No Escape From Misogyny

Why people try to conform to harmful expectations

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Recent revelations about serial assaulters in Hollywood have shifted public dialogue. The normalized silence around harassment is lifting and it feels like people are actually listening. What these conversations often miss is that managing misogynistic culture is so daunting because misogyny is everywhere.

For some, misogyny gives advantages — it might give a heterosexual man the flexibility to work long hours because he doesn’t have to negotiate with his wife on housework.

For others, it creates disadvantages — it might push a woman out of an industry or make someone avoid walking down a certain street. It might make it difficult for a man to report harassment from another man.

Illustration by Lizzy Choi

But it affects everyone. Misogyny is an oppressive force woven into the fabric of society and there is no escape from it.

The morning after I cut my hair short, I went to San Francisco foolishly thinking looking “less sexual” would or “should” reduce street harassment. It didn’t. Not long after I got into town, a stranger looked me up and down, licked his lips, then said, “I like that tank top.”

In my naivety, I was surprised. But misogynistic harassment pays no regard to how you think you look. It is about exerting power by invading others’ privacy, even when done in public spaces.

Not long after, my grandma came to visit me. Walking down the street, a group of men asked us if we would like to have sex. In her flawless Midwestern politeness, she gave me a sidelong glance and quipped, “With them? No thank you.”

I remembered her stories about her experiences, as Harvey Weinstein described in his inadequate apology, “in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.” This catcall was nothing to her.

While not particularly bad instances of street harassment, these are everyday consequences of the misogynistic culture that allows Weinstein, Louis C.K. and many others to harass and assault people. But according to those who argue that looking modest or drab is protective, these occurrences shouldn’t have happened at all.

This harmful assumption — that modesty prevents sexual harassment — is seen in actress Mayim Bialik’s controversial op-ed “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World.” She wrote, “I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”

These comments suggest people experience harassment because they initiate it. But harassment is a one-way street. None of the factors that make someone more likely to be harassed or assaulted — race, gender identity, sexual orientation or age — have anything to do with how someone dresses.

She has since apologized for these victim-blaming remarks, as she should have. I have some sympathy for her. But I’m not proud to admit that I too am tempted to believe there is something I can do to protect myself from misogyny.

It is tempting to try to control misogynistic bullying because misogyny is designed to make people feel powerless. The idea is that maybe if we play by misogyny’s rules, we can cobble together a group of people who will be unharmed. But this is a twisted, victim-blaming hope that gives some people under misogyny’s thumb the illusion that, through their own cleverness, they have found an out.

There is no out to misogynistic culture. It is incredibly damaging to construct a fictional, ideal person who can escape because this ideal creates harmful, misogynistic tropes and divides people into “proper” and “improper.” The reality is that misogyny affects everyone.

My experience is very different from my grandma’s. This reminds me that the possibility for different cultural norms exists, norms in which misogyny can play a larger — or smaller — role.

We are at a pivotal moment in recognizing the omnipresence of misogyny, and society can just as easily get worse as it can get better. Getting better, though, is harder and requires more work.

We don’t get better by slut shaming each other and ourselves. We get better by challenging misogynistic tropes that try to pit us against one another. And that starts with recognizing that one of the most harmful ways to add to misogyny’s ranks is to construct an ideal through which people can escape.