Me, again. Time for another, “please take street harassment seriously” post.
Earlier this week a man in a car pulled up next to a 14-year old girl on a street in Florida and offered to pay her $200 to have sex with him. Some people would say that’s a compliment. It’s part of being out in society, learning to deal with people, navigating relationships between men and women. Or, at least that what many commenters on articles I write about street harassment think. That or maybe they’re thinking, “She must have looked like a prostitute,” and well, you know.
The girl said no. So what does this guy do? He reaches out, drags her, by her hair, into his car, chokes her until she blacks out, tosses her out of the car and then, not done yet, he runs her over several times. Bystanders watched the entire episode in shock. He almost killed her, but she lived and ID’d him in a line up and he’s been arrested and charged with Attempted Murder, Aggravated Battery with a Deadly Weapon and False Imprisonment. What was the Deadly Weapon referred to in the charge I wonder? Given our normatively male understanding interpretation of what is threatening, does a man pulling up to a girl like this and talking to her in this way constitute imminent harm?
This was an incident of street harassment taken to extremes.
You’re thinking, ”He’s crazy! You can’t possibly put what he did in the same category as street harassment!” Yes, I can.
He stopped and talked to a girl he did not know and he told her what he thought and what he wanted her to do. Clearly, he felt this was okay, or he wouldn’t have done it. This isn’t insanity, it’s entitlement. This is, in principle, the same as men who say, “Smile,” “Want a ride?” “Suck on this” and on and on and on. And, that’s all before the public groping that might ensue.
OK. No big deal I’ve been told. But, he went further, as is often the case. When she said no, he just took her. He crossed a red line that seriously needs to be moved. ”Taking someone” should not be the “red line” for public incivility and safe access to public space.
We hear about cases like this with dulling regularity and, undoubtedly, we don’t hear about even more. Just a smattering of examples:
- In San Francisco last year, a man stabbed a woman in the face and arm after she didn’t respond positively to his sexually harassing her on the street.
- In Bradenton, Fla., a man shot a high school senior to death after she and her friends refused to perform oral sex at his request. I
- In Chicago, a scared 15-year-old was hit by a car and died after she tried escaping from harassers on a bus.
- Again, in Chicago, a man grabbed a 19-year-old walking on a public thoroughfare, pulled her onto a gangway and assaulted her.
- In Savannah, Georgia, a woman was walking alone at night and three men approached her. She ignored them, but they pushed her to the ground and sexually assaulted her
- In Manhattan, a 29-year-old pregnant woman was killed when men catcalling from a van drove onto the sidewalk and hit her and her friend.
- Last week, a runner in California — a woman — was stopped and asked, by a strange man in a car, if she wanted a ride. When she declined he ran her over twice.
And, last we forget, we’re one big happy planet family here and this exact same dynamic happens the world over in varying degrees and to varying effect. Women operating freely and independently in public is a relatively recent historical development, a shift in social order. Street harassment acts like a thermidor.
What happened to this girl in Florida should make everyone pause. If he did what he’d done in India, people here might be inclined to say, “What a horrible place that is for women.” (Which is true.) Instead, what we say is, “He’s a lunatic,” or, better still, “What was she doing for him to think he could stop and offer her money for sex?” While this man is dangerous, he’s probably not mentally ill. If he is, then so are the millions of other men that feel entitled to assault and brutalize children and women and “othered” people every day.
For women and LGTB people, especially when you consider race and class as legitimate factors in this equation, that risk is significantly higher than it is for most straight men all too comfortable discussing this subject in mocking terms like, “grow a thicker skin and stop complaining.” Bitch Magazine’s Mandy van Deven has several excellent commentaries on these topics.
Nonetheless, in case you are in the “whiny hyperbolic feminist” camp, this might make more sense. Here is a public figure, a straight man, describing a scene after he was approached in an airport by a stranger. The man who stopped him wanted to express an opinion (which, after all, is often what street harassers are doing when they say things like, “Nice ass!” etc. etc.):
My mind raced through several possibilities. Was I in danger? That seemed doubtful. He was well-dressed and had a briefcase in one hand. He couldn’t have gotten through the checkpoint with a knife or gun. Should I just walk away? Probably. But what if he followed me? Regardless, why should I let him get away with insulting me?
Political economist Robert Reich described this encounter and his thought process recently, after a man called him an obscene version of “Commie dirtbag.” This split-second assessment is something many of us make many times a week — for some, a day. Now, Reich did not, in all likelihood, think of