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Research blog: Super hero, or super sexy?

by Kim Belmonte

It’s summer! School’s out and you’re ready to hang out. When you’ve had your fill of the heat and humidity, maybe you’re like me and you want to head to see an exciting movie, with tons of action and maybe even superheroes?!  Unfortunately it seems like most action movies have some pretty disappointing portrayals of gender: the male characters do all the fun things like destroying—or saving—the world and the female characters are stuck playing sexy sidekicks, love-interests or victims who need saving.

I don’t know about you, but I get pretty frustrated with sexist movies that only show men as powerful, complex characters and women as sexy, weak, sidelined characters.  Even when women are cast as capable, they’re often still sexualized, meaning they’re wearing revealing clothing, and have thin bodies and large breasts. For example, I just watched Marvel’s The Avengers[1] where the only female superhero, the Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) is a butt-kicking assassin … who wears a low-cut spandex catsuit the whole time. But watching female superheroes at least is empowering for women, right? I mean, the Black Widow is a pretty cool hero, and on the one hand, I kind of want to be like her, but on the other hand, her super sexualized appearance makes me self-consciously think about how my own body looks.

I’ll admit it: I’m confused. It all really makes me wonder, what is the impact of seeing these kinds of sexualized-yet-heroic images of women in movies?

So I decided to do some research (I know, it’s summer but I’m kind of nerdy). And I found that researchers Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz[2] had a similar question. They wanted to know how seeing sexualized videos of female heroes or victims (e.g., the damsel in distress) might—in the short-term at least—impact women’s beliefs about gender and their bodies.  So they ran an experiment with female college students where women watched a 13-minute montage of clips from movies with sexualized female characters (e.g., thin, large-chested and wearing tight clothing).  They were either shown a montage with “sexualized victims,” female characters who were depicted as weak damsels in distress needing rescuing by a male counterpart (e.g., Mary Jane in the Spiderman series), or the “sexualized heroines,” female characters that were depicted as strong, intelligent and powerful (e.g., Storm in the X-Men series).  Another group of women didn’t watch any videos (this is known as a control group) so the researchers could compare women who saw sexualized images to women who didn’t.

After watching the film clips, women answered questions about their body image (satisfaction with their appearance and specific body parts like their face and stomach), self-objectification (their tendency to think about their body in terms of how it looks rather than how capable it is), and their agreement with traditional gender role stereotypes (e.g. “Men are better at taking on mental challenges than women”).

They found that compared to the women who didn’t watch anything, those who watched the sexualized heroines thought more about their own bodies in terms of being capable, rather than being attractive (which wasn’t true for those who watched the sexualized victim).  On the other hand, the women who watched the sexualized victims tended to agree more with traditional gender role stereotypes than women in the control group (which wasn’t true for those who watched the sexualized heroine).  This is great news because it shows that having more powerful roles for women in films may be related to women in the audience feeling more powerful.

But in an interesting twist, both groups of women who watched the clips (either the sexualized victim or the sexualized heroine) ended up with slightly worse body image than women in the control group.  Wait, you’re saying—why does watching female heroes make women feel worse about their bodies? I get it with the damsels in distress, but the heroes? Really?

Based on my own experience watching The Avengers, this totally makes sense to me: As women, we’ve been taught to compare ourselves to how others look, and any super-sexualized depiction of a woman can trigger that little voice in our heads that says, Oh my gosh.  She’s so sexy. Do I look like that? Should I look like that? Is that how women are supposed to look?  In previous blogs, we’ve written about how reading sexualized magazines or watching sexualized television shows makes women more willing to act in sexualized ways, like participating in a wet t-shirt contest.  Even choosing a sexualized avatar in a video game makes women more likely to self-objectify.  So it only makes sense that when we see a woman character—whether she’s a hero or not— we begin to compare our bodies to that often unrealistic portrayal of beauty and sexiness.

