Sexism can manifest itself in many ways, as its pervasive nature within American culture lends itself to seamlessly fit into everyday encounters between opposite sexes. As places with a large volume of young people interacting constantly with one another from different backgrounds, college campuses are the perfect place for the myriad ways that sexism can flourish.
Although women now make up the majority of enrolled students on campuses, they are still affected by subtle, and even blatant acts of sexism by their male counterparts. As the subconsciously ingrained byproducts of sexism, even microaggressions are tiring when encountered on a daily basis. And although they may offer no immediate threat to a woman’s feeling of safety on campus, they can degrade a feeling of belonging in these public spaces over time, which is critical to a person’s ability to learn comfortably and without fear.
As a female student that spent four years at a large public university, encountering sexism was almost inevitable on my campus. During my time there, I began to have an overwhelming feeling that all of these layers of sexism and sexist behavior, intentional or not, contributed to an overarching theme: Sexist behavior toward women in public spaces, such as college campuses, is a tool for men to attempt to dominate these spaces and constantly remind women that they belong only contingent upon male benevolence.
Everyone has the right to study and better themselves without fear of harassment and intimidation when utilizing public spaces on campus, and women are no different. Below are four common forms of sexism that women face from men on campus, as well as some of the techniques that I have cultivated over the last four years in an attempt to subvert this behavior and assert my right to remain.
“Man-spreading” may be one of the most obvious physical symptoms of a sexist environment that can be encountered in every area of campus, and signals the huge rift between male and female comfort in public spaces. It’s the act of physically spreading one’s body out in a way that takes up much needed room in cramped and shared quarters, thus forcing others to make themselves smaller to compensate. Though it can be hard to put into the abstract, you absolutely know it when you see it.
Just hopping on a campus bus will illustrate the phenomenon, as even a cursory glance will identify the difference between how men and women sit next to each other. It never fails, no matter how full the bus is or how close bodies already are to each other, there is inevitably a number of male students seemingly unaware or uncaring of how much room their splayed legs are taking up for others, while in contrast, women take up the smallest amount of space possible with crossed legs and bags on their laps in response.
As someone that utilized campus buses throughout all four years, even as a commuter, I quickly tired of cramping myself into as small a space as possible next to guys that didn’t care how much space they were taking from others. As a pretty harmless, albeit annoying, act, I decided to play their game. Every time a man sat next to me and chose to man-spread, I simply assumed the same posture as him, which inevitably led to both of us pushing on one another with our knees. I’ve gotten mixed reactions from this tactic, but most guys are genuinely confused and visibly annoyed by this, which I find ironic. Eventually they would become so uncomfortable with our legs touching that they would move themselves into a position more conducive to polite sharing of spaces. But if this makes you uncomfortable, putting your backpack in between you and the guy choosing to man-spread is always a valid option for a short-term fix.
2. Street Harassment
Street harassment against women is usually the unwanted and unwarranted comments of a generally sexual nature by men in public spaces, such as sidewalks and streets. Every woman experiences it, and it can drastically affect the sense of safety and self that she may have when walking around campus. Constantly getting yelled at by men throughout the day is not only annoying, but can also unfortunately turn into physical violence against women.
While I wouldn’t recommend this tactic to everyone, as it has gotten me into potentially dangerous altercations, confronting the harasser is always an option. Men that attempt to dominate you with their words are usually not expecting a response or a reaction from the women they harass, as they expect you’ll take the safer route to just ignore them. But when I’m on campus in broad daylight and in front of other students, I will always turn around and walk over to the guy harassing me. I don’t come at them with anger and vitriol, but I simply ask what they’re trying to accomplish, why they think this behavior is okay and how they would feel if I were to speak to them in such a manner.
I’ve been surprised by how many guys legitimately feel as if they’re doing nothing wrong, but realize it soon after talking to me. But there are also just some times when no amount of pushback and conversation will change backward thinking, so learn when to let it go and don’t let it ruin your day if they just don’t get it.
3. Sharing Sidewalks
On sidewalks that would fit two people passing side-by-side easily, I’ve encountered countless men that make the slightly aggressive decision to stroll up the middle of the sidewalk, expecting you to move over into the grass for them, while clearly seeing you walking toward them. I’ve even gone so far as to sit on campus benches to further observe and can confirm that I’ve only seen this done to women; they will always move over for other men. This is probably the strangest phenomenon of sexism I have encountered yet. I say this because I didn’t even realize it was a problem I would have to face until I got to college and traversed the maze of slim sidewalks connecting campus together, and also because on a logical level it makes no sense.
Because I believe that polite behavior is essential to society, and mutually moving over on sidewalks is a part of this, I got tired of being forcibly moved out of the way and decided to adopt their own behavior as a way of subverting it. Instead of moving over when I saw a male student approaching me from the middle of the sidewalk, I simply took up half of the walk that I was entitled to, and would have passed by without incident had the other party done the same. But because I refuse to give way anymore, I’ve had literal run-ins with guys on campus, shoulders hitting and words exchanged. Because they’re used to being accommodated for, they’re usually upset and I’m looked at as a bitch for running into them, when I’m just taking up my half of the walkway.
This isn’t a perfect solution, but of the guys I’ve done this to and seen again on campus over the years, I will say that they definitely took up only their half of the walkway when they saw me coming. Small victories are still victories.
4. Dominating Conversation
As a common problem in academia and higher education, male-dominated conversations are a symptom of a culture that generally respects and affords more time to ideas and discourse from men as opposed to female colleagues and students. If you’ve ever been in a group project with male and female students, had open dialogue in class or even just hung out in a dorm room with a group of friends of different genders, you’ve probably been talked over or cut out of the conversation completely by a guy that thinks his opinion is more salient.
Men interrupt conversations with women at a 33 percent higher rate than when speaking with other men. I’ve found that the best way to subvert this behavior is not to adopt it, as I have with other issues in the past, but rather to acknowledge the behavior and redirect the conversation. When I hear other women in a group conversation getting interrupted before finishing their thought, or talked over and having the idea that they were beginning to formulate stolen out of their mouths by men not letting them finish in the first place, I will stop the conversation to acknowledge what the female student was saying, while asking other parties in the conversation to let her continue. This is the perfect example of women looking after other women, because only they know what it’s like to be in that situation. Eventually, all parties will become more aware of the balance of power in the group discussion and will hopefully make conscious efforts to correct any transgressions.
While none of these techniques can be perfect in successfully subverting the patriarchy, every bit that I can do that has a direct affect on my success in school while exercising my personal agency and right to be on a campus of higher education, is a personal victory for me. My experiences are not entirely my own, as unfortunately women face these and many other forms of sexism in their daily lives. But what we can’t do is be complacent when confronted with these behaviors. Whether you adopt my tips on subversion or not, just don’t ever stop asserting yourself and always keep fighting that good fight.