Sexism: Now Available at Your Nearest Drugstore!

A few months ago, a friend and I were wandering through a popular New York destination: Duane Reade. We stopped at the “feminine care” aisle. For those unaware, this aisle typically includes condoms, pregnancy tests, tampons, pads, diapers for when you laugh uncontrollably, etc.

As we debated over prices of these “feminine care” products, an employee walked towards us. The following is our conversation:

Employee: Do you guys need help with anything?
Us: No, thanks, we’re fine.
E: Are you sure? Because I have a lot of experience with this stuff.
Ranisha: [laughs awkwardly] Oh, I think we have plenty of experience.
E: Oh yeah? [A beat.] How many years of experience?
R: [stares] Seriously? [Continues to stare until E walks away.]

Pause. What just happened?

Marnie agrees. (Image capped from “Marnie the Dog– Duane Reade Adventure”)

Marnie agrees.
(Image capped from “Marnie the Dog– Duane Reade Adventure”)

This situation occurred months ago, and it continues to anger, frustrate, and confuse me. Is this now considered a normal way to talk to women, much less customers? Is this a form of sexual harassment? Is this a joke and do I just lack a sense of humor?

While a part of me wishes I caught the employee’s name, I know that it won’t help me understand this conversation. Since we were two women standing by ourselves, this man felt as if he could fulfill some invisible sense of entitlement that comes with carrying the Y-chromosome. Even though we were inside a presumably safe establishment, the microaggression followed us from the sidewalk and into Aisle Seven.

As I remain unaware about the significance of this event, it serves as a reminder of the reality most women face daily.  Of course, the conversation with the Duane Reade employee was not physically threatening,  but it left us angry and disgusted. I reacted with sass (naturally), but would I have done the same if I were alone and on the street? Would I have felt as confident if it were at night?

Sadly, I can’t answer these questions, though I have an inkling that I would be far more concerned about my safety and less worried about my sarcastic retort. I hope, however, that someone reading this can provide insight into what I now consider “The Weirdest Tampon Buying Experience Ever.” If this insight does not appear, I hope this allows you to think about the times you have witnessed/ignored/supported/fought microaggression and gender biases; I am sure that they happen far more often than inside Duane Reades in Manhattan.

Why did the woman cross the street?

Or maybe the better question is, how did the woman cross the street? Perhaps with a low-muttered “dammmmnnnnnn” from that guy waiting for the bus, or maybe a “hey, you need a boyfriend?” from a high school kid riding his bike, or maybe this time, it was a man who could have been old enough to be her grandfather who confidently said, “you should smile more.” Either way, she didn’t cross the street silently.

A video posted by Hollaback! yesterday has generated enough buzz on the Internet to garner close to 10 million views. It features a woman supposedly gaining more than 100 instances of “verbal street harassment” within 10 hours of walking in NYC. If you, like the 10 million other people, watched this video, you may have thought one of the following things:

  • Wow, those guys really put the “ass” in “harassment.”
  • Wait…does this stuff really happen to women?
  • Yup, this is normal. Why are people noticing this now?

(Or, you may be one of the lovely people who commented on the video [see: comments section of anything is a wonderful place to see the scum of the earth]. Some of these comments are here for your viewing/eye-rolling pleasure.)

As a member of the XX-chromosome and a resident of NYC, the experiences of this woman seem completely normal. OF COURSE random creepos say things to me while I walk down the street. OF COURSE I’m freaked out. OF COURSE I’m thinking, look straight, don’t respond, look straight, don’t respond, look straight–wait, WHAT did he say–NO, don’t respond.

A few questions: why is any of this normal? Why is it a normal expectation for women to appreciate these completely unannounced and disgusting advances? Why is it normal for these “compliments” to subside when a woman walks down the street holding hands with a man? Why do these acts of verbal harassment increase when women travel in groups?

When I was visiting New Delhi, India for a few weeks three years ago, my uncle told me that I shouldn’t walk to the grocery story without my cousin. My male cousin. My male, then 15-year-old, cousin. I was appalled. What kind of backward nation am I in that I need to be accompanied by a teenager to go pick up some chocolate?! I angrily thought. Not so backward considering that the scenario is similar in our very first-world land of the free and equal.

I’d like to think that I am confident enough to fight my own battles and deal with issues like a grown woman (love ya, Bey). If someone’s going to make a remark at me, damn straight I’m going to stand up for myself! But then…there’s that fear. What if this guy goes nuts? What if he has more friends? What if they have a weapon? What if, what if, what if, and suddenly, the fear is also normalized. So, I say nothing. I follow the same mantra: look straight, don’t respond.

Is it not obvious now why when the second a woman defends herself, she is considered “bossy” or a “bitch”? But when a man does the same, he is simply fulfilling his birthright–being a man. What terrifies me the most is how this effects our children, especially the boys. While standing in the hallway between classes, I’ve noticed the same, low-muttered “dammmmnnnnnn,” but this time, it’s coming from a 14-year-old. In the middle of the day. In school. What’s the difference between a school hallway and a city street? These boys are accustomed to hearing men say vile words to women, always expecting a reaction, or at least a smile, because that’s normal! That’s how you’re supposed to talk to women!!

So, I’m guessing that the woman didn’t cross the street to be called beautiful, to be asked for her number, for a proposal, or to be followed for a few blocks. I’m guessing she crossed it to get to the other side. But what do I know? I’m just another woman living in another city who keeps telling herself to look straight, don’t respond.