Lately, a few of the SPARK bloggers have been critiquing the lack of well-rounded female characters in film.  What Hollywood considers a “strong female character” is usually a one-dimensional portrayal of strength: a businesswoman or a superhero but without character development or complexity.  When we start consistently seeing films with female characters that focus not only on their strength, but also on their character, I think it will be easier for everyone to see those characters as capable of an amazing range of actions and emotions—not just as sexy objects.  So while the jury is still out on whether the Black Widow is a feminist icon, I do think it’s important to remember that even though super heroes are super fun, they’re fictional—not functional or full—portrayals of women.

[1] Side note: the movie only squeaks by the Bechdel Test of gender inequality which rates movies based on whether they meet the following three criteria: 1) there are at least two named women; 2) they talk to each other; 3) they talk to each other about something other than a man.

[2] Pennell, H. & Behm-Morawitz, E. (2015). The empowering (super) heroine? The effects of sexualized female characters in superhero films on women.  Sex Roles, 72, 211-220.

Some thoughts on going abroad, before actually going

by Joneka Percentie

I’m leaving the country for the first time this weekend and I am a mess in every sense of the word. These last few days before my departure I’ve felt a strange combination of anxiety, excitement, and confusion. I’m getting on a plane flying across the equator and landing in the southern hemisphere to study at a South African university for three weeks.

I have no idea what to expect once I reach the Western Cape of South Africa. My general approach to life is to set little to no expectations for things so that I am always pleasantly surprised. This will be the farthest I have ever traveled away from home, and so many have told me it will be a life changing experience. Right now, I’m just preoccupied with how I’m going to fit all of my belongings in my suitcase.

The extent of my knowledge about South Africa comes watching the movie The Color of Friendship (possibly the most important movie to come out of Disney channel), singing along to Sarafina!, and listening to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. But now I am actually going to South Africa in real life and I’ll have to ditch my preconceived ideas of the country and its people.

This is an opportunity I never thought I would have because 1) my family could never afford the high costs of international flights and 2) because I’ve had difficulty dealing with my anxiety away from home. Thanks to a scholarship program this summer and reconciled fears about being away from my support system, I will have the chance to study South African women’s health, sexual and reproductive rights.  

I’m not exactly sure what it will be like to live and study in South Africa. Like I said before, I make it a goal to set very little expectations. Although the bar is set pretty low, I never thought I would be studying at a predominantly white university, or travelling as the only Black student from my home university on my specific track.

It also doesn’t help that at least twice a week for the past month my mom excitedly barges into my room with the latest reports from the news. “Did you hear about the girl that got mauled by a lion? She was in South Africa. Don’t go near any lions,” she told me early one morning. Or when she shared this very scary study that found that women that study abroad are five times more likely to experience sexual assault.

In preparation for this trip, I’ve also had to mentally prepare myself for encountering anti-blackness, something they didn’t go over at our orientation. In the past I’ve been guilty of romanticizing foreign countries and imagining them as a sort of utopia or refuge away from the racism in the United States. But in confronting reality, I’ve realized that anti-blackness is universal, and I’ll have to be prepared to experience prejudice no matter where I go. I’ve been thinking over and over about how I may encounter familiar symbols of hate and racism thousands of miles away from home. I’m still working on striking the right balance between being aware of the risks and obsessing over every little thing that could go wrong. I hope to find this balance soon.

With all my nerves and anxieties aside, I am truly excited to see what this trip will hold. Who knows what’s going to go down! I hope to blog about my time there and document all of my experiences, good and bad. Hopefully this is the first of many trips abroad filled with friends, family, and adventure.

Black Women Directors is the perfect Tumblr for your summer movie needs

by Joneka Percentie

SPARK’s ongoing Black Women Create  project highlights Black women working to create complex characters and fighting limited representation in the film and television industries through writing, directing, and producing. That’s why I was so excited to come across this tumblr called Black Women Directors, which has the same mission.

