Unwanted sexual attention in the digital age and other inequalities

Since I went back to being a (grad) student at a university, my friend group has come to include people in the “college age female” demographic. And by being close friends I’ve had the chance to hear about what their lives are like at a personal level. And I have to say, even with widespread awareness-raising media about catcalls and so on, there’s a depth and intensity to the pervasiveness of unwanted sexual attention that’s really beyond anything I ever would have imagined, even with the intellectual understanding and sympathy that goes along with me being a more or less stereotypical progressive intellectual type. For example, the hidden camera catcalls video that circulated widely a few months ago might leave one with the impression that the phenomenon is compartmentalized, that certain neighborhoods or times of day or functional divisions of life might be worse or better. But electronic communications erase a lot of those boundaries. Drunk sexts from now-married male friends waking you up in the middle of the night when your mind was supposed to be anywhere else from that, being the most current example of a story I heard. It reminds me (dating myself here) of how when I was growing up in the 80s, there was literally never any moment of time ever in anyone’s life when one could completely take one’s mind away from the threat of nuclear war. And now for some people there is literally never any moment when one can take one’s mind completely away from the threat of unwanted sexual attention. It just becomes a part of the background noise of cognition, emotion and awareness. Sorry to anyone who feels that the analogy to nuclear war is overly melodramatic; the point is just the pervasiveness and inescapability of it, and that’s the first analogy that came to mind. And of course, just as the understanding I get from being personally close is beyond anything I was ever capable of through intellect alone, I’m aware that the understanding that comes from the lived experience is beyond anything I could grasp from hearing about it. I’m not one for glorifying victimhood; in fact I think that is an actively destructive tendency that comes up a lot on the Left and seriously inhibits social progress. But it’s important to know about–not glorify, not criticize, simply know about–the range of different kinds of experiences that people are having; to know that the experiences farther from your own are much more extreme than you probably imagine them to be. We all know that our own experiences are intense and serious; as the distance from our ego-center increases we naturally attenuate our evaluation of other experiences. But that’s not real.

Relatedly, there’s an odd irony that goes with the other contemporary narrative of disconnection. Just as some people are receiving way too much sexual attention, others are receiving way too little. I have an intuition that the connectedness of the modern world has an unexpected side effect of exacerbating unequal distributions of all sorts. Everyone talks about unequal wealth distribution nowadays, but it seems that a lot of other irksome phenomena are also characterizable as unequal distributions. I could describe a simple economic model of why this makes sense but I’ll leave that for another post.

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