I was wondering. Do you all think average Indian males understand what street harassment feels like? If not, I would like to explore this through my writing. My understanding is that men relate to bullying and ragging and understand the horror of it. I want to show that walking on an Indian street as a woman is like being surrounded by bullies every day, all of your life. I also don’t think men know how pervasive it is. In my experience, it starts when you are about 10 years old and doesn’t stop until you are about 55. I would write something that portrays a fictional world where men are constantly bullied.
We really can’t understand what it feels like. The social systems, identities and power relations being what they are, and given the frequency and severity of street harassment of women by men, men just cannot understand what it feels like. Thought experiments of a fictional world of constant bullying could make some impact I guess. Anyway, that question made me remember my own experiences growing up. I have some history of being street harassed by other men, and that’s what this post is about. My objective in writing it is to show what a toxic mess the man box is (more on that at the end).
I have a small build and am light-skinned. When I was a young boy, I had what is derogatorily called a “pretty boy” look. And I used to get street harassed by other boys, and grown men (they were were all male – each and every one). The street harassment consisted of staring/leering, passing comments, making kissing noises, pointing-and-laughing, etc. I think the purpose was to mock and “mess” with me, show dominance, goad me into a fight (which I would lose). Here are some instances and things I remember:
Going to play tennis, I’m in an auto-rickshaw, wearing shorts. At the signal some college-aged men lean out of the bus right next to me, and start saying (stuff).
Playing badminton/tennis, again in shorts, passer by stops to watch and starts saying (stuff), trying to provoke me into a reaction.
Walking back home from my bus stop, or walking to the market, alternating my routes so as to avoid harassers.
Avoiding bright colours and shorts (even in peak Delhi summer) so as to be more anonymous. (The habit has persisted to this day; only this year have I started wearing shorts in India again.)
Crossing the road to avoid “intersection”. So many times.
Then there was the incident of – I don’t know what to call it – assault? – when I was around twelve. I’d gone to the market to buy some maps for homework, and a man lured me to a deserted flat giving me some cock-and-bull story about how he knew my father and had to give him something. Some parts of the incident are hazy, but at the foot of the stairs he asked me to come up with him to find the package, when I resisted he got angry and violent and slapped me, I begged him to let me go, he then asked me for money, I refused, and then for some reason he did let me go and I ran. I suspect the reality of what he was doing hit him once I started crying. (A friend of mine wasn’t so lucky – he was sexually assaulted by the owner in a toy shop, who pushed him against one of those glass display cases under the pretence of showing him some toys and ground his exposed penis against him.)
There have been sporadic incidents in my adult life too. The last one was just a week ago – I was walking home from the gym on a Sunday morning, feeling awesome, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I saw these two men – they looked like construction workers – walking in my direction. Surely not I thought, my “creeper sense” tingling as they got closer. But sure enough, there it was – the staring and the repulsive smirk which makes me want to drive a spike through his face. I stared back – that’s been my strategy for many years now. Just stare back in as hostile a manner as possible, and maintain the stare until the very end. Sometimes they look away, sometimes they don’t. This one did look away, just as he passed me, barely a foot away. Apparently I see this as some sort of victory, but the truth is I’d rather not have to participate in this nonsense in the first place.
I estimate that the frequency of street harassment for me was around 20 incidents a year. Girls and women in India experience that in under a month (I know my sister had it much worse than me). Also, apart from that one incident, there has been no physical harassment or assault – no “groping” (what a pathetic euphemism that is), not even touching. This, and more importantly the factors I mentioned earlier, means that despite my experiences, I don’t know what it feels like for women. I can probably empathise more than men who haven’t had such experiences. (Trans women on the other hand are in a unique position to know what it’s like – here [1, 2] are two such accounts, and here [1, 2] are accounts by trans men about the measure of anonymity they gained after their transition.)
While writing this post I felt myself hesitating, even wanting to change some of the details. I’m hesitating to publish it as well. The reason goes back to the lingering effects of the man box – I feel a sense of embarrassment and shame that this happened – happens – to me. That small voice saying you should be stronger, harder, more dominant, more of… a man. I can guarantee that small voice will be speaking in the heads of men reading this post as well. This bullshit patriarchal norm of masculinity – to dominate not only women, but other men as well – becomes ingrained in us, it becomes normalised. I shudder to think of what I would have become if I hadn’t found feminism at an early age. I’d rather suffer the consequences of being outside the man box than be stuck inside it.