Black Women Directors acts as a directory for feature and short films and webseries created by Black women. There are over thirty posts on the blog so far with no hint at stopping. Black Women Directors was created by Danielle A. Scruggs, a photographer and cultural producer, as an online resource dedicated to highlighting and celebrating the work of self identifies women filmmakers of African descent across the diaspora. Here are some great projects BWD highlighted from this past year alone:

Cecile EmekeStrolling

Synopsis: “‘Strolling’ is a short documentary film series created by Cecile Emeke where we take a stroll with people in various cities and countries around the world. The web series works to connect stories of Black experiences scattered across the African diaspora.”

In addition to Strolling, Emeke has been making waves with Flâner, the French version of the webseries (pictured above), and Ackee and Saltfish, a short film turned webseries. Emeke emphasizes the importance of highlighting the Black British experience through directing and writing.

Christine SwansonFor the Love of Ruth

Synopsis: “Ruth Summerling has spent the majority of her life struggling to find her way and comes to some understanding of where exactly it is she belongs. A film adaptation of the Book of Ruth.”

For the Love of Ruth aired on TV One in May and featured performances by Denise Boutte and Loretta Divine. Christine Swanson directed the film and is also the owner of independent motion picture production company Faith Filmworks. Some of Swanson’s other projects include Woman Thou Art Loosed, All About Us, and To Hell and Back.

Akousa Adoma OwusuBlack Sunshine

Synopsis: “Black Sunshine tells the story of hairdresser, ROSEMARY KONADU, and her 12-year-old albino daughter, COCO. Rosemary longs to escape her frustrating African reality. Black Sunshine examines albino Africans as tropes for cross-cultural identity while creatively engaging in representations of beauty and unbalanced power relations in the intricacies of everyday life.”

Akosua Adoma Owusu was one of four selected for the World Cinema Fund, a project by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Goethe-Institut. Owusu received 40,000 euros, over 44,000 US Dollars for production funding. Owusu’s other projects include Split Ends, I Feel Wonderful, Revealing Roots, and Me Broni Ba (My White Baby).

Lyric R Cabral(T)ERROR

Synopsis: “Shot over the course of two years and with unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to a counterterrorism sting, (T)ERROR feels like a political spy novel set in your own hometown. A faceless character throughout, the FBI is an omnipresent force, pushing hard for results as ***** slowly closes in on his target. As secrets emerge from his past, ***** is caught between the consequences of his double life and mounting pressure from his handlers.”

Lyric Cabral is a photojournalist, cinematographer, and filmmaker whose debut project with David Fellow Sutcliff earned the US Documentary Special Jury Award: Break Out First Feature  at Sundance. “I came to realize that a photo essay has narrative limitations,” she told Filmmaker Magazine, “and cannot reveal the nuances and complexities of the stories that I am drawn to tell. I thus embraced observational filmmaking as a means of becoming a better journalist, in order to more truthfully bear witness to the realities of my subjects and to tell a more complete story.”

Tiona McCloddenKILO | Iba se 99.

Synopsis: “Iba se 99. takes inspiration from an excerpt of a report produced by the Women’s Bureau division of the United States Department of Labor titled Negro Women War Workers, published in 1945. The film is also an exploration of the relationship between the US Navy Flag signal Kilo which has the assigned message of “I wish to communicate with you”, the first 12 Black women allowed to work on the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1942, and the Orisha Ochosi.”

“I’m interested in Blackness and nostalgia; and how the past, present, and future can intersect visually and thematically within time based work. I’m invested in exploring intersubjectivities within Black communities as a tool for creating insider perspectives within film, time based works, and objects,” McClodden said on her website. Some of McClodden’s other projects include THE CHILLS and roots.|&| rigor.

Dee ReesBessie

Synopsis: Bessie details the life of the iconic 1920’s blues singer Bessie Smith.

“I wanted to show Bessie almost as a liberator who sang around the countryside, singing for her folks. She’s coming to represent freedom, she’s coming to represent sexual freedom for all these people.” said Dee Rees in an interview with Indiewire. Bessie earned a Critics Choice Award for Best Movie Made for Television with performances from Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique.

