I have to read Feministing in small doses, as some of the stories from the commenters curl my hair (and make me cry), but the one about men who engage in pervy behaviour in public (touching, staring, saying obscene things, exposing themselves, and masturbating) at women made me think about a conversation I had with someone once about why being followed/perved on by men is so disturbing to women. What I simply couldn't get him to understand was that a) women do not like it when pervs expose themselves or force women to feel their erections, and b) women are generally smaller and weaker than men, so any sexual perv always comes with an added threat of "what can I do if he decides to force himself on me?".
(I'd mutilate him badly, but a big man can overpower me if he's determined enough, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it.)
When a creepy guy starts following a woman, therefore, it's never harmless. Men who perv on women in public are not only getting a sexual thrill from their discomfort, they're demonstrating their power over them. Comment after comment in the thread I was reading showed so clearly how women find it so hard to do anything other than pretend they don't see what's going on (the perv is counting on this, btw); screaming "Pervert!" and reacting in a hostile manner could result in the offender running away, but women all know that it could as easily end up with the woman in serious physical trouble.
And if she does inform the police, she's likely to be told it's no big deal, and they can't do anything anyway. In the worst cases, the woman can be questioned about her actions, with the implication that she was doing something to provoke the attack.
Don't say it doesn't happen; I've seen it. And it is a big deal; it's a fucking big deal, and no-one should ever dismiss it as nothing.
Too often, women are regarded as objects to be stared at and used at a man's pleasure. Some women collude in their own objectification, preferring to sweep any unpleasantness under the rug rather than admit that perverts prey on any woman who seems vulnerable. Blame is often heaped on the woman for going somewhere alone, or wearing a skirt, acting in a provocative manner, or for simply being too cute. Surely, if she had been a "good girl", the reasoning goes, such a thing would not have happened. Worse, it's often implied that women like it - that it gives them a thrill to be admired so much that men can't help themselves sexually. It is not flattering, it is not cool, it's creepy and gross and very threatening. It's not a thrill, it's terrifying.
But good girls have such things happen all the time - I've had guys on public transportation shove their crotches into my face "by accident" (as one commenter says, "no matter how crowded the bus gets, they never shove their crotches into other men's faces"), I've been followed by men while I was walking (one in a car, who kept telling me he'd "take me for a ride"), yelled at, propositioned, and groped. "You have to expect that sort of thing in the city", someone once told me.
But why? Why should any woman have to expect to feel threatened? Why are my body parts free game to any man who wants a feel? Why is it acceptable that women and girls have to put up with this treatment? Shouldn't everyone be up in arms that anyone is being allowed to do this in public?
Unless we work as a society to take this kind of sexual abuse seriously, the behaviour will continue. Worse, it escalates - the sexual thrill of rubbing against a stranger palls, so the man moves on to exposing himself. Then public masturbation. And all the time, women have this knowledge in the back of their minds that a big strong man who chooses to follow them and then decides to grab them might win despite their best efforts.
The Hollaback sites have the right idea - in addition to shaming, the sites perform the valuable service of proving how much abuse goes on all over the country aimed at women who go about their daily lives (read "Creepy Guy does NOT get the message"). Girls going out alone does not mean any perv has permission to do what they want to them - no matter what a woman is wearing, no matter how drunk she is, no matter how she behaves. A Real Man keeps his hands to himself, and his parts in his pants at all times in public. I don't care if she's wearing no underwear, a miniskirt that doesn't cover her hips, and a see-through tank top - call the police and have her arrested for indecent exposure, but don't lay a finger on her unless she gives you explicit, sober, permission.
(I have to add an edit: Of the stories I've read, a full 90% of them say "there were lots of people there, but they did nothing". How's that for tacit public approval?)
Yes, sometimes women get drunk and overtly sexual and it's uncomfortable - but it is overwhelmingly men who prey on strangers for a sexual thrill. And even if women did it too, it would still be unacceptable from either sex, so no excuses. Bad behaviour from one set of people does not translate into permission for anyone else to act badly.
We don't like to think about these things - we're all civilized, well-behaved people - we respect women, this sort of thing doesn't happen to us, right? We're uncomfortable with the idea that women still aren't equal to men, and cannot be when the simple act of going to work often results in unwelcome sexual behaviour from strange men who feel like they have a right to force their sexual desire on any woman they choose. So, to combat that discomfort, we blame the victim for wearing the wrong outfit, behaving the wrong way, saying the wrong thing - and in that way, we reassure ourselves that it can't happen to us, because we're smart, and good, and don't get ourselves into those situations.
But when "those situations" include riding the train to work, walking down the street, or shopping at the mall, what are women supposed to do? Should we stay inside, so that we cannot tempt any man, ever, or should we call out the abusers for what they are - unacceptable? Most men have the ability to control themselves just fine - but there are enough of them who choose not to to make this a real and ongoing problem.
And the next man who "accidentally" shoves his nasty crotch in my face is going to get an "accidental" elbow in said crotch.