AWC Berlin is participating in 2020’s “16 Days” campaign by posting stories on gender-based violence to inform and inspire action. Follow the series on our blog and social media and let us know what actions you’re taking.
Content Warning: Sexual Harassment
Editor’s Note: The following story is an updated version of Sharon’s post in our 2016 “16 Days” campaign.
A Short Story of Empowerment
by Sharon Kuckuck, AWC Berlin Member
Is it gender-based violence if the victim is never touched?
As an adolescent growing up in the 70s in New York City, I experienced more than half a dozen episodes of men exposing themselves to me in public, most often while masturbating. Typically portrayed in the media as a humorous, victimless crime, exhibitionism is in fact a psychiatric disorder characterized by the “deliberate and unsolicited exposure of the genitals to an unwilling audience,” usually by men to women or girls in a public setting, most often with no physical contact. In Germany, where I live, the legal definition of exhibitionism is that it is committed by men only. Psychology professor and sexual harassment researcher John Pryor notes that it is frequently part of a pattern of sexual harassment behavior and that perpetrators often hold sexist attitudes toward women as well.
What’s often missing is a discussion of the subjects of exhibitionism, the nonconsensual women and girls objectified by men for their sexual gratification. One study found that 50 percent of women have experienced this type of sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime.
I was fifteen and mailing a letter a half a block from my house, when a man exposed himself to me in public for the first time. There was a car parked next to the mailbox with a man in the driver’s seat who casually called out to me asking for directions as I passed by. I looked intently at his face just as my peripheral vision caught that he had one hand gripping the steering wheel and the other one stroking his exposed penis. I knew immediately it wasn’t right, that he had done something to me personally, that he had used me sexually, in a nonconsensual way. As is so often the case with sexual abuse, I told no one, felt ashamed that I had been “chosen” for his attention, and wondered if I somehow deserved it.
It happened more than a few times over the next few years. These events occurred while I was asserting my freedom as a young, unattached girl alone, exploring the city I loved. Each time it occurred, I felt targeted and vulnerable, unsafe, like these men knew something about me that I didn’t yet know about myself, something bad or dirty. Strange how we create narratives to explain what happens, how we seize upon thoughts of what we did wrong when men abuse us, how we implicate ourselves. Each time I rushed away, tried to shrug it off, and buried it amid my growing insecurities. I came to see it as common to the experience of any woman moving through the city—like the men who talked to my developing bustline instead of my face, the construction workers who whistled and jeered, and the unknown hands that groped me in crowded subways cars. That was normal, wasn’t it?
At that time, as a burgeoning feminist I was more concerned with the larger issues anyway, like legalizing abortion, fighting for equal pay, and preventing rape and domestic abuse. This form of assault seemed both too insignificant and irrelevant as compared with the hard issues. Any attention from men was good, right? We hadn’t yet unpacked the narrative to recognize that we have the right to assert how and if we want to participate sexually, that those incidents were directly related to the objectification of women. At that time, before the Internet was so widely available, as a young woman, I was completely on my own to try to process and cope with these experiences. Today anyone can turn to the Internet for information, virtual communities, and helpful tools to understand, process, and protect themselves. Unfortunately, the technology has a negative side, as well, in that it expands the playing field for exhibitionists—men can email unsolicited photos of their penises to girls and women, and girls can “flirt” with pictures of their breasts and crotches.
The last incident occurred when I was in my late 20s. What changed in me in an instant thirty years ago? My anger. I unleashed my rage to that last witless “flasher,” who literally opened his raincoat to expose himself without pants, as I exited the turnstile at my train stop after a long day. He got slammed by all the pent-up anger from all the other times this had happened to me and fled screaming, “you crazy bitch,” as I ran after him, cursing. This was supposed to be a victimless crime with no contact. I may not have caught him, but I found my voice that day.
Objectification and sexualization have at last reached center stage in public discourse. Women want to speak out against the uninvited use of their sexuality to arouse men they don’t know. Exhibitionism and sexualization in the media, entertainment, and as an expression of political bravado will no longer go unchecked. We have drawn a direct line to the consequences of this on the mental, emotional, and physical wellness of young girls and women. An APA study in 2008 showed that young girls are bombarded with an overexposure by the media to sexualization. This triggers anxiety over their appearance, feelings of shame, eating disorders, lowered self-esteem, and depression. I admire the many young women today who feel empowered to define their own sexuality and are emboldened to speak out against objectification. They have found their voice. Find yours.
Call to Action
- Share this story on your social media.
- Visit and share the website Our Bodies, Ourselves with your daughters and encourage them to use and share evidence-based information on girls’ and women’s reproductive health and sexuality.
- Become more media savvy: Check out “5 Things You Can Do to End Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls in the Media” on Huffpost.
- Nourish your friendships with women of all ages and let your daughters empower you with their minds.