Marquette JonesForgiving Chris Brown

Synopsis: “Forgiving Chris Brown is a dark comedy short that follows the follies of ‘Rihanna,’ ‘Halle’ and ‘Tina.’ These stylish girlfriends hope to heal their battered hearts through the old-fashioned way – Revenge. The emotional baggage they carry ties them together and makes for some unorthodox fun.”

Marquette Jones is an award-winning director, writer, and producer who studied at New York University. Some of Jones’ other projects include Round on Both Sides, Streets to Suites, and Jackie.

Black Women Directors is directly in line with what Black Women Create aims to accomplish: highlighting the projects and voices of Black women in order to introduce new and diverse talent in an industry that has so often silenced them. It is so important to support Black women filmmakers and their work, so make sure to check out their projects and the rest of the films included on Black Women Directors! You can keep up with Black Women Directors on tumblr and Twitter.

Research Blog: There’s no crying in basketball! (But I did anyway.)

by Stephanie M. Anderson

Growing up, I loved being active: climbing trees, riding bikes, building obstacle courses, you name it. If it involved dirt, even better. I loved testing my body’s limits, not to mention my parents’ nerves (but that’s another story). Once I was old enough to play an organized sport – basketball in particular – I discovered my passion for being a part of a team. On the court, I loved the challenge: Could I run faster? Jump higher? Make a three-point shot? Dish out the perfect assist? Although the passing genius Steph Curry wasn’t around yet, I like to believe that our shared namesake destined me to become a point guard. That, and I’m pretty short…

Although I played on the basketball team in middle school, high school was where it was at, where the real competition happened. Unlike many areas in the US, where girls’ sports aren’t considered as good or important as boys’ sports, where I grew up – in southeastern Michigan – girls’ basketball was BIG. So big that a section of the local newspaper was dedicated to covering the latest action of our games. Hundreds of people – students, community members, parents – would come to watch our games. It was the best.

And then during a game early in my freshman year I heard it: “Hey, piggy! Piggy!!” A group of boys from a rival school taunted me: “Have some more Cheetos piggy!” They harassed me not only at this one game, but also in several games to come.

I’m not going to pretend that before this hackling I had never been self-conscious about my body. Puberty already feels like a time of bodily betrayal, and like so many other girls, nothing ever seemed quite right. My calves were too big; my thighs rubbed; my lady six-pack was nowhere to be found.

But “piggy” hit deeper.

See, I was the “fat” kid growing up (read: I was kinda cubby), cursed with what other kids decided were “chipmunk cheeks.” So being called “piggy” in high school wasn’t necessarily anything new. But, at age 14, I had hoped to escape my chipmunk days. I was devastated, not to mention humiliated, to learn that my body still invited critique. I wondered to myself, If these boys think this, surely others do too? I loved playing, but the thought of continual public shaming paralyzed me.

Thinking back on this experience makes me wonder how it is today. How do girls feel about their bodies while playing sports? Are they teased, and if so, by whom? How does teasing affect them?

Researchers, Slater and Tiggemann[1] had similar questions. They wanted to know if being teased about how we do physical activities relates to the types of sports we choose and how we feel about ourselves. They also wanted to know if experiences of teasing carry different consequences for boys than for girls.

To find out, they asked 332 girls and 382 boys (ages 12-16) to answer questions about the types of sports and physical activities they do and if they’ve been teased while doing them. They also asked questions about how they feel about their bodies and if they’ve ever had body image concerns.

What did they find?

First, they found that although a large percentage of both girls (66%) and boys (78%) participated in an organized sport, girls were more likely to be teased while playing. For example, girls were more likely to be laughed at because of how they looked or made fun of for not being coordinated (think: “you throw like a girl!”). Girls were also more likely to be stared at or called names related to their weight or size than boys were (much like those boys called me “piggy”).

