If you are a woman and you hear a male friend jokingly label a girl a “hoe,” you are likely to want to roll your eyes. It fills you with a deep and unsettling sense of secondhand embarrassment. The term, as with “whore,” “slut” and “bitch,” has been reclaimed by many young women and is used as a form of endearment. Yet the dynamic changes based on who is saying it to whom. Even if men who are your friends and playfully use these terms while protesting that they mean something other than sexually degrading insults, they remain incredibly gendered words.
Nevertheless, most of the time, I’ll let it slide. It was, at the end of the day, a joke, right? But where is the line between a harmless joke among friends and the vague and taboo territory of sexual “microaggressions?” What even is a sexual microaggression? Is it the same as casual misogyny?
Casual misogyny is not gender-exclusive nor is it rooted in sexual attraction. I’ve heard it from other women: “If she didn’t want her photos circulated, she shouldn’t have taken them.”
The joke among your group of friends might not be the word “hoe.” My mother has remarked to me about the type of glory-day boasting she’s heard from men her age, and about their complaints that the #MeToo movement has made it, in their words, impossible to even talk about women anymore. Is that also casual misogyny?
Here at Yale, I’ve been asked by a friend: “Are you wearing a bra? If your boobs are out, I’m obviously going to look at them.” Elsewhere, I’ve been slapped on the butt and grinned at by a man at least three times my age.
These things happen and will likely continue to happen endlessly. But the problem isn’t necessarily what the casual misogynist has said — sometimes a joke is truly made innocently with only the intention to amuse. The problem is what comes after. If you have made such a joke before, as I’m sure many of us have, you have to be open to the response that follows. The real transgression is the dismissal of the listener’s discomfort: “It’s just a joke! Come on, lighten up — stop spoiling the fun.”
The big scandal at my high school in Singapore was a case where almost half the boys in my grade upskirted girls for their “wank banks” (their offensive term) and circulated nude photos of ex-girlfriends. It had gone on for three years before somebody finally “snitched” and the school suspended a number of boys. Our head-of-grade called it “Neanderthal behavior.” Some of us felt this wasn’t sufficient punishment, to which a friend of mine argued: “If they have to expel all the boys, then they should expel the girls too since they’re the ones who took the photos.” Earlier this year, Monica Baey, a student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), revealed that another NUS student had filmed her in the shower, and that the institution had only suspended him. Some hailed her a hero, while others deemed her attention-seeking and overdramatic.
With voyeurism cases likes these so prevalent in Singapore, they have almost become casual. Probably at least once a month, I’ll notice somebody on the train or at a pedestrian crossing holding their phone shiftily — as I move, so does the phone. You learn to deal with it subtly, to attempt to make eye contact with the man — if he lowers his phone, you’ve made your point.
Over fall break, I was in New York City. It was raining hard enough to rival a tropical thunderstorm and I stepped onto the D train, having been sloshed with water and my hair wrung out. The familiar feeling of being eyeballed crept up on me. This time, it was a man in his 40s, angling his phone towards me. I tried my well-worn method of confronting him with my direct gaze to no avail, not even a hint of shame in his eyes. Okay, so maybe I’m wrong… the pressure to minimize discomfort had already begun creeping up on me, leaving me doubting my suspicions. A tall, built, bearded man near us looked at me, then at the man, at his phone and again back at him. He held his gaze until the offending man lowered his phone, scowling. In Singapore, I had never experienced another person stepping in, even as subtly as that.
In general, the catcalls and comments I’ve experienced since coming here have been relatively tolerable. Walking along the streets of New York, and occasionally New Haven, you might hear a “you’re looking beautiful today,” or perhaps, “nice legs!” On the train, someone twice your age might hit on you before you shuffle off at your stop, your voice trailing off as you mutter, “Sorry, I have a boyfriend.” Occasionally, an Uber driver might offer you “gum or a drink. Just relax, baby,” and you force a tight smile and shoot a text to your friend asking them to check in on you in ten minutes.
When I’ve related these experiences to others, I’ve often been met with “Oh … that’s not that bad!” And arguably, they aren’t traumatizing experiences (I speak for myself, of course). So with each one that happens, I dismiss it as “not that bad” and try to shake the nagging sense of shame it brings. I know I’m not the only woman who feels this way, afraid to talk about even worse experiences of harassment. So when more serious things occur, our fear of being dismissed again ends in a palimpsest of unspoken trauma.
Other people disregarding our experiences is the same as brushing off our concerns about sexualized jokes. Even then, it’s sometimes hard to blame the joker. How are they supposed to know that my miniskirts and liberal views come with experiences of being felt up or worse, with the lines of consent not blurred but snuck across?
The solution isn’t self-censorship, but rather for us to create an environment of openness and discourse, regardless of sexuality or gender. Statistically, the likelihood that any woman has experienced some form of sexual assault or wrangled with misogyny is high. If a woman expresses her discomfort, whether explicitly or not, it should not be brushed off as uptight sensitivity. Making a woman feel as though she is “spoiling your fun” or can’t take a joke because she doesn’t like a comment you’ve made about her is the breeding ground for toxic interactions, and —yes — rape culture. The more casual we get with our misogyny, the more insecure a woman feels in her ability to be vocal about what’s happened to her, and the more others feel they can take advantage of that hesitancy or silence. We can do better.
MIRANDA JEYARETNAM is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .