Cover Story: Choosing Our Battles

So whatcha got, and who gets it?

Holla Back NYC

My favorite street harassment is the two-second walk-by survey: "Got a boyfriend?" And the guys swing on past, chortling and nudging each other or slinging less euphemistic invitations over their shoulders. Sometimes it's a single male, and he actually slows down to see how I'll reply.

I lift my chin and stare straight ahead. Most of the women in an unscientific survey of six female friends ages 22 to 38 do the same.

Lindsey Ziegelgruber takes another tack: "I usually say, 'Thank you,' " she says. "Or I'll be like, 'Yeah, yeah, I know.' It helps my day to treat things like they're a joke. It's so desperate of them on their part, how can you not treat it like a joke?"

Filmmaker April Martin decides to confront harassers because "if he's going to do it to you, he's going to do it to the next person."

So Martin turns on them with maternal scorn, saying simply, "You don't have to disrespect me like that. It's not necessary."

A movement out of New York City finds postmodern electronic ground between confrontation and silence. Holla Back NYC encourages victims of street harassment to snap cell phone pics of perps and post them to its blog, (Tagline: "If you can't slap 'em, snap 'em.")

Actress Jen Dalton sees catcalls and street harassment as jockeys for power rather than romantic overtures. But sensitive people notice even subtler plays for power cropping up constantly — in families, groups of friends, polite company, staff meetings — forcing women (and, yes, men as well) to make split-second decisions: Do I say something or do I let this slide?

Back when she still smoked, Dara (not her real name) was on break when a coworker came into the restaurant's break room and without a word picked up her pack and helped himself to a cigarette.

"For whatever reason I'd given him the impression he could do that and I probably wouldn't do anything about it," she says.

The price of that one cigarette taken as if permission were either a foregone conclusion or a non-issue was too high for Dara. She said something, and he handed back the cigarette. The tiniest of incidents, but for her it was significant.

"I'm glad I did (confront him), but it could easily have gone the wrong way," she says. "Instead he gave it back in front of this group of guys and I was given respect."

These small victories stick in the gut like uncomfortable heels sinking into a verdant mud and abandoned there. But women speaking up often face accusations of being shrill, overly sensitive, humorless or even "militant."

"If something comes up that upsets a man in a business situation," Dalton says, "it seems that all a man has to do is say, 'That's not funny' or 'I don't appreciate that' and there's kind of an awkward silence and things go on." If a woman raises the same objections, "then it seems the woman is being bitchy where the man is seen as being strong," she says, "or it's the attitude of, 'Aw, c'mon, we're just joking around.' "

That might be why some of the younger women I talked to consciously back away from confrontation. As Sarah (not her real name) says, "I guess I just don't take it seriously. I think if you take everything too literally you become cynical and hostile and you won't have any friends."

But other women found that years of internalized devaluation had dangerously eroded their self-esteem.

"There was a time when I swallowed it, when I thought it was cute, but all attention is not good attention," Martin says. "I think back then, when I just tolerated it, it was because I didn't know my self-worth."

Confrontation can rock friendships and endanger jobs or social standing. It can also just rock.

I once shocked myself by telling a manager that not only did I fully understand the point he was making but that calling me "babe" was condescending. After a beat that seemed interminable, he immediately apologized.

At home I marveled: I can do that? And then, Oh, no, what am I gonna do next? And what kind of trouble will it get me into?

Sometimes choosing to be aware and then to act on that awareness means living a life on the fringes.

Highly-educated, world-traveled Caroline (not her real name) gave up a writing job when her boss directed her to perpetuate what she knew were untruths about women's health. Now a nanny and barista, she says she's too outspoken and idealistic to stomach a mainstream professional career.

"So I end up taking a job where I have a lot of control over my life and I can respect the person I am," she says. "But I still don't have a 401k. I live very simply. It's not worth it to me to be in a battle all the time."

Dalton, who vividly recalls the feeling of once being told to "just sit there and look pretty," said that standing up for herself was terrifying at first, but it's paid off.

"I was scared to death to start doing that when I was younger because I thought I would be more isolated," she says. "But the more I've started doing that for myself, the more self-respect I have and the more respect I get from other people."

So what's up, women of Cincinnati: Who's your boyfriend? How do you treat yourselves and each other?

Holla back. ©

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