What effects does being teased have, you might ask? Well, perhaps not surprisingly, for both girls and boys, the more they were teased, the more likely they were to feel ashamed of their bodies or to think about their bodies as objects (self-objectify). This rings true to my experience big time. For me, being called “piggy” made me self-conscious about how I looked –so much so, that I used to stare at myself in the mirror in uniform thinking about how I probably looked playing basketball.

But unlike my experience, girls in this study reported that both boys and girls teased them. So they weren’t just being made fun of by people watching them, they were also made fun of by girls who were playing alongside them – their teammates.

Once girls reach puberty they are less likely to remain physically active.[2] Although we don’t yet understand all of the reasons why, being made fun of for how they exercise, criticized about their weight or bodies, or other types of taunting may help explain why girls withdraw or quit. It seems that even though playing sports is good for us in lots of ways,[3] it is not always a “safe space.”

Despite being bullied – or perhaps to spite those who bullied me – I remain active, and I still play basketball. Being taunted didn’t make me quit, but it certainly made it harder to concentrate and to love my body. We all know what they say about sticks and stones, but I know words can hurt, especially when they come from our peers. So instead of tearing each other down, let’s help one another to feel the power of our bodies when we put them in motion.

[1] Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2011). Gender differences in adolescent sport participation, teasing, self-objectification and body image concerns. Journal of Adolescence34(3), 455-463.

[2] Caspersen, C. J., Pereira, M. A., & Curran, K. M. (2000). Changes in physical activity patterns in the United States, by sex and cross-sectional age. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, (32), 1601-9.

[3] Fox, K. R. (2000). The effects of exercise on self-perceptions and self-esteem. In S. J. H. Biddle, K. R. Fox, & S. H. Boutcher (Eds.), Physical activity and psychological well-being (pp. 88-117). London: Routledge.

Annalise Keating and Claire Underwood aren’t “Strong Female Characters”–and that’s why I love them

by Annemarie McDaniel

I watch quite a bit of TV, from the classic one-episode-a-week shows on primetime television to newer habits of binge-watching an entire season on Netflix. The shows I watch are all wonderful in their own unique ways, but there are two shows in particular I can’t stop obsessing over: How To Get Away With Murder and House of Cards. It took me a while to realize why I am still so head-over-heels in love with these two shows. Yes, they’re written very well. Of course, the acting is phenomenal. Sure, maybe part of it is the pop-culture hype around them. But there was something more to How To Get Away With Murder and House of Cards.

It was the cunning, emotional, independent women protagonists that felt so fresh and exciting to me. The shows themselves were great, but it was actually Annalise Keating of How To Get Away With Murder and Claire Underwood of House of Cards that I couldn’t stop thinking about.

At first glance, what makes Claire and Annalise unique is how they act as villainous as other male characters on television. Both women have threatened, manipulated, seduced, lied, cheated, and practically killed their way to the top of the pecking order: Claire snagging the prize of being America’s First Lady, and Annalise winning the reputation of being a top lawyer and law school professor. Furthermore, although both women acknowledge they may have made some missteps along the way, neither show is about the characters are on the show to show their remorse for their often immoral actions. Just like the male characters, they did what they had to do to get to the top.

But it’s not that they’re Strong Female Characters, a phrase meant to describe women in any form of media who appear to be tough, boss ladies but are actually annoyingly one-dimensional. They have awesome skills like killing off five bad guys at once while wearing a tight leather bodysuit; but that’s it, that’s all they bring to the table. Typically the Strong Female Character ends up being totally irrelevant to the plot; she’s a tool for the male character’s storyline and serves more as eye-candy than world-saver.

Annalise Keating and Claire Underwood are definitely not generic Strong Female Characters.

