Let’s Talk About Street Harassment

Lately, in any discussion on street harassment, there has often been a comment along the lines of ‘but… some of this doesn’t seem to be harassment’, ‘it’s a fine line between harassment and good nature’, ‘what if the guy was just saying hello?’, ‘don’t tar all men with the same brush’ etc.

Let’s talk about that.

The comments made above seem reasonable, and here are my thoughts that are probably not obvious to men who have never suffered street harassment:

Comments like ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’ are still harassment because it is unequal. It is clear, being in an urban area far from home, that there is no chance that this person is a neighbour or otherwise a not-stranger. It is also clear that this only happens to women. This stranger is a man and aside from anything else, men do not say ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ to other strange men. When men interact with strange men, they avert their gaze, don’t speak unless spoken to etc.

But strange men do not show the same deference to strange women. They speak to them, they stare at them, they wolf whistle them, they catcall them, they turn around to check them out after they’ve walked by (my personal un-favourite because they think no women see it) and yes, they say ‘hello’ to them. The ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’ is a plea for attention that is exactly the same as the more directly sexual comments. It is also completely and entirely obvious from their body language, tone of voice and social context that their ‘hello’ means, “I’ve noticed you, I want you to notice me because: sex.” I mention social context because it is important to remember that this never happens if any other man is present. It is also much more rare with groups of women, and in this case the guys often yell from cars, from across the street, in groups, or other ‘safe’ places. When a woman is street harassed she is in a public place, alone and being harassed by a strange man.

Now, when men comment on stories of female harassment there seem to be a number of feelings tied up in the comments. The feelings are also all tied together. They seem to be:

‘This is awful, I don’t want this to happen to women’. ‘I’ve never done this to women, in fact I’m careful to not do it’. ‘I’m sure I’ve said ‘hello’ to women in the past, I don’t want them to think I was harassing them’. ‘Maybe some of these guys these women are complaining about were guys like me, truly well-meaning’.  ‘I’m now scared to ever say hello to women in case I get tarred with the man-hate brush’ and ‘How is anyone meant to meet anyone new/get laid?’

Let’s talk about this.

Let’s just lead with the fact that street harassment is a massive open secret that has only begun to be spoken about with any kind of coverage in the last five years. And I repeat, ‘spoken about’. We’re not even close to doing something to make it change yet.

Street harassment is very much part of a spectrum of behaviours that has murder through domestic violence on one end and lad’s mags/page 3 on the other end. None of it is good, some of it is worse than other bits, and we’re not *very* close to the murder end of the spectrum today, we’re more in the middle (although street harassment has lead, and continues to lead, directly to murder if you’re trans*), however it is an endemic spectrum of behaviours that shows us that the whole system is rotten. Men are bound up in this rotten system just as much as women, and it’s the system that needs to change.

Only a percentage of men harass women on the street, although a greater percentage may have done so in their lifetime. Everyone on every side of this debate knows that not all men do this. But people who are posting about it are not being careful to remove any implications of this. Men, I’m asking you to please let this one slide. Why? Because we’ve only just started talking about this. Decades of rage, oppression and very negative feelings are all coming out in a rush. We are not being nuanced about this. When out on the street, there is no way to know which man will harass and which one won’t. We know that three out of the 100 or so men who pass us today will demean and degrade us, we will feel threatened, frightened and alone. Not only that, but we’ll see it happen to other women too. We know it’s not all men, we have fathers, brothers, sons, dear friends and most of us have kind, wonderful lovers. We know it’s not all men, it’s only some men, but we’re having a really freaky bad time over here, we’re finding it really hard to talk about, let alone with any careful language and the ‘not all men’ argument derails the debate. Any victim is going to have a hard time talking about their experiences at all, and expecting a victim to be careful in their speech is quite a stretch. Women don’t hate all men, just as men don’t hate all women. This is a given.

