Street Harassment: It’s Not a Compliment

Copyright 2012.  All rights reserved.

Street Harassment SignIt always bothers me when men say things like “If women on the street said that I looked nice, it’d make my day!” right after I’ve complained about something a stranger said to me.  Some even tell me that they’re jealous of the attention.  Perhaps it’s because they’re picturing something harmless or even sweet, like when the elderly gentleman I see most mornings on the bus shyly and politely compliments me on my smile.  Unfortunately, what they don’t understand is that the things random men shout from their cars or from across the street aren’t compliments, it’s street harassment.

Not Exactly Complimentary

Sometimes women can be flattered by attention from a stranger, but I think it’s important to be careful to not label all the various forms of “attention” from men as behaviors that would be appreciated.  For example, when the guy at the cell phone store called after me, “You have a beautiful smile!” I was amused by his impulsive compliment.  But lewd declarations like “Smile for me, whore” or “Nice rack” or “Great legs, c—” are a whole different animal.  Deirde E. Davis, in her article The Harm that Has No Name, says that these kinds of comments can be recognized as street harassment by “the unacceptability of ‘thank you’ as a response; and the reference to body parts” (Davis 55).  Street harassment can also include leering, catcalls, wolf whistles, pinches, or grabs.

There are a lot of different degrees of street harassment, and even something as mild as “Smile for me, Baby” or “Don’t you look pretty”can be frightening depending on the context.  Even women who may not mind being whistled at in the middle of the day as they walk through the mall, would feel completely different about the exact same behavior if it was dark and they were alone.  Whenever I find myself alone after dark or in an unfamiliar area and a man decides to show even a hint of sexual interest it’s scary because I feel out of control of the situation, small, alone, and unsafe.

Feeling Alone and Scared

In these settings I find any kind of attention frightening and intimidating because “[r]egardless of whether there is the possibility of actual rape, when women endure street harassment, they fear the possibility of rape” or sexual assault (Davis 484).  When I’m walking down a dark street and a man whistles there’s no way for me to know if he’s thinking that I’m a cutie or something more sinister.  All I know is that if it’s the latter, I’m in trouble.  My heart starts to beat faster as I walk with my head down in order to avoid eye contact; I scan the area looking for a way to make a quick exit.  And I don’t breath a sigh of relief until he’s out of sight again.  In order to try and limit these encounters, if I’m out at night, I never wear anything even remotely formfitting, sit as close to the bus driver as possible, and quietly keep to myself.  The goal: invisibility.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t even have to be nighttime for street harassment to be frightening.  Back before the city finally put a sidewalk on the main street by my house, I’d have random men in cars literally pull their cars off the road so that they could drive directly behind me.  They’d follow very closely for about a block while often whistling or yelling out their window.  It was terrifying because there was no way for me to escape from  being their personal show; the car directly behind me felt like a gun to my head instructing me to walk on.  I was beyond thankful when the city finally built a sidewalk.

Whether it’s happening at night or even in my own neighborhood, street harassment isn’t a compliment; it’s dehumanizing and sometimes even terrifying.

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The Cow that Ate Baby Jesus

Copyright 2011 Kelsey Hough.  All rights reserved.

j0227579Paper snowflakes and candy canes hung from the ceiling, the windows were now the stage for two-dimensional holiday scenes, and a small, wooden nativity sat in a corner. It was just about as festive and tacky as a four-year-old Sunday school classroom can be in the middle of December … and the kids loved it.

The majority of my small class played with the wooden nativity scene as they acted out the Christmas story with some minor artistic licensing unless, of course, there was a Lego© family and a T-Rex present at Jesus’ birth.

“Teacher, do cows eat this stuff?” asked Nate, a cute little boy who was playing with a black and white dairy cow, holding up a few pieces of hay in his chubby hand. I answered in the affirmative, so the plastic cow continued munching away on the hay in the feeding trough where the little wooden baby Jesus was sleeping.

As Nate looked down at the toy bovine towering over the manger, panic suddenly shot through his whole body like a bold of electricity. He dropped the dairy cow as if he was holding a smoking gun. “Uh, Teacher?” he asked in a shaky voice. “Was .. uh … baby Jesus eaten by a … uh … cow?”