Part of it is that HTGAWM and House of Cards show Annalise and Claire in real, dynamic romantic relationships. They both deal with marriage and infidelity; some mistakes are their own and some are their spouses’. The viewer witnesses intimate moments when the characters or their spouses experience personal breakdowns, and the honest love and intimacy within their relationships. So often Strong Female Characters tend to be physically or intellectually intimidating, able to out-fight or out-smart in a second, but rarely show any real romantic depth. While other male characters in the show start relationships, fall in love, or even just joke about their casual hook-ups, typically, women’s relationships remain a mystery. The viewer gets one or two lines about her relationship, whether it’s that she’s too career-driven to have successful relationships, that she’s a player hooking up with men left and right, that she’s in an unhappy relationship now, or that she went through a past painful breakup that scarred her. But that’s all the depth we get. It’s supposed to be a part of what makes them “strong;” they don’t need men or intimacy because Strong Female Characters aren’t overly emotional. And when a Strong Female Character does get more romantic depth, it’s often the male character teaching her how to be more intimate, trusting, passionate or generally more “soft.” It’s important to have women characters like that on TV since there are women like that in the world, but it gets irritating when every single lady on the show falls into the same “independent woman” trope.

Although Annalise and Claire know when to support, to forgive and to love their husbands, they also when it’s time to call them out, to snap them back into acceptable behavior, and if all else fails, when to leave them without apology. That’s part of what makes Annalise Keating of HTGAWM different from Olivia Pope of Scandal, another Shondaland show I watch religiously. Olivia Pope, like Annalise Keating, is a multi-faceted and interesting character: sharp but arrogant, driven but vicious, motivating but terrifying, realistic but cynical. However, where Scandal departs from HTGAWM is in their love lives. Unlike Scandal, HTGAWM (and similarly House of Cards) isn’t about falling devastatingly in love or out of love with men who are controlling, manipulative, and all-consuming. It’s become painful to watch four seasons of Olivia continuously stay on the emotional roller coaster her lovers create, with her lovers constantly obsessing over her every word and move (often using national intelligence resources to literally bug or track her). Annalise and Claire are married to controlling, sometimes abusive men as well, like Olivia, but their relationships aren’t their whole identity. Annalise and Claire define their personal value as more than just their ability to love and be loved, especially when the relationship becomes toxic. Annalise and Claire know when it’s time to try again to fix a marriage, and when it’s time to leave.

Lastly, HTGAWM and House of Cards are refreshing because Annalise and Claire aren’t the only complex female characters. Annalise’s law team includes Laurel, Michaela, and Bonnie, who are just as dynamic and imperfect as Annalise, not to mention their main client, Rebecca. Similarly, Claire and her husband Frank, who are handling his re-election campaign, face not one but two women opponents running for the presidency. Both Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp struggle with what it means to run for the Oval Office as a woman and how ruthless is too ruthless on the campaign trail, all while also juggling families and relationships.

If you haven’t caught up on HTGAWM or House of Cards yet, I’d suggest you block out the next day or two of your life to binge-watch these new classics. Just like their female characters, these shows are not perfect, but that’s half the fun of watching.


Research blog: sexual objectification as everyday trauma

by Jennifer Chmielewski

Like many women, I have put up with my share of sexual harassment, subway groping, and just dealing with plain old creepy dudes. This issue is so commonplace (women have been speaking up about it for ages) that the NYC MTA actually announces now that “a crowded subway is no excuse for unlawful sexual conduct.” I’ve had a range of responses to these attacks, from a hushed and demure ‘please stop,’ to snide laughs that say ‘you have no power over me’ to verbal and physical altercations that leave me feeling grateful I got out okay. One thing that is always constant though is that afterwards, I have nights where I toss and turn, thinking about the encounter. Why did I ask him to ‘please stop’ like it was a polite request? Why couldn’t I just stand up for myself like the strong woman that I am? I wish I had been a little tougher, a little snarkier, or made a scene to put the guys in their place. Or in recalling the times I do stand up and fight back, I wonder, what if that guy had gotten angrier… what could have happened?

