When I first started working on this piece, I wanted to write about how generally unbearable “frat guys” and “bros” can be, how uncomfortable they can make women and how I’ve found myself instantly on alert when I see Greek lettering signaling the approach of a band of brothers.
But the entity of the fraternity is not what makes a man harass women, and attempting to argue that point is not only futile, it’s just incorrect. I think many are willing to blame the existence of the fraternity for the systematic degradation and outright crimes against women, when really it’s the fact that a group of white, straight, and cisgendered men create supernovas of privilege that make them feel invincible.
Individual men constantly harass women on the street, but I’ve found that the “strength in numbers” created by a crowd of men is especially terrifying, and the violence or harassment all the more vicious — whether in public or somewhere more private. Men in groups behave in ways they might not as individuals, perhaps because there’s something about this group mentality that makes them think they can get away with anything — and the fact that they can has been legally and historically proven countless times.
Existing in the world as women, you never know when an individual male will just randomly decide throw a negative comment your way. But there’s something about a group of men directing their vitriol at you that makes a woman feel completely powerless, and perhaps more unsafe than when she’s the victim of harassment by an individual. I started thinking about all the times I’ve been attacked, threatened, or harassed by a group of men, how they were different than an unwelcome one-on-one catcall, and how I tried to avoid the situation by apologizing to them or simply removing myself from “their” space — and how they clearly expected me to do so.
A few days ago, three friends and I went to the beach. We were: two straight ladies who would probably describe ourselves as slim-to-athletically built, and two slim gay men. I call attention to our body types because I notice, ironically, that my greatest fear when men confront me is that they’re going to make a comment about my weight or my physical appearance. How bizarre is it that, instead of worrying about my safety, I first worry about being called fat and ugly? (The fatphobic nature of this assumption is a topic for a longer article.)
Us ladies both wore polka-dotted two pieces under shorts and tee shirts, nothing that screamed, “I AM HERE TO BE OOGLED BY MEN, COMMENT ON MY TITS.” The gentlemen were wearing their swim trunks with “casual” tees — nothing that screamed “RAGING HOMOSEXUAL AND HATE CRIME TARGET.” I don’t think even the most seasoned Republican congressman could have argued any of us were “asking for it.”
Our discussion of Kris Jenner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography was derailed when a group of seven or eight frat guys pulled up. This marked the end of our relaxing time on the beach. Here, I can sense the arrival of a familiar knot in female readers’ stomachs. I immediately started worrying about when I was going to be called fat, and, once I was, would I still be “allowed” to go get some of the frozen yogurt I’d seen advertised at the snack bar that I’d been fantasizing about? Would I just be called “fat,” or would it be something more creative, like “lard ass” or the ever-popular “beached whale?” Whether or not I am actually fat didn’t matter to these guys, as I heard them call average-sized women “huge” as they unknowingly made their way down to the water.
I decided to keep my shirt and shorts on as a guard, and I lay on my back with my knees bent, which made it difficult to read but at least didn’t make my gut spill over my side like leaning sideways on my hip did.
Soon I, alongside the six and eight-year-old children under another nearby umbrella, were the unwilling witnesses to an intentionally loud conversation about the pros and cons of ass fingering. More posturing. From there, they moved onto to discussing who was getting “fucked up” tonight, and how. The discussion then turned to some poor kid named Kevin, who “shouldn’t have ever fucking been a starter,” was “a faggot pussy” yet also “fucked his sister” and would also be “getting fucked up,” but in a different way. They continued to ogle and rate the women walking by in their swimsuits, making jack-off motions and making suggestive comments they hoped the women would overhear. Finally, it was time to toss around the old pigskin.
“If a football hits any of us in the head, I am going to lose it,” my friend Jennifer fumed. Their radius was the beach equivalent of “men taking up too much space on the train.” Twenty-five seconds later, a football smashed into the temple of my friend Daniel, who’d fallen asleep.
