It’s about demonstrating who is in charge in that space

Rose Hackman writes in the Guardian that a major part of the emotional labor women are forced to do is the de-escalation of incidents of harassment.

Years later, I realized the abuse was less in the act I had been subjected to, and more in my learned silence. De-escalation had been my trick, to the detriment of my agency.

A blog entry from last fall put this into words for me. It made me realise [w]hat women around me had been doing for years: de-escalating situations caused by men, with the burden of minimising incidents being placed squarely on our shoulders.

Occurrences could be as mundane as a street catcall, as infuriating as a sexist comment at work, or as troubling as an unwelcome physical touch. Occurrences also include compliments we have to decipher (just nice, or suggesting an expression of male ownership over our bodies?).

To the initial weight of having to deal with those acts of dominance is the added mental drain of having to evaluate how best to deal with it and not risk a violent backlash. De-escalating is just another form of the “emotional work” women provide with little recognition of its ongoing exertion and toll.

That time the surly guy angrily told me to smile as I was walking past his house with my mind elsewhere? It occurs to me that was an act of rebellion against that duty of de-escalation thing. I knew that at the time. There was a little pause where I debated whether to ignore him or to do what I wanted to do, which was to demand why the fuck he had said that. The normal thing to do would have been to ignore it. I’d ignored it many times, all my life. I doubtless would have ignored it that time too if he’d been “friendly” or “jokey” as opposed to aggressive and hostile. His hostility did me the favor of making the dominance unmistakable, and worth rejecting.

For Hanna Rusin, a 29-year-old fashion industry worker based in New York, gendered micro- and macro-aggressions are a “vast, vast” part of her everyday life.

She recalls, off the top of her head, scarring incidents including being stalked by a man who was her neighbor for six years and being followed home by a policeman after he asked to see her ID on the subway. She also remembers unwelcome attention growing up – comments and physical contact in private settings – but being taught to dismiss it.

“In a more intimate setting, it’s more subtle. If you say something, you’re a troublemaker,” Rusin says. “If you would go to your mother, they would just say, ‘This is how they are, they’re just drunk old men, ignore them.’ Women don’t even notice that it’s happening to them until they hear someone else talk about it. And then they are like, wait, is this what this is?”

Ignore them. Ignore it. Ignore ignore ignore. That will be easier in the moment, and nothing will ever change.

Nichole Thomas, a 26-year-old attorney, says the sexism she feels in her male-dominated law office is understated but very real. When she was at an office outing recently, she noticed every time a junior male colleague spoke, his point was uplifted and highlighted by other men, including higher-ranking men. Women did not receive the same treatment.

The way in which Thomas has decided to deal with what she is sure are expressions of sexism at work? De-escalating by taking it in her stride and not letting it affect her work performance. “I would never say anything at all to anybody. I notice it in that moment and then I forget about it. I try and not think about it every day.”

It’s everyday sexism, that happens every day, but it’s crucial to avoid thinking about it every day.

When [another woman] tries to explain the toll of such experiences to men, she says it is so exhausting she feels “it’s not even worth the effort half the time”.

“They don’t get it. It’s just not a reality for them.”

Hardikar, the health worker, adds: “There is a construct within masculinity that teaches them that they have the right to exert power over any space … It’s about demonstrating who is in charge in that space. I am sure that it’s subconscious, but it is learned and it is taught.”

And it is performed, and it is noticed or ignored, every every day.

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