This is the part of the conversation where, despite lack of nuance, the listener just listens. (And I do honestly believe this debate will evolve over time and it’ll be totally cool to call out the ‘All men’ statements, just not yet.)

We also know that most men make sure they don’t harass women on the street. We know most men have refused to bow to the pressure of peers or culture and have carefully figured out that strangers should probably be left alone, even though that leaves us with a bit less opportunity for amazing interactions. We appreciate your efforts, we really do. Like I said before, fathers, brothers, lovers…

Now we approach the idea of the misunderstood guy. The friendly ‘hello’ guy. This part is particularly hard. Men are defending a straw man that doesn’t exist because the feelings behind it are: ‘these new-fangled rules are pretty darned strict and it’s uber hard to not come off as creepy. Plus, I’m really freaked out that I might have done this accidentally in the past’.

I sympathise strongly with the feelings, but not the straw man argument of the mythical misunderstood guy. By saying one or some or all of the harassers might have not meant any harm is demeaning to the women who report being harassed. It implies you don’t believe them. It implies that they cannot read body language, tone of voice or social context. That women are unsophisticated with social interaction. It implies that they haven’t been dealing with this since they were thirteen years old. It implies that the intentions of the harasser matter more than the feelings of threat. It implies the patriarchal pat on the head, the ‘don’t be so silly’ argument that has been used to dismiss women’s experience over and over in all of living memory. Or worse, it implies that women are lying and on a hate-campaign against men. This is fucking rare, about as rare as men who have hate campaigns against women. These implications give women rage. Which does not help with refining a debate and using correct words to describe things.

So, don’t say ‘maybe those guys didn’t mean it’ because we need to practice believing the victim and you have no idea what happened, you weren’t there. Instead say ‘I am scared I’ve done this and didn’t mean it’ or ‘I’m scared someone will think I’m creepy when I wasn’t’ or ‘Can we have a talk on another thread about this whole thing because it feels shaming’.

EDIT [ Actually, this part is key. Women have been victims, and when women speak out, men are feeling shame, even though it’s not personally their fault. I’m asking men to listen to female victims, even if they are not very nuanced, but I’m asking men to have nuanced replies, even though they are having bad feelings too. I think we definitely need a space for men to talk about these feelings, where they are supported and uncriticised. We have always needed this space. It might just have to be a separate space to the original victim speaking out. ]

In terms of the past, it’s highly unlikely that you accidentally came off as creepy. People are generally very able when it comes to social interaction. It’s very nuanced. If we go down the road of believing that women have the skills to notice a creepy ‘hello’, they can also tell an un-creepy ‘hello’. Women aren’t unsophisticated about this. Women want to find new friends and lovers just as much as you, and continue to engage with random interactions and go on dates, despite all the horror.

But if you did come off as creepy once, don’t worry too much, it’s probably forgotten and mistakes happen and you have friends and lovers who know you’re not creepy and you’ve heard about the types of things that come off as creepy and you haven’t done them. And you’d rather the person walked away and called you creepy than we live in a world where we’re going backward on this whole patriarchy thing. So it’s ok. I’m sorry if you’ve been misunderstood, it was in the service of a good cause and everything is going to be alright.

The current rules ARE darned hard, because everyone is trying to be better to each other than they were before. We’re working inside of a toxic system that sets genders against each other and no-one has any easy new rules about how to deal with this new stuff. Women are going to react in wildly different ways, and it’s going to be hard to find a baseline that generally means everyone is ok. It’s going to be a bit sad for quite a while, what with stranger interactions being reduced between men and women while we sort the harassment thing out. But overall happiness will still be higher since women will feel less threatened, day to day.

The only good general solution is honesty and respect for boundaries (and this is on everyone, not just men, of course). Honesty with ourselves about why we’re saying hello to this person on the street, or someone is saying hello to us. Honesty that certain things are gonna seem creepy. Honesty that there is a lot of sadness around this, and everyone needs to give support to people who feel sad. Honesty that we’re scared we’ve done the wrong thing, because the new rules are so hard to fathom.

