sexist crap in numbers

I retweet about this sort of thing a lot on Twitter, and I read about it a lot, but I don't blog about it a lot. Tony Noland wrote an excellent post about it that I read earlier today, though, and it made me remember something I've always meant to expand upon.

A simpler version of this appeared a couple of years ago in the comments section of a newspaper article I read about women getting catcalled in the street. I'd love to link to it and give credit to the poster.... but the problem is, this is so widespread and gets reported on so much, it will be almost impossible to Google the correct article, and comments rarely get tracked by search engines. If someone knows the reference, please contact me so I can include it.

The basic math runs through some easy-to-agree-upon, back-of-the-envelope numbers, and it goes like this: say a woman lives in a city big enough to support public transit. Every weekday morning, she goes to work on the subway, and passes by, say, five hundred people. That's not a lot for a busy city, especially when you count the time she spends walking on the street from the subway stop to her office. Every evening after work, she goes home on the same subway, and passes another five hundred people. So that's 1,000 people a day who see this woman in public, not counting if she goes out for lunch, or runs an errand, or gets groceries on the weekend, or whatever. For argument's sake, let's say she works a little more or fewer hours than usual, so the 500 people who see her in the morning are completely different from the 500 who see her in the evening.

About 50% of the people who see the woman are men, and the other 50% are women. So every workday, that woman is seen by 500 men who don't know her, 250 in the morning and 250 in the evening.

Unfortunately for the woman, of the 250 men she encounters every morning during her commute, 5 of them are loudmouthed jerks. If they notice something about how she's dressed, or the shade of lipstick she's wearing, or even just if the stars are right, they are going to catcall her, or ask her to get her tits out, or whatever. You fill in the blanks. The same goes for her evening commute. So that's 10 jerks out of 1,000 people this woman is going to encounter on her commute. Jerks being jerks, they don't just call out crap once during their commute — they just continue with it whenever they think they can get away with it.

Let's be conservative and say she only catches the attentions of one of the jerks once a week. Let's say there's another two times a week she's within earshot when a jerk says something to one of the 499 other women doing the same commute our example woman is.

That works out to:

  • Out of 1,000 people, and specifically 500 men, only 1% are jerks who ask women they don't know to get their tits out (or whatever) on the subway.
  • This woman gets asked to get her tits out (or whatever) an average of 48 times a year. That doesn't count vacation weeks or total stat holidays. On the other hand, we're also leaving out all the non-commute times she encounters jerks, and she can pretty much count on something happening at least once a week.
  • Even if it's not directly happening to her, she gets to hear jerks mouthing off to other women at least once a week.

Still with me? If none of that sounds farfetched, consider:

  • Even though only 1% of the men are being jerks in this little thought experiment, that's enough for the woman to either encounter or overhear harassment on a weekly basis.
  • Since the jerks are men the woman doesn't know, that makes every man she doesn't yet know a potential jerk. Perception is reality, and lived experience is perception.
  • Chances are, no-one will call out the jerk. Not the woman getting harassed, because she doesn't want it to escalate. Not the women who are within earshot, because they don't want to be targeted. And not the men within earshot because... well, if our back-of-the-envelope numbers are right, they're the vast majority, but since the women are all acting like they're ignoring a fart, the men may well either follow suit or figure the jerk's not actually hitting his target because none of the women are reacting strongly.

I cannot overstate how annoying this crap is. It's as if the doorway to your bathroom was tiled in coarse sandpaper, and you always had to walk on it in your bare feet every time you went to use the toilet. You can't cover up the floor because otherwise the door won't close, and you can't step over it, but the sandpaper hurts. Not enough to make your feet form callouses, and not enough to cause serious injury, but it's freaking annoying.

You start to brace yourself for it. You start to tense up every time you walk on something similar like patio stone or cork tiling, even though those don't hurt. You spend all your time looking down at where you're stepping, just in case.

And this is only the overt, loudmouthed sexist crap. If you're a woman alone, it gets louder. And crappier.

So what to do about these jerks who are "not all men", but easy enough to encounter? I hate to say it, but we're going to have to call them out. And by "we", I mean everyone. And by everyone, I don't mean the bystander who yells something back, I mean several bystanders yelling something back, at the same time. One person saying, "don't say crap like that" won't get listened to. Fifteen people who don't know each other but who all chime in with the same thing might.

It might not change the jerks' minds, but it might make them shut up more often. And stopping jerkish behaviour counts for something, when perception is reality and reality is lived experiences.