In the end, I usually end up feeling helpless because I know there is no good response and yet I end up wanting to know what I can do to protect myself, to feel safe and stop feeling vulnerable. There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about the ways in which young college women are demanding that the psychological impacts of rape and institutional neglect be recognized as trauma. In our past SPARK research blogs we have talked about the ways in which experiences of sexual objectification can make our brains freeze up or discourage us from making a difference through activism.

But I have been wondering lately about how experiencing sexual objectification and ogling (and fearing that it may happen) day after day may actually be a kind of trauma itself. Research has found that experiencing racism over the lifetime is a form of trauma that is harmful to mental and physical health – is sexism too? We live in a world where our bodies as women are constantly examined, scrutinized, and sometimes touched or commented on against our will. These may not always be the most violent experiences, but what do these mean for our psyches and bodies over time?

To find out, I started digging through new research and it turns out researchers Haley Miles-McLean, Miriam Liss, Mindy J. Erchull, Caitlin M. Robertson, Charlotte Hagerman, Michelle A. Gnoleba, and Leanna J. Papp[1] from the University of Mary Washington had been interested in this idea too (you know what they say about great minds…).

They wanted to see whether experiences of sexual objectification were actually related to trauma symptoms. They asked 337 adult women how often they feel their bodies being evaluated by others and how often they experience unwanted sexual advances (i.e. being grabbed or pinched in a private area against their will). They also measured body shame (i.e. feeling bad if they gain weight) and trauma symptoms (like spacing out, having nightmares, or sexual problems).

Unfortunately, they found what I expected: women who experience more evaluation of their bodies by others and women who experience more unwanted sexual advances also had more body shame and more trauma symptoms. Ultimately, although experiences of sexual harassment and objectification may not be what we normally think of as a traumatic experience (like rape or war), when they are added up over time they really have the same kinds of effects for women. 

Sadly, all of this makes sense, especially in a world where our experiences of sexual violation are not taken seriously. When 35 women come forward about Bill Cosby raping them and the public still doesn’t believe them, who cares about one woman’s experiences of harassment? One guy I know (certainly not a friend) said he was sick of hearing women complain about street harassment so much – they should just take the compliment. And he is not the only one who mansplains and minimizes this issue. But having someone harass you on the street definitely sucks, and when it happens to you every day, when you protest (or don’t) and neither strategy works, when you stew in your bedroom later about all of the things you should have done differently – this is when you’re experiencing real and deep pain. This is when you don’t feel so resilient and powerful anymore. Slowly and insidiously, trauma has crept in.

Frankly, it all leaves me feeling confused as hell. When some dude harasses me on the street, what am I supposed to do? If I don’t say anything, I’ll kick myself later for it, wishing I had done something, feeling vulnerable, like I let him win. If I do speak up, I may be seen as overly sensitive, unable to ‘take a compliment’ or a ‘joke,’ or I may become more vulnerable to violence from perpetrators. But the worst part is, no matter what I do, I wind up feeling like my body is not my own and that I am never completely safe. And that, dear reader, is what trauma feels like.

Trauma is not just when a huge awful thing happens to you. It happens when you add up weeks, months or a lifetime of smaller traumas like sexual harassment in a culture where women’s bodies are so often viewed as objects to be ogled. Despite the mansplaining that goes on to justify these kinds of violations (like from my not-friend), we need to recognize that sexual harassment can have serious consequences for our health. So let’s not blame ourselves for what happens or how we feel when we experience these violations. I may not always respond how I want to when I am harassed, but that’s not my problem and it is not my fault. It is all of our responsibilities to create the space for me (and you) to move freely and passionately in our bodies without worrying about that creepy dude.

[1] Miles-McLean, H., Liss, M., Erchull, M. J., Robertson, C. M., Hagerman, C., Gnoleba, M. A., & Papp, L. J. (2014). “Stop looking at me!” Interpersonal sexual objectification as a source of insidious trauma. Psychology of Women Quarterly.