As a Lesbian, I Still Experience Sexual Harassment from Men

"You don’t have to worry about that though,” A woman said to me in class when yet another instance of sexual violence against women happened in the media. “Since you don’t date men.”

I agreed with her at the time, but now I wish I would have argued. I didn’t date men and I never had since I had come out at 16, but in the back of mind I kept thinking about the cat calls on the streets and the way that no man at a club ever cared that I was gay when he tried to grab my hips. But I’ve heard this over and over again, especially during the recent Kavanaugh hearings and the #MeToo movement gaining traction on social media.

Sometimes it’s small things, like when I’m at a club and a man asks to dance. First, I don’t want to dance with men at all in a club setting, mostly due to the way that almost always men turn the situation sexual. Not wanting to dance with men is the first strike to their ego, even if I were interested in men. From there I usually tell him I’m a lesbian or that I have a girlfriend and the reactions have ranged from “You don’t have to lie to me,” to “Are you sure you don’t like men even a little bit?” And worst of all, sometimes it’s “That’s hot,” which always makes my skin crawl.

Men in these circumstances aren’t looking for a simple dance, they’re looking for a woman to flirt with, and a woman turning down a man’s advances can lead to violence regardless of sexual orientation. These instances are particularly insidious because they are disguised as a friendly gesture that almost always turns to unwanted sexual comments and anger.

It shouldn’t be shocking that in a patriarchal world lesbians are targeted, if you view lesbians as women, as the patriarchy is a system that benefits men and harms women. And in most cases when lesbians are excluded from conversations of sexual violence, it is because of a deep-seated belief that lesbians live outside of the experiences of other women simply because we do not love men. When womanhood is defined by the attraction to men, lesbians are pushed to the margins.

Lesbians are often victims of corrective rape, when men force themselves on lesbians in order to change their sexuality, particularly in South Africa where the term originated. Lesbians are specifically targeted because we do not include men at all in our sexual and romantic lives, a concept which many men find unimaginable. How could a woman exist without wanting to sleep with a man?

To many men, lesbians are a porn category. In fact, the most popular porn category in the US according to PornHub is “lesbian.” Does that mean that lesbian relationships are suddenly valued or that there are just a ton of lesbians watching porn? Unlikely. It means that men are watching two women have sex for their own enjoyment, and when they see me at a bar, they think that I will also play out that fantasy for their enjoyment.

When I was 19 years old me and my then-girlfriend were walking to 30th Street Station when a man passed us, eyed our entwined hands, and asked us if we’d like to have a threesome with him. I had to keep walking, I couldn’t stop to tell him to screw himself for fear that he would react. I ended up awkwardly laughing and walking away, but I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted him to know that my relationship wasn’t for his consumption.

Image courtesy of Pexels

At the same time, men target lesbians because they do not conform to traditional beauty standards for women. A man sees a butch woman and he becomes angry because she is defying his expectations of what it means to be a woman. Gender nonconformity threatens the patriarchy at its core and to pretend that it is only femme lesbians who experience this harassment from men is naive at best.

All lesbians must live with the fear that a man who finds out her sexuality will become angry or violent.

In June, a lesbian couple Lucinda Mann and Megan Stackhouse were assaulted by a man who followed their car on their way home from a carnival. I remember reading this story as fear clenched in my heart. I kept thinking of all the times innocently holding a woman’s hand in public could have ended in violence. There are too many stories of lesbians being assaulted by men for me to include in this article, and every time I see another one make its way into the news, I know that there are 100 others that were not reported.

Being a woman in this world means facing harassment from men. I am still a woman even if I love women, and to say that lesbians are not impacted by male violence puts us in further danger. As women, we need to draw attention to the unique ways the patriarchy impacts us based on race, sexuality, gender, class, among other marginalized identities in order to broaden the narrative surrounding sexual violence.