I’ve learned the hard way to dress modestly in New York

Men like Harvey Weinstein are everywhere. But women across the globe are finding their voice

‘We put on our armour, we brush it off, we avert eyes, we occasionally confront. Mostly, we pretend it isn’t happening.’ Photograph: iStock

‘We put on our armour, we brush it off, we avert eyes, we occasionally confront. Mostly, we pretend it isn’t happening.’ Photograph: iStock

 

It has been a tough week to be a woman. Since the moment The New York Times and New Yorker reports about Harvey Weinstein emerged, the media has been dominated by coverage of his monstrous crimes.

By the hour they come, more and more women speaking up about the sexual harassment and assault they have endured. It is disgusting but it is not shocking. This particular kind of criminal behavior exists everywhere. From casual, inappropriate comments to leering to harassment to groping, assault, and rape. The #Metoo movement is a staggering mix of heartbreak and hope among those of us who have suffered.

Life as a woman in New York is an assault course. Take a simple example, like walking down the street to get a cup of coffee. First, you evaluate the situation. Do I walk past that building site and have sexual comments shouted at me, or do I cross the street and be leered at on the footpath by some random dude? Do I stop when a man says something menacing, or do I raise my middle finger and keep walking?

Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence here. Sometimes it’s a catcall, or a seedy comment; those are the good days. Then there’re days when a man will try something at an ATM, or corner you on the street. It’s like a scale of harassment, going up or down depending on the severity of the incident, a seismic monitoring of bodily violation.

Generally, what we do here in New York is learn to laugh it off or joke about it. If we don’t, if we stop and think about what it feels like to be objectified and leered at every time we step outside, women would collectively fall into puddles of their own tears.

#MeToo

Personally, I vacillate between no eye-contact with a loud, firm, “no,” and a stare-into-the-eyes “not today, mother***er”. It depends on the day. It depends on my mood. It depends on how much I’ve been subjected to that day.

Sexual harassment is particularly prevalent on the subway. There are public notices with drawings of stick people rubbing against other stick people and a big red line through it. It says a lot about a place if you have to explicitly tell people not to grope someone on their way to work.

The question here is never “have you seen a subway masturbator”, the question is “how many times have you seen one?” In the past, I’ve frozen, silent, in fear, or changed subway car at the next stop. There are heroes sometimes, like the woman who filmed a man rubbing his crotch under his bag. She unleashed a fantastic flurry of cursing rage at him, forcing him off the train.

I don’t wear skirts any more. I tried it again this summer, thinking, “to hell with this, I’m doing it”. It lasted one day. I have long legs, I’m 5’11. Exposed skin equals risk for me. Let me be clear: I have to choose my wardrobe every day to reduce my risk of sexual harassment. I purposely dress modestly in New York because I’ve learned the hard way that any bit of skin is open season for any slimebag who feels like he has ownership over me or simply wants to flex his power.

So what do we do? We put on our armour, we brush it off, we avert eyes, we occasionally confront. Mostly, we pretend it isn’t happening because if we stop and think about it for five minutes, what it really means to be objectified and harassed every day, we wouldn’t leave our apartments.

I’ve never been able to figure out why it’s particularly bad in New York. There are almost 9 million people in this city. That’s a whole lot of different attitudes about how women should be treated melted into one pot. As a woman approaching 40, I’m at platinum level with experience of constant sexual harassment. Simply by a measure of the length of time I’ve been here, I have been subjected to all kinds of everything.

Men like Harvey Weinstein are everywhere. As women across the globe are finding their voices, every basic misogynist clutching to the last gasps of patriarchal power is kicking and screaming, throwing a collective tantrum.

As an emigrant, I often feel lonely, far from home, away from my tribe. If I can glean anything from these awful truths finally coming out, it’s that I feel as sense of solidarity across oceans and continents. When I walk down the street tomorrow, I’ll know that the secret whispers women have shared with each other to keep ourselves safe are out. There is still darkness, but maybe now we can step out of the shadows.

Lisa Tierney-Keogh is an Irish playwright who has been living in New York City since 2010. She tweets @lisatk

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