“One’s gender and sexuality may be formed through an urban sphere and its many interactions.”
The urban gender encompasses both women who are presenting differently from how they would want to dress and comport themselves, in places where street harassment is not as prevalent, and women who are embracing a more masculine-presenting queer identity as a form of protest—to stand up against the assumption that only heterosexual people belong in public. It also includes women who are adopting a new gender as a part of a transition to a new sexual orientation.
First, the nitty-gritty of street harassment, newly in the news this week after Hollaback released a video of a woman getting harassed 100 times in one day. Kolysh, a doctoral candidate at the CUNY graduate center, has identified the dozens, if not hundreds, of calculations that women make to protect themselves when venturing into the street— wearing sunglasses or earbuds, playing with their phones, hiding behind their hair, texting friends from each intersection, not wearing makeup, not letting their hair down, and not wearing heels. (The list goes on.)
Kolysh says that this daily assault, inescapable if you live in a walking city like New York, can change how a woman understands not only her gender and but also her sexuality. Women might adopt this urban gender as part and parcel of taking up a new queer identity. She says, “Along with this new presentation that people create to protect themselves by adjusting clothes, makeup, and posture—all of these things come together to also change how women may interact with men they are actually interested in, whether in bars or through online dating: Women will be far more cautious, if not altogether turned off by men. So their sex lives are affected, their relationships are affected.”
This “urban sexuality” is partly born out of trauma: “It may sound like I’m saying that ‘Oh, you were assaulted or harassed and now you’re a lesbian,’ which is a common stereotype held by men—but it’s a lot more nuanced than that. An exploration of sexual identity can be a response to the cumulative trauma of street harassment and sexual violence in other spheres. Women might think, ‘Women is where I’m going to feel safe.’ This connects to body image a lot: Queer women look at women’s bodies a lot more positively [than many men do]. They feel better, they feel sexier—and this new [positive] identity heals some of the trauma.”
Essentially, Kolysh is saying that gender can be affected by space—the same woman living in New York might have a different sexuality than she would living in a rural area: “The social sciences generally recognize that gender is a phenomenon accomplished through clothing, presentation, behavior and expectations, [but] there may also be a significant spatial component where one’s gender and sexuality may be formed through an urban sphere and its many interactions.”