Sexes and the City

In class today we discussed the view of women in the city.  One interesting query we attempted to answer was the question of how public space feels different for women as compared to men.  The concept of safety is an interesting topic that has very different answers depending on which gender you were raised in.  Generally, men do not feel uneasy when walking alone or at night unless they perceive an immediate threat.  On the other hand, women are taught to be fearful and cautious when walking alone, with other women, at night, in a deserted area, or in any other situation.  Women are warned about the terrible things that can happen to them, and told that they can be easily overpowered by a unscrupulous stranger.  Perhaps the reason men do not feel as threatened when walking is because they are not ingrained with this fear like women are – sure, little boys are told about “Stranger Danger,” but there exists a stigma in society that little girls are the ones who are the most at risk.

Another topic we discussed is the visibility of women in the city.  One thing we did not discuss that I would have liked to is catcalling.  Catcalling is an occurrence that is not likely to go away, but it is one way that women are seen as more visible.  How many times have you seen a man walk down the street with cries of “yeah baby” and “shake that ass” trailing after him?  The event is so uncommon that it can be deemed as something funny, like something you would find in a Will Ferrell movie.  In “My Street, My Body, My Right”, Alice Xie shares a few stories of the times she’s been leered at in New York City.  Her essay is a startling and truthful look into how women are treated in a city.  The article was published on another website, The Dish, and the reader responses were strong enough to garner their own article.  Here is one that I feel does a great job at highlighting the difference between how girls and boys are raised:

“You struck a nerve with this one, as I was just discussing this very thing a few weeks ago with a group of high-school freshmen in my English class. We were discussing homosexuality because of an allusion to it in the book we were reading, and several boys made comments such as, “That’s disgusting.” We got into the debate and eventually a boy admitted that he was terrified/disgusted when he was once sharing a taxi and the other male passenger made a pass at him.

The lightbulb went off. “Oh,” I said. “I get it. See, you are afraid, because for the first time in your life you have found yourself a victim of unwanted sexual advances by someone who has the physical ability to use force against you.” The boy nodded and shuddered visibly.

“But,” I continued. “As a woman, you learn to live with that from the time you are fourteen, and it never stops. We live with that fear every day of our lives. Every man walking through the parking garage the same time you are is either just a harmless stranger or a potential rapist. Every time.”

The girls in the room nodded, agreeing. The boys seemed genuinely shocked.

‘So think about that the next time you hit on a girl. Maybe, like you in the taxi, she doesn’t actually want you to.’”.

A third aspect of public space we discussed is the issue of morality in the city.  Men and women are definitely held to different standards in the city.  A man who sleeps around and has a new girl every night is someone to be admired, while a woman who does the same thing is labeled a “slut” or a “whore”.  A woman who dresses a certain way is seen as “asking for it” or “looking for the wrong things,” but guys rarely have their character questioned based on their clothing choices.  Something particularly disturbing to me was belief that a prostitute can’t be raped because he or she is in the business of selling sex.  American society tends to lean towards victim-blaming when women are raped (in the city or otherwise), telling women that they should not have dressed a certain way or drank that much alcohol or sent signals that implied they wanted it.  The same stigma does not exist for males – although according to, one in ten rape victims are male.  When it comes to morality, the difference between the sexes can be attributed to the way society molds the opinions of the masses.  Though nuances can vary from the urban to the suburban to the rural, the underlying label of what is moral for each sex remains a constant influence.



Filed under Continuing Class Discussion

3 responses to “Sexes and the City

  1. I’m glad you brought up catcalling. That’s definitely another issue where women’s safety, visibility, and perceived morality come into play. I have been thinking about the “asking for it” issue since our class discussion on Tuesday. Two related issues occur to me: maybe the warnings to girls and women serve as a way of giving them the sense that they have some control in the matter, but they also completely take responsibility away from the male party. Why do you think discourse about gender, safety, and responsibility has developed in this way? (On a related note, I wonder what you will think of the women in film noir.)

    • tinyopinions

      I do think advice about staying in well-lit areas, not walking alone through dark alleys, and always telling someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back are good warnings and they are helpful (for women and men alike). Advice like that is about common sense and knowing that dangerous situations are more likely to happen in areas that are dark and devoid of other people. However, the warnings about not dressing a certain way because it leads to immoral behavior or the possibility of rape do place responsibility on the victim. I think discourse about gender, safety, and responsibility have developed in this way because society has viewed women as the weaker sex for most of recorded history. Women have been seen as the “damsels in distress” that need to be rescued, and oftentimes they are depicted as bringing the distress upon themselves. Rather than perpetuate the belief that women should take measures not to dress in a way that society has deemed as inappropriate or engage in behaviors like drinking “too much”, I feel that society should start holding males (and females) responsible for instances of sexual harassment and rape by teaching them that a refusal means no, even if the woman does not explicitly say “no”. In a class I took last semester, we read an article about the way refusals are given, and how teaching women to “just say no” is not effective because people rarely say “no” when turning someone down. Instead, they say things like “I’d love to, but…” or even through silence or an affirmative. The article is a really interesting read, and it’s called “Just say no? The use of conversation
      analysis in developing a feminist perspective on sexual refusal” by Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith.

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