Just a Joke?: Encountering Sexism in Surprising Places

Anna Groff

Guest post from…Anna Groff is a 2006 Goshen (Ind.) College graduate and a grad student at Arizona State University. She lives in Whiteriver, Ariz., with her husband.

This post is one in a series of posts by guest bloggers, each reflecting on what it means to be a Mennonite woman. You can check out earlier entries in the series: Why Femonite? and Invisible Covering, too.

After an evening class in March, I had plans to meet a friend for a drink in downtown Phoenix. I like checking out new places but I am directionally challenged, so I used the GPS on my phone to locate our meeting spot.

Still, Phoenix remains somewhat unfamiliar to me, so when I crossed the street, I had to cross back after realizing I headed in the wrong direction. I certainly appeared disoriented.

In the midst of my pacing, I noticed a group of police officers standing across the street. I deliberately waited for the crossing light to change in order to avoid jaywalking right in front of them.

One of the officers motioned for me to cross the quiet street. I replied—slightly exacerbated at the situation, “But you are all watching me.”

He responded to me with a comment—something similar to this: “You keep walking back and forth on the street. If you want to make some money, you’ll have to head a few blocks south.”

Then he proceeded to snicker loudly at his “joke.”

It took me a few seconds to grasp the offensive nature of his comment. I felt my heart rate speed up and my hands twitch.

Clearly, I am a student—lugging my heavy backpack with my nose in my iPhone. But that doesn’t matter. No woman—not matter how she looks or acts—deserves to hear a comment like that, especially when she is walking alone.

As I walked by, warily keeping my distance, I said to the officer, “That is not appropriate. I do not appreciate your humor.”

Confronting him left me feeling lightheaded and proud. However, I spent the next hour agonizing with my friend and later my husband on the phone.

Should have I asked for his badge number to file a report? Should I have confronted him more directly, or told him how that made me feel?

While I was pleased that I didn’t walk by mutely, I remain unsure that he will refrain from making a related joke in the future to another vulnerable individual.

Sometimes I replay that evening in my mind and I wonder how I could have handled it differently and provided the most effective response. However, I must feel at peace that my rebuttal might have startled him, even just a bit, and that he will think twice in the future.

One of the worst parts was that one of the officers in the group of four was a woman. Perhaps she reprimanded him or reported him later, but I will never know. All I know is that she opted out of defending me in that moment.

However, it is hard for me to blame her. I find myself in similar situations as that female police officer—surrounded by male authority figures or with male friends when I have gone along with the humor or the tone of the conversation.

Avoidance provides an easier and safer solution than confrontation. The situation’s complexity increases when the setting is particularly male-dominated like a police crew.

Frankly, it was easier for me to confront this stranger than a group of male colleagues or male friends. The bigger challenge is when I am with individuals I have an ongoing relationship with.

Unfortunately, men (and women) will continue make inappropriate and sexist jokes—some trivial and some profound—making others feel insecure, unsafe or simply hurt.

And to be sure, it is not just police officers but also professors, bosses, colleagues, siblings, friends, etc., who are capable of such comments. It takes courage to say something.

Have you experienced a comment like this from a stranger or acquaintance? What did you do? Is it easier to confront someone you know or someone you don’t know? Why?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Just a Joke?: Encountering Sexism in Surprising Places

  1. karissajoelle

    My heart started racing just reading the story! I can imagine you had a whole mess of feelings about the situation and the way you handled it. For what it’s worth, well done! I fear I might have put my head down and sped past them without saying a word, fuming for hours and reviewing all the things I could have said and done.

    I’m reminded of a nonviolent self-defense training I while living in DC. We were encouraged to respond to sexist comments on the street with, “Stop harassing women. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Show some respect.” Men aren’t generally used to being confronted that way, and it’s actually an amazingly effective statement in many situations. That said, I wonder if it might only be the right response for a subgroup of sexist comments. I’m not sure I could ever bring myself to say it to a cop, for example, or a friend. (Whether those hesitations are justifiable is another question entirely.) I wonder if there are other types of language that might be more effective in those types of situations? There’s just something about relationships that changes the dynamics here. We have “relationships” of sorts with police officers whether or not we’ve ever interacted with one, because we all relate to authority in one way or another and probably have certain ideas about cops and the way to behave with them. And any ongoing relationships with friends and family members carry their own histories and understandings.

    I’m still left wondering what to do.

  2. Jim Kirk

    Wow you are remarkably thin skinned. It pales in comparison of victims of actual harassment. Harassment isn’t an offhand comment it is a sustained pattern of hostile abuse.

    • inexperience comes naturally

      No one deserves to be inappropriately harassed physically or verbally more than once before they have the right to be angry.
      While this may not fit your definition of harassment, the police officer’s comment is still inappropriately sexual and relies on the dynamic of a harasser in a position of power both as a police officer and a male, and the female victim as nothing more than a sexual object who cannot object for fear of ridicule or backlash.
      Street harassment IS a real problem, and for most women, it becomes a “sustained pattern of hostile abuse,” from different harassers, but with the same element of inappropriate sexual comments or advances. I live in a city where it is currently acceptable (and completely wrong) for all girls and women to be harassed on the street from middle school on.
      Personally, I do not appreciate any type of catcalling or creepy come-ons and invitations from random men on the street, and since I’ve endured it ever since I hit puberty. I think that qualifies as a pattern of hostile verbal abuse. Such comments may not attack character, but it denounces a woman’s status as anything other than public object ripe for sexualization, which is abusive to all women.

      • Hannah Heinzekehr

        Thanks for this comment. I agree with you, “inexperience.” Although this comment may not itself involve physical or sexual assault, allowing comments like this to be perpetuated paves the way for these other actions. They are all bound together, I think, and help to give energy and support to systems that are harmful to all women.

  3. Kristine

    Street harassment like that is unnerving, and adds “threatening” to a woman’s assessment of her situation, particularly when alone. It’s not in the least thin-skinned to react in this way. A situation of unequal power can tilt in the direction of security when a friendly, reassuring comment is made, or insecurity when a challenge is given. I tend to exhibit a substantial presence of character – an “I’m not a victim” attitude – when in public, so I haven’t been subjected to it much. But it happened to me in a local community ed class, and I responded then, as much to speak up for others this man might encounter as to assert for myself. I think it’s _never_ “just a joke.” It’s part of a pattern of power-tripping that needs as many stop signs as we have the energy to provide.

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