The reason it’s so hard to get people to take harassment seriously is because it looks so different from the outside than from the inside.
Here’s an example many of us are probably viscerally familiar with.
There’s a group of kids at school who don’t like you. They try to trip you every time you walk by, and whenever you try to join their kickball game at recess they suddenly decide they don’t want to play kickball anymore. They even have a nickname for you–“Piggy,” because you’re fat–and whenever the teacher calls on you in class they laugh and make snorting noises. They find out that you have a crush on another kid in your class and they get that kid to pass you a note. You take the note; it’s folded up and has your name written on it with hearts drawn around it. You get butterflies in your stomach. But when you open it up, it’s a picture of a pig.
Imagine trying to tell your teacher (or even your parents) what’s going on. “They keep trying to trip me!” you say. “Oh, come on, I’m sure they didn’t do it on purpose. The hallway is crowded. It must’ve been an accident.”
“They always stop playing kickball right when I try to join the team!” “You’re taking it too personally. I’m sure they just got tired of playing that game.”
“They keep laughing and making snorting noises whenever I have to answer a question!” “It probably has nothing to do with you. They’re just kids having fun.”
“They got so-and-so to pass me a note with a pig drawn on it!” “So they drew you a nice picture. Why do you have to get upset by everything?”
There’s nothing you can do to explain it. You saw the look in his eyes before he tripped you. You know that she passed you that pig drawing because “Piggy” is what they call you. You know they stop playing because of you. What are the odds that almost every day at recess this school year, you just happened to try to join the game just as they got tired of playing it? When they were clearly having fun right before you showed up?
It doesn’t make sense to look at harassment as a few isolated incidents. How hurtful is it really for someone to trip you once, maybe accidentally? So what if someone giggles when the teacher calls on you one day? Maybe you did just have the bad luck to try to join the kickball game right as everyone decided to go play something else.
But as a pattern–as a series of tiny acts and gestures that build up over time, intended to make someone feel unwanted, threatened, afraid–harassment can be devastating.
The same thing happens to us as adults, in the digital age. “So they tweeted some random insult at you, who cares?” “I’m sure they didn’t know you didn’t want to be tagged in that photo.” “Yeah, there’s a few assholes on the Internet. It’s not a big deal.”
It’s hard to get people to see that if these were really “Isolated Incidents,” you wouldn’t be so upset. It’s not about the individual little annoyances. It’s about the whole damn thing. It’s about the straw that broke the camel’s back. And while you sit there, sputtering, trying to explain why it’s so hurtful that someone tweeted at you telling you to shut up, they get to lord it over you how “overly sensitive” you are and how you’re just “looking for things to be upset about.”
Sexual harassment works the same way. So some guy on the street told me I have nice tits. Whatever. But some other guy says it when I’m on my way back. Another one says it tomorrow. Another says it on the subway. Another gets off the subway and tries to follow me down the street saying it. Another leaves it in a comment on my blog. Another sends it to me in a message on OkCupid.
And another sits there smirking and telling me it’s not such a big deal, just ignore it.
The fact that it’s so easy for outsiders to deny the painful reality of harassment is not a bug. It’s a feature. This is why harassers harass. Because they know that when you try to do something about it, people are going to throw their hands up wondering why you’re so upset over some random tweet or blog comment.
Another reason harassers harass is because they know microaggression works better than macroaggression. If someone attacked you physically or heaped verbal abuse on you, it would be (more) obvious to you that they’re in the wrong. It would be easy for you to write this person off as a bully.
But harassment is more insidious. It makes you ask yourself if you’re just crazy to be getting so upset over these “little things.” It makes you blame yourself for having annoyed the person to begin with. It makes it that much harder for you to get support from others. Everyone knows what a black eye looks like, and everyone (read: all reasonable people) knows that heaping verbal abuse on people is wrong.
But what about tweeting at them when they’ve asked you to leave them alone? What about making photoshopped images of them just for fun and sharing them? What about tagging them in a photo you know they’d be upset to see? What about giving them “compliments” that you really know they wouldn’t appreciate because it would make them uncomfortable? What about talking about how much you hate them where you know they’ll overhear (or oversee)?
It doesn’t make any sense to look at harassment, sexual or otherwise, as a series of isolated incidents, or else you’re bound to misunderstand it and try to minimize what the person who’s being harassed is going through. Harassment only makes sense as a pattern–a targeted campaign of bullying against a person, the point of which is not just to hurt them directly with words or actions, but also to make them feel like they’re “overreacting” and merely imagining that this is happening to them.
That’s a cruel thing to do to a person.
*Edit* More on the street harassment bit of this. People may claim that because it’s different guys each time, it’s just “random” and “isolated incidents.” Really, though? You think it’s some huge coincidence that every time I leave my house this just happens to happen? Some might say that it’s because “that’s just how men are” (some real misandry if I ever heard it), but what’s more likely is that this stuff just doesn’t get challenged enough. Most of us learn by 5 or 6 years of age that it’s not appropriate to just shout at random strangers what we think about them.
Further, take that guy who said “nice tits” to me on the street. You really think I’m the only woman he’s ever said something like that to? Street harassment may be perpetuated on the same woman by many different men, but although they may not realize it, they’re acting collectively, taking pleasure at the thought of making a woman feel violated and afraid. That’s why it’s harassment. That’s why it’s never an “isolated incident.”