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Eve to the Rescue: Why “Helper” Doesn’t Mean Subordinate

Copyright 2011 Kelsey Hough.  All rights reserved. superhero_birthdaytheme

“It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him. Genesis 2:18 (NIV)”

The reference to Eve in Genesis as a “helper” is one of those tricky Bible verses—confusing and often misunderstood. And, sadly, it’s even been used to justify women being treated as personal servants or doormats.

Biblical scholar and professor, Gilbert Bilezikian, says in his Book Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Women’s Place in Church and Family that “In the past, uninformed teachers of the Bible seized on the word helper to draw inference of authority/subjection distinctions between men and women.  According to them, helper meant that man was boss and woman his domestic.”

Helper Doesn’t Mean Servant:

Thankfully, though, professor Bilezikian says that careful study of the word helper has “dispelled such misconceptions” because “this Hebrew word for ‘helper’ is not used in the Bible with reference to a subordinate person such as a servant or an underling” (Bilezikian 22). Instead of showing weakness, the word “helper” in this context actually highlights strength.

This Hebrew word for “helper” in the Bible “is generally attributed to God himself when he engages in activities of relief or rescue among his people.  Consequently, the world helper may not be used to draw inferences about subordinate female roles. If anything, the word points to the inadequacy and the helplessness of the man when he was bereft of the woman in Eden” (Bilezikian 22).  Isn’t that interesting?  It’s the same word used to describe God and no one would make the assumption that God was subordinated by his people because he helps them.  The fact God helps illustrates his strength and compassion.

Eve to the Rescue:

By himself Adam wasn’t able to fully reflect God because he was lacking in community. God intended to create people … not just one … for relationships/community. As a result, the fact that Adam was alone was even deemed “not good.”  So God provided Adam “with a ‘rescuer’ to become with him the community that God had intended to create all along” (Bilezikian 22).  Eve wasn’t a second thought, creating community was the plan all along.

Due to the strength of this word, Bilezikian says that “To wrench the word helper from this precise context, where it has the strength of rescuer, and to invest it with connotations of domesticity or female subservience violates the intent of the biblical text” (Bilezikian 22).

It’s funny how “rescuer” sounds more like a firefighter, brave soldier, or a superhero.  But the word “helper,” even though it could mean rescuing someone, tends to be associated with things like personal assistant or maid.  Perhaps in order to more effectively communicate the original intent of the passage, it’d be better if the word was translated “rescuer” or I’ve heard others suggest “lifesaver.”

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Gender Differences


Stumbled across this interesting article on NPR’s website about gender differences.  Here’s an excerpt that I liked: 

“What makes us different? We do. We don’t just happen to be boys and girls, men and women; we identify with ourselves as such, and we shape ourselves to conform to the rigid matrix of ideas and values that make up our conception of what it is to be male and female …

“Gender [what’s socially defined as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ like the colors pink and blue] is real. People are men and women. And this makes a difference not only to how they live, to how much they earn, to how well they perform, but also to how they experience themselves, their bodies and their lives.

“But gender doesn’t happen in the brain, whatever sex differences on the brain there are. Gender, rather, is something we enact together…” 

From “Social by Nature” by Alva Noë

Or as sociologists say, we “do” gender.

Just for clarification because the article wasn’t super clear: in sociological terms, "sex" is defined as biological (what makes someone male or female) but "gender" is defined as cultural (what makes something masculine or feminine whether it’s lipstick or a specific behavioral trait like aggression).  As a result, how people "do" gender (what society defines as being manly or womanly) varies based on our historical and cultural context.  The fact that gender is something we “enact together” doesn’t at all diminish it’s importance in our lives; it profoundly impacts all of us in a way few things do.

Did You Know the Word “Albino” is Offensive?

Copyright 2011 Kelsey Hough.  All rights reserved.


When it comes to representing minorities in film, Hollywood doesn’t exactly have a progressive record.  One trend that’s been bothering me a bit lately is how individuals with rare genetic defects like dwarfism, among others, are presented in films as the token oddity, the comic relief, and sometimes even as something inhuman or mythical.  It seems essentially like a twenty-first century style freak show.   

One common “freak show” theme in movies is the “evil” or “magical” albino—the strange, ghostly-white character with poor health and bad hygiene.  The word “albino,” by the way, is very offensive (“someone with albinism” is preferable if you must specify their lack of pigmentation).  