And almost no-one is doing that yet, so we’re all well outside of comfort zone, and social sanctioning. But it’s worth it.

It’s worth it because, we’re trying to build a world where men and women can openly say to each other in the moment, without conflict or fear of violence, ‘hey, that came off as creepy’ and the other party can say ‘oh my god that was NOT my intention, please tell me in detail what it was that seemed creepy’. This will also be a world where both men and women can say, without fear of shaming or violence, ‘hey, you are attractive, any interest in fucking?’ and there is no obligation to say yes or no. In a world when all genders are empowered to ask for/accept sexual interaction in an equal, honest and open way, street harassment could disappear.

I want to live in that world, and we need to do everything we can to get there.

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One thought on “Let’s Talk About Street Harassment

  1. John Fuller

    A poker analogy for decision making in this situation. When it’s your turn to take a position on your hand (call, bet, fold) you will get your gut decision on what you should do. You then need to take a moment to defend that position before committing to it. Is this gut decision coming from a heuristic based on learned skill or is it from a bias? A heuristic might be a rough calculation which you have done so many times you no longer have to think about it. A bias might be playing a “9, 5” because you think of the Dolly Parton movie Nine to Five, playing a “6, 9” because of the sexual reference or another silly pairing because it’s your favorite hand.

    Situational awareness often requires some sort of interaction with other people. When you’re driving you often need to make eye contact with someone coming in the opposite direction (especially in parking lots) to make sure they are aware of you and to get some idea of their intentions (this is in addition to tools such as blinkers). The same is true for walking along the street. You might need to move in a different direction to avoid a collision but you also need to avoid making the same correction as the other person or you will still collide.

    The interaction starts with eye contact. How much further it goes depends on the situation and your intent. The origin of the salute was in part a way to show a lack of hostile intent. When I was walking to get coffee and 4am this morning, there was a relatively strong likelihood that anyone I passed was drunk. There was also a stronger likelihood of being robbed or getting engaged in a violent encounter at that time of night. I made eye contact, nodded and may have said hello to show that I didn’t have hostile intent. The response provides the same information. Even if I believe the person posed no threat (an elderly woman) I may still smile and say hello to signal that I’m not a threat.

    Going back to the poker analogy. You have to think about what you are signalling to others despite your hand. You may signal you have a greater hand than you actually have. You may try to trap someone by signalling that your hand is weaker. Due to a lack of sophistication in the game you may not know what you are signalling. In certain situations your greeting may signal something other than what you intended. You need this awareness (social context) in effectively defending your position before committing to a decision.

    Greeting as harassment comes in other forms as well.

    When I’m walking at 4am sometimes I’ll pass a group of teens drinking on the side of the road. I live in a nation with an emerging economy, so it’s possible that this group of teens could be a support structure for the individuals in the group. Sometimes one person will shout out something at me in a language I don’t understand. This may be a friendly greeting or it might be an aggressive stance. My assumption is that this person could be on the bubble of the group and is attempting to score social points (it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for because they probably have greater influence and don’t need to do the shouting). I’m not necessarily a target, but rather a pawn in this game. In response I’ll nod and shoot off a quick wave. This reaction is meant to throw the mouthy kid a bone in gaining points (and no loss of face by getting ignored) but not to draw further interaction.

    Locals will often yell out a greeting even while alone probably because of the reward of being noticed by someone they perceive as originating from somewhere exotic and wealthy.

    If you want for non-Asian men in the U.S. to experience sexual harassment from the other side, have them go to a region such as Thailand or the Philippines where transsexual women often harass foreigners in the same ways you have mentioned in your post. At 4am a group of visibly drunk transsexual women calling out to you while you are alone can be disconcerting.

    I think people reading this blog probably have the tool-sets to draw from so that they won’t often make this mistake. For others, this is a development issue which won’t easily go away.

    Thanks for the post, it was enlightening. I found your site through tweets from Meaningness.

    Reply

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