Street harassment ruins everything

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, June 18, 2010 21:06 EDT
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It’s summer, which means that people are out and about, which means more street harassment. And women are more likely to be wearing clothes where entire inches of skin are visible, so you’re getting a lot more victim-blaming. So you’re seeing the issue crop up more on blogs. The latest installment is Shani-O, blogging over at Ta-Nehisi’s place, about Holla Back DC. In her posts, she focuses on how sadly effective street harassment is when it comes to the goal of making sure that a woman feels like public property.

One thing that nearly all of the posts have in common is an acknowledgement of the effects that street harassment have on women. Most write that they felt shaken, angry, helpless, or tearful after an incident. They write that it took time for them to pull themselves together. That’s the thing I think many men don’t understand about the harassment: it completely strips a woman of autonomy and it forces a reaction that lasts long after the incident is over. Many times, harassers are seeking a positive reaction, and when they don’t get that, they turn to calling the woman they complimented moments earlier a “bitch.” And either way, the woman has been forcibly dragged out of her own thoughts. That’s why so many women studiously ignore all strangers on the street, I think. It’s a form of insulation from getting shook.

Often, when this subject comes up, there’s discussion of men who actually think they’re giving “compliments” or who think this’ll “work”, as in get a woman to go out with you or otherwise give you positive attention. I do think that some men think of it this way, but that doesn’t make them less misogynist. If anything, it makes them more misogynist, because the distinction between winning a woman over and getting her yield against her will to you has completely collapsed for them. That women have minds of their own matters not one bit to those guys—just getting a reaction of any sort is good, because it verifies that women are simply things to be acted upon. With the guys who unambiguously yell mean-spirited shit at them, at least you get the sense that they’re just trying on their male privilege for size, but they do know the difference between hitting on someone and threatening them with rape. The ones who can’t tell the difference scare me.

What I really liked about Shani’s post was that she dispensed with the irritating myth that there’s a reaction that works to somehow “win” the interaction with a harasser, or somehow discourage the behavior. The myth that women are able to control male behavior through manipulation is a long-standing patriarchal myth used to spring men of all responsibility for oppressing women directly, and it’s particularly hard to eradicate because, on its surface, it feels like it should be empowering to learn ways to get around a man’s obstinate willingness to take full advantage of his dominant position by doing everything from emotionally abusing you to refusing to do the housework. But especially with street harassment, there’s nothing you can do to win. He was born in the winning position. It’s a structural issue. Harassment is set up to make you helpless—everything you can do in response is going to make things worse for you. In this way, it’s really no different than a regime where men randomly trip women in the street, and it’s perfectly legal to do so while women have no legal recourse. How you fall—if you aim for flat on your face or try to land on your shoulder—you’re still bruised and helpless. The only real solution is for men to stop tripping women.

Really, the more I think about it, the more I think that choosing a reaction to harassment should be less on trying to show the harasser up, and more on finding a way to minimize the damage to yourself. This isn’t always possible, of course—some men really work hard on finding ways to freak women out—but in some cases, you can work on not letting it get to you. Laughing at the assholes after the fact and talking about it is my preferred strategy. When something isn’t talked about, it creates a shield of privacy around the harasser and gives him more power over you. Which is why I think the Holla Back sites are so great, since they basically dispense with the illusion that victims owe harassers a bubble of privacy to harass—that we have to be complicit in the abuse of ourselves. But I think what most women settle on is doing our best to just tune the bullshit out.

Ignoring someone doesn’t make them go away. In some cases, harassers double down because getting a reaction is so precious to them. But it can, in many cases, minimize the damage they do to you. But what’s sad is that even the strategy of ignoring comes at a price for victims. Since the vast majority of men yelling at women on the sidewalk are harassing them, many women simply learn to tune out male voices when they’re outside. That’s certainly my main save-my-sanity strategy, helped by the fact that I’m kind of deaf. But the result is that I tune out all men on the street. I usually can recover well when it’s a male friend who spots me and yells at me—they usually don’t pick up on the fact that “didn’t hear them” was somewhat willful, because as soon as I realize the hollering isn’t of the insidious rape threat sort, I’m happy to see them.

But there’s also the occasional stranger that you ignore who needs your help. It’s not usually a big deal, but still it bothers. I realized how accustomed I had become to ignoring men yelling at me on the sidewalk that when a guy pulled over his van and was yelling at me the other day, it didn’t even occur to me to look up. You know, even though it was almost impossible that this man was harassing me, because I was with my boyfriend. Harassers think of women as property, so if you have a visible claimant to your body around, they don’t treat you like public property. No, this man was just asking directions. And I was embarrassed that I didn’t even look. I don’t want to be a bad neighbor.

What choice do I have, though? If I give every man who yells at me the benefit of the doubt and I look, 90% of the time, I have a mild trauma when he takes advantage of piercing through my armor to say something nasty to me, or at least just make me feel bad by gloating about how he showed me who gets to control my mental space. Men’s needs for directions will just have to suffer a little; it’s a smaller price to pay to street harassers than what women pay on a regular basis. I don’t like being a bad neighbor, but I’m not going to blame myself for taking care of myself first. But it worries me. What if one day a man is yelling at me because he sees a threat to my safety that I don’t see? What if I don’t hear him yelling because I have to tune all men out?

When people talk about the way that small acts of bullying make life less pleasant overall, this is the sort of thing we’re talking about. Street harassment reduces trust, reduces friendliness, reduces even safety—often in ways that don’t seem immediately apparent.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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