Dr. Vail Reese, a dermatologist and creator of (a website dedicated to examining Hollywood’s portrayal of skin conditions in film) says audience members have learned “that if you see a character with albinism in the movie, it’s going to be an evil character. It’s become part of the film language…” (Dotinga par 5).

This “evil albino” plot device or “albino bias,” as it is sometimes called, is illustrated in movies like the 1987 cult classic, “The Princess Bride,” where the creepy albino with a raspy cough and crazed smile makes his living working in The Depths of Despair as the local torturer for the ruthless prince Humperdinck.  The albino character, complete with poor hygiene and bad teeth, is clearly not someone the general public would like to run into while shopping at their grocery store if the meeting could possibly be avoided.

The Albino Bias in Film:

Other modern movies illustrating an albino bias include “The Time Machine,” where the time-traveler discovers the shocking reality that in Earth’s future the planet is completely overrun with an entire race of evil albinos. In “Matrix Reloaded” two of the characters dubbed “The Twins” are henchmen of the film’s villain, Merovingian. The Twins are never directly identified as having albinism, but between the fact they appear to lack pigmentation and both characters are never seen without a pair of back shades (people with albinism are extremely sensitive to the sun, so sunglasses are a necessity) it’s not hard to guess what genetic mutation the characters are based on. 

Again in 2006, “The Da Vinci Code” followed suit by having its single albino character be an evil monk who, because of his self-destructive and abusive tendencies, was even a danger to his own physical wellbeing. Despite the fact these characters may make entertaining villains, they make for pitiful lone ambassadors for the men, women, and children living with albinism.

Dr. Jim Haefemeyer, who has albinism himself, said, “To be honest, we don’t get it.  Why are people with albinism used as villains in movies over and over?” (Dontinga par 15).  The first time Dr. Haefemeyer saw a character that had a skin condition like his own on the silver screen it was while watching the 1971 movie “The Omega Man” where a plague breaks out and people lose their pigmentation, become sensitive to the light, and end up acting like crazed zombies (Dontinga par 16-17).  Sadly, the first tine he saw people who looked like him in a movie, they were the film’s monsters.

Albinism (a genetic defect which prevents the body from making melanin, the substance that gives color to hair, skin and the iris of the eye) only affects one in 17,000 people in the United States, so many Americans can go their entire lives without encountering an individual with albinism (Donaldson James par 11).  As a result of the rarity of this condition, the media is usually the sole voice shaping the general population’s view of albinism.

Albinism Around the World:

The fact Hollywood only portrays people with albinism as being either supernatural or wicked adds fuel to age-old prejudices and superstitions, which in many cultures still surround this unusual skin condition. In some African countries, living with albinism is a near death sentence. In Tanzania alone, 54 people with albinism have been murdered since 2007. The victims’ limbs were brutally hacked off and sold on the black market to be used as potions sold by witchdoctors as a result of many of the locals’ unfortunate belief that the blood, bones, and skin of a person with albinism have magical properties (Donaldson James par 8). 

In Zimbabwe it’s believed if you have sexual intercourse with someone with albinism it will cure you of HIV/AIDS (“How to Help” par 1). The rapist is not cured, but their victim—in addition to suffering the emotional, mental, and physical traumas of such a violent crime being committed against them—can also become HIV positive, themselves, and eventually die from AIDS.

Even without being murdered for their organs and contracting AIDS through rape, having albinism in Africa would still result in shortened life spans. Many of the men and women with this genetic defect can’t afford the proper sun protection—heavy-duty sunscreen and sunglasses—that they need in order to protect their extremely sensitive skin from harmful rays. They can end up developing and dying from skin cancer as a result.

Time to Leave the Myths Behind:

Albinism strongly affects real people in every corner of the globe, not just because of their sensitivity to the sun and poor eyesight, but even more so, because of the myths and stereotypes that still continue to surround this rare skin disorder. Even though albinism may be more common in movies than in real life, the people living with albinism still feel the ramifications of Hollywood’s caricatures.

However, neither albinism supporters nor the people with albinism themselves are advocating the removal of all characters with this genetic mutation in film.  Instead, in order to help portray a positive view of albinism, Hollywood needs to break from the old albino biases.  It’s time films painted a more realist and relatable portrait and left the medieval folklore behind.

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