The Sexual Politics of Navigation

Men and women in the urban environment follow different rules of engagement—and choose different strategies in the urban dance of collision-avoidance.

We live in cities because of the buzz, energy, and excitement generated by so many bodies — not to mention the convenience of having everything we need at our fingertips. But if things are at our fingertips, they’re at everyone else’s, too, and we have to make our way without jamming those fingers. At any moment there are people to be passed, greeted, and at times jostled against.  As men and women wend through the congested byways and orthogonal corridors of the urban environment, we follow different rules of engagement.  We choose different strategies in the urban dance of collision-avoidance. I distinctly remember as an eighteen-year-old, the first time a male date held the door for me.  My reaction was one of confusion and unease.  I felt the act of holding the door signaled that I was weak, that I needed protection, that I couldn’t open the door for myself. Since that time, I’ve adhered (at least in thought) to the classic feminist trope that men’s behavior towards women in public spaces — the opening of doors, the waiting to allow us to get on and off the elevator, the subway, and the stairway first; that these gestures embody unconscious male attempts at sexual domination. These small gestures encourage women to accept the beneficence of men and needlessly acknowledge women’s generally weaker physical power. As a woman accepts the male-opened-door she also tacitly accepts male superiority. I believed that men and women should open doors for themselves and they should walk up stairs as peers.

And then I hit thirty-nine and upon entering The Kimmel Center, Philadelphia’s modern Orchestra building, I heard a feminine gasp behind me.  My life partner, who’d entered through adjacent doors notified me that – jeez – I’d just let the door slam in the face of the woman behind me!  If he hadn’t let me know what happened, I’m sure I’d have continued on obliviously. I felt like such a cad! Epiphany:  Maybe the gallantry to women, that men regularly exhibit as we navigate cities and buildings together, isn’t just about oppression. Maybe it is also about consideration.  And instead of just being dominated as recipients – maybe women are also internalizing a message of privilege. Maybe the greater problem isn’t that men are following sexist social norms, but that women are rude. Male chivalry socializes women to be inconsiderate. Over the last year I’ve taken greater notice of how men and women interact in the congested urban environment along with my own expectations and behaviors. Yeah, I know I’m not going to win the male-initiated waiting game to get on an elevator unless I break every social norm in the book. Yeah, this lack-of-equality ticks me off. However, I also notice that as I bicycle down the street and slow to approach an intersection, the car that plows through in front of me is usually driven by a woman; the cars driven by men, more often than not, wave me past. I notice a woman bicyclist making a fast left and cutting off a male pedestrian crossing the street with the right-of-way. He stops and kindly ushers her through as she blazes past without a backward look or courtesy wave. I notice that as I stand from my seat to enter the aisle and queue to get off the bus, I don’t know what to expect from a woman queuing adjacent me. She might push ahead or might wait; but I expect the man in the same situation to, at a minimum, acknowledge my presence and more likely let me get in line first.  And yes, I notice that if a door slams in my face, one of my gentler sex has most likely preceded me into the building.

slamming door

While I don’t know from experience how men perceive the relative courtesy of women versus men, it does seem that men’s general concern with politeness norms towards women extends to a greater general awareness of all bodies as they navigate the built environment. Men seem more likely than women to push the door open behind them to allow a compatriot following behind to get through. We can’t all squeeze through the tight thresholds—elevators, stairs, doors–of urban existence at once. We have to make room for one another. Crossing streets and turning corners invite opportunities for collision. We have to take our turn. Sexism and its legacy doubtless contribute to the small percentage of female architectural leaders. However sexism may have gotten something right. Gallantry may be a quality to be prized in men. And it may also be a characteristic to strive for as women. Entitlement isn’t a pretty thing.  As urban dwellers we need to open our eyes and extend a hand to one another. I’d like to bellow a feminist call to consideration.

Juliet Whelan owns Jibe Design, an award-winning firm creating architecture that weds profound design with environmentally responsible solutions.

Categories: Cities, Ideas

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