized feelings of how men view them. As boys grow up their comments grow too. Instead of remarks on “running like a girl,” their comments change to focus more on girls’ appearances and how they choose to act.“There’s more expectations surrounding how you [women] should be acting, what you should be doing, and what you should be wearing. With more people trying to control your every move it gets overwhelming and that’s something that I feel like guys dont even understand sometimes,” said Eleanor Sandin (‘23). 

Harassment isn’t always blatant. It comes in many different forms from being cat called by strangers to simple but damaging statements from even a close friend which leaves you feeling gross. The statements below are different anonymous examples of times when girls currently within the Oyster River High School community were verbally harassed.

 “I’ve had people yell ‘nice ass’, ‘I’d smash’, and then make whistling sounds just to comment on how I look.” 

“I don’t know if this counts as harassment but this one time when my friends were all hanging out the guys in the group thought it would be funny to rank the girls based off of hotness. They each told us our best and worst features and then declared who they thought was “hottest.” It wasn’t really funny at the time but it wasn’t till after that I felt super icky about it.” 

“Someone had told me that because I was a woman I needed to go clean. The mess they wanted me to clean was one that the person who said that had made. After, they basically just told me that it had been a joke and I needed to “chill out”.”

“One time this guy I knew came up to me and told me that he could see through my shirt and that I needed to put on a different one if I didn’t want everyone to look at me like I was a sl*t.” 

“In instances such as in sports, I was verbally abused and made fun of by my club soccer coach more often than I should have my sophomore year. He was extremely rude, singled me out constantly for little reasons, and very contradictory because I was the only girl on the team. If I made a small mistake, it was important, but if one of the boys made the same mistake, it didn’t matter at all, and they could carry on. I lost confidence through the season because he kept telling me I wasn’t supposed to be there and that I was basically not helping or an asset to the team.”

“I was having a really bad day, I had just gotten a bad grade on a test, and I went to see two of my guy friends at lunch hoping they would help to cheer me up. I think I got annoyed when one of them kept trying to steal pieces of my food so I told him off. He got upset and asked me if I was on my period or something. This made me more mad because I wasn’t, and also I have a right to feel bad even when I’m not. Then he told me that I was overreacting and if I felt emotional I could go be a b*tch somewhere else.”

While collecting those statements, I felt a sense of sadness that those girls were treated in such a way, and also anger that none of those situations felt foreign to me as a girl. The importance of looking at this issue is not just to highlight that it happens but to look for ways to make a change. 

“It’s hard to describe, but guys treat girls very differently than girls treat girls. Girls understand how hard it is to make a place for themselves in society and understand each other’s struggles. Deep down I think every girl has a common issue with how they are treated and it’s hard to have most guys understand it,” says Arianna Alcocer (‘21). So how do we make it possible for men to understand this issue? 

The truth is, most men will never fully understand this issue because they don’t experience it. But this doesn’t mean they cannot be good allies to the women who do experience it. In my experience the harassment that girls face everyday from the men in their lives isn’t intentional. Obviously there are still far too many times when women are intentionally cat called or harassed but in talking to sources and friends while writing this article those were not the kinds of harassment most commonly faced by girls. Men may see their comments as jokes or simple statements on a girl’s appearance or attitude but while they sometimes don’t realize what they are saying, girls do. By inspiring more men to become allies to women it will help make a positive change in their treatment of us regardless of whether their treatment is intentional. 

One key component to change is education. It’s easy to be aware of a problem but true change comes from knowing and acting against an issue. ORHS Women’s Literature Teacher of eight years, Shauna Horsley, teaches about women’s history, feminism, beauty, identity, race, and roles of women. With this class focusing on women it can be hard to convince boys that it is worthwhile. “The content of the course is around literature written by women. I think the students who identify as male don’t see the subject as something very interesting to them or maybe they just expect that it is going to be a class with mostly females and might feel a little out of place if they joined,” explained Horsley. 

Just because a topic doesn’t relate directly to us though doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn about it. Horsley urges boys to take on this mind set as well. “The perspectives from different people are so important to the conversations we have in the class, so it would be wonderful to have more of a mix.” Having more men and people in general take classes related to Women Studies is important in confronting this issue. “We need to educate all people about women’s history and for some time there’s been a lack of that in people’s experiences in school,” said Horsley. “It’s important for everyone to get that message.” 

Along with education comes action. It is not enough to know that women should be treated with respect and kindness if you are unwilling to stand up for them. This goes for any person. While a victim of verbal harassment should never be pressured to take a stand in the moment if they do not want to, a bystander, boy or girl, can make a huge difference. “Bystanders have the power to report and change an issue,” said Lippmann. It also takes awareness to be a good bystander. It’s easy to notice when a girl gets catcalled but it’s much harder to decipher the comments made to them which are meant to be “jokes.” 

“There’s always a grain of truth when we joke about things where you kind of believe what you’re saying on some level so I do think it’s hurtful and not okay,” said Horsley. In my experience, both in this particular matter or not, when someone says something unintentionally hurtful they play it off as a joke, trying to erase the truth of what they said and remove its deeper meaning. Doing this doesn’t remove the initial hurt caused by the comment but can often make people feel as if they are being over sensitive about a comment. “Nobody wants to be told that their feelings are not valid. It comes down to the fact that when anyone says how they feel in response to something that you did or said they are entitled to their feelings,” says Horsley. Even outdated phrases such as “go make me a sandwich”, “Get to the kitchen” and even saying “good girl” in response to a girl are casual sexist comments which can make women feel bad. These often accidentally damaging comments still count as harassment and need to be just as looked out for by bystanders. 

“Brushing a comment off and saying it’s not a big deal is probably not the right way to go to resolve some of these microaggressions,” said Horsley. The most important step in stopping harassment of women is confronting it head on. “Guys don’t like to be called out for their actions, especially by a girl because it diminishes their masculinity and feeling of power,” said Charlotte Imperio (‘21). Bringing men’s actions to light and calling them out for it can seem uncomfortable but it is necessary. “Draw attention to the situation, anything that could make the man feel uncomfortable which helps make him realize what he’s doing is being disrespectful,” said Imperio. 

It is also important to keep in mind that different comments call for different reactions. While a first instinct might cause you to be mad about a comment, which is a warranted reaction, it is generally not the best way to address a situation. “A better way to deal with it would be to accept that sometimes people say things unintentionally and to approach it that way but still be firm in the notion that it is a hurtful comment and it is not okay,” explained Horsley. It is also equally if not more important for men to call out their own friends. Only being respectful in front of women is not enough.

I challenge you as readers to take this article into account when you look at your own actions towards this issue. If you are a girl I challenge you to be more aware of the microaggressions which surround us and to calmly confront and educate the men who do this. If you identify as anything other than female, but specifically men, I challenge you to really look at your own actions and hold your friends accountable. Can you full heartedly say that you have been an ally to the females in your life and those you don’t know? If you haven’t, I urge you to make a change and to think longer about what you want to say before you say it. Are the words about to come out of your mouth kind and respectful or do they come across as dominant and rude? How will they make women feel? Will they empower her or will they make her feel as if she needs to be modest and passive? 

By Madla Walsh