by Sharon Kuckuck, AWC Berlin member
Is it gender-based violence if the victim is never touched?
As an adolescent growing up in the 70’s 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 a psychiatric disorder characterized by a compulsion to expose one’s genitals to an unsuspecting stranger, usually by men, to women or girls in a public setting, most often with no physical contact. It has been linked in the psychological literature to expressing some sort of latent primate behavior for men to show sexual interest in women,1 while exhibitionism in women is regarded more acceptably as provocative sexuality. In Germany, the legal definition of exhibitionism is “males only.2” What’s missing here is a discussion of the victims of exhibitionism, the non-consensual women and girls objectified by men for their sexual gratification and the general acceptance in society of the objectification and sexualization of women.
I was fifteen 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. 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 non-consensual 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 bust line 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, burgeoning feminists like myself were 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, and before the Internet, 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 community, and helpful tools to understand, process and protect themselves. Unfortunately, the technology has a negative side, too, 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 20’s. 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 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 2010, 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 many of the younger 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.
Day 14 – CALL TO ACTION:
- Share this story.
- Visit and share the website Our Bodies Ourselves with your daughters to develop and promote evidence-based information on girls’ and women’s reproductive health and sexuality. www.ourbodiesourselves.org/
- Become more media savvy – Check out this blog in the Huffington Post 5 Things You Can Do to End Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls in the Media
- Nourish your friendships with women of all ages and let your daughters empower you with their minds.
Ogi Ogas Phd, Psychology Today, Why It’s Perfectly Natural for Men to Want to Show Their Manhood, Even If It’s a Bad Idea
The AWC Berlin participates in the 16-Day-Campaign against Gender-Based-Violence. Each day, we highlight an aspect of GBV to raise awareness and call on our membership to take one small action to fight against violence against women.