A Switched Gender-Role Experience from the Other Side of the World

Last week, I experienced an interesting instance of gender-role reversal on the streets of Shanghai. “I hope we don’t get split up,” my male friend said to me. “If I have a girl with me, maybe they will leave me alone.” It took me a second to realize the irony of this statement. Normally, it’s a woman who is glad to have a male presence beside her when she walks at night to deter street harassment. How many times had my male friends walked me home at night? Who would have thought I’d ever get to return the favor?

Here’s the scenario: I was in a certain hotel district popular with businessmen in the center of Shanghai visiting a friend. He told me about how when he went walking the night before, he was accosted multiple times by women selling massages (which is often a front for prostitution here). He noted that they were very aggressive and made him uncomfortable. Later, while I was out walking with another friend, he said that line about being glad to have a woman with him. I pointed out to him how it’s usually the other way around and we both laughed. But sure enough, no one propositioned him the whole night, whereas my first friend had gotten about ten offers on a short walk.

The bustling streets of Shanghai. Photo taken by author.
The bustling streets of Shanghai. Photo taken by author.

I’ve always felt very safe walking the streets at night in China. Recently I realized that it may have something to do with the fact that I’ve never once been cat-called here. I don’t know if that is because the Chinese men are not in that habit, or if it’s just because I am a foreigner. Many of my female Chinese friends express worry about being out alone at night, so I suspect it might be the latter.*

So dudes, if you ever wanted to feel some approximation of what it feels like to be a woman walking alone at night, take a walk down that street in Shanghai.

But there is still a major difference between that experience and the experience of a female victim of street harassment: the power dynamic.

No matter how uncomfortable those masseuses may make you feel, there is a difference between someone harassing you to sell you something (especially a woman trying to sell you her body) verses someone feeling like they have the right to comment on you and your body and invade your space. I don’t think either of the two guys I spoke to were afraid of physical harm or getting abducted, so much as just embarrassed. In any case, it was interesting for my male friends and I to each get some new perspective, even if the situation didn’t quite match up with what women generally experience.

*Disclaimer: I do not know what it is like to be a Chinese woman in China; I only know what it is like to be a foreign woman. From what I have observed, these are two very different experiences. This article is only about the personal experiences of a couple foreign men and myself in a tourist area. It is not meant to represent the general climate of gender roles and sexism within the Chinese population as a whole.

While I spend this year in China, I hope to contribute some unique insights and perspectives to what has so far been a fairly America-centric blog. However, I will do my best to keep in mind that I am an outsider looking in on another culture, and can only speak to my own personal experience.

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