It’s International Anti-Street Harassment Week, kicking off today. Follow here.
With the victim-blaming defenses of harassing behavior fluttering around, I’m struck again by how persistent the myth is that some women “ask for it” (harassment) because of how they dress or carry themselves. This famous image, with its appeal to the assumed male inability to resist staring at women’s exposed body, is making the rounds on social media again.
An even more famous parable.
Once, a great spiritual teacher was walking along the road with one of his young students. They were traveling for a whole day, and the young man was eager to learn one-on-one from such a renowned master. (In the best known version of the story, the two are Tibetan Buddhist monks. In others, they’re 7th-century Irish monks, or Jewish scholars in the Roman Empire.)
After an hour of walking, the two come to a river. The bridge has washed out. A beautiful, scantily-clad young woman is standing on the banks, looking dolefully across. When she sees the monks, she approaches them. “I can’t swim,” she says, “but I must get to the other side. Could one of you carry me?” She looks beseechingly at the fit younger monk, but he blanches; he’s taken a vow of celibacy that forbids him from even touching a woman. To the young man’s horror, his teacher gently volunteers to help. The young woman climbs onto the old monk’s back, wrapping her arms and legs tightly around him, and together they swim to the other side. The young monk swims alongside, confused and furious. How dare his teacher allow this beautiful young woman to touch him so intimately?
On the far shore, the old teacher bows politely to the young woman, wishes her well on her journey, and the two men continue down the road. The young monk is beside himself with confusion — is his master a fraud? Was this some sort of test, and he failed it by not volunteering himself? The image of the woman’s stunning body torments him. He can’t even speak to his teacher, instead giving into to a host of doubts and racing thoughts.
Finally, the two stop for lunch. The young monk can’t take it anymore, and questions come pouring out. “How could you let this woman touch you like that?” he asks angrily. “Didn’t you see what she was wearing? She was probably a prostitute and you carried her on your back! You… you’re unclean!”
The old man takes a sip of tea, and smiles. “I put that young woman down on the riverbank. You are the one who is still carrying her.”
In every tradition in which that story is told (there may be a Muslim version, but I only know the Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish ones) the point is the same. It’s not evidence of the old man’s special holiness that he was able to carry the beautiful young woman on his back. (In one version I’ve heard, he wades across the river with her in his arms.) It’s certainly not a sly reference to an older man’s declining libido. It’s about the obligation that all men — even young horny ones — have to treat every woman with human dignity and courtesy, regardless of what she’s wearing. The point is simple: to be distracted to the point of rudeness isn’t about what women have (or don’t have) on, it’s about how men choose — and it is a choice — to react.
Clearly, this point still needs making.