A scary silence followed, as the men stared at us contemptuously. Of course, my immediate instinct was to apologize for lying there; really, I could and should have moved over, I didn’t want any trouble. Then one of the men focused on Daniel.
Oh no, I thought in a stream of terror and rage: They are going to call my best friend a faggot. Here it comes. You need to decide now how you’re going to react. There are seven of them, all men. There are four of us. We are much smaller than them. Is it worth getting arrested over? Oh God, he’s walking towards us to get the football. Here we go. First he is going to call Daniel a faggot, then he is going to call me and Jennifer fat and ugly, even if we don’t say anything that’s a given.
By the time the guy reached us, I think I probably had the look of a person bracing themselves to be punched in the face. He looked at Daniel in a way that I knew meant he was deciding whether or not to say anything offensive, and he was sizing the rest of us up. Thankfully, he took the football back, mumbled an apology, and walked away. I wondered what it said about me that I was so terrified, and what it said about the similar experiences of women and gay men in public spaces.
But my fear came from experience — my own “football incident” earlier this year, when, after being hit in the face with a snowball by a guy surrounded by his friends, I said something back and was told, “You look like a fuckin’ man!” Of course, a comment on my greatest worth as a woman: my physical appearance. The craziest part is that all I could think was, “I’m so happy he didn’t call me fat! Maybe this means I’m not fat! Even if I do look like a man, I’m a svelte man!” I stopped myself, realizing that I was grateful to an 18-year-old dude who’d just pelted me in the face with a snowball and insulted me. Now that’s fucked up.
Mercifully, the frat boys left the beach in pursuit of a keg a few hours later. “Thank God,” Jennifer said immediately as I finally removed my shirt. “I was afraid they were going to–”
“Call us ugly!” I interrupted; almost gleeful she’d had the same thought.
“Well, I was pretty sure I was about to get called a faggot,” Daniel interjected.
“Me too,” I admitted.
Daniel looked surprised that we’d all had the same thoughts, but had been too afraid to say anything even to each other. “Do girls really think that?” he asked, not being in the habit of heading to the beach to check out bikini-clad girls. Gay men and their straight female friends have often been skeptical of each other’s ability to perceive the sense of societal contempt that perhaps draws us toward each other.
Though there are limitless explanations (read: excuses) for why men behave this way, perhaps the greatest is that men posture in front of one another by insulting women to prove their own toughness and avoid social embarrassment.
Once, I was walking down my block when a group of prep school boys, probably around 17 years old, passed an elderly woman and her dog and began to shriek insults at her. The woman told them to “Stop it, you’re scaring the dog!” The boy looked at his friends, who started making fun of him. Forced to “defend himself,” instead of stopping the boy went further, cruelly imitating her, hunching over, and screaming at her to “Get the fuck out of the way, grandma!” I cursed myself for not doing anything, but again felt the sense of being outnumbered, combined with the fear of what they might say to me.
This phobia of “what they might say, what they might do,” disturbs me because I worry it means on some level I am seeking their approval — which is the most frightening thing of all, even if due to social conditioning.
I let myself become aware and critical of these situations, but I am equally tired of those who say that by “ignoring it” I’ll live a much happier life. I think I have an instinctive, terror-filled “if you see something, say something” reaction to white guys in boat shoes carrying Styrofoam coolers, and perhaps it’s as irrational as the insane suspicions these polo-d types seem to have toward the poor guy in a turban in the airport security line who just wants to get through the body scanners without being felt up.
But then I hear, as I do every day, the way these privileged white men talk, and how unconscious they are of the enormous ramifications of their casual daily hate speech, and I know I have every reason to be afraid.
This intolerable rock-and-a-hard-place existence is no way to live. I don’t have a solution. I just know I’d like to spend a day at the beach without feeling like I need to have my guard up for myself, my friends, and the dozens of other women who walk by in their swimsuits without knowing men are assigning them number rankings. I’m not confident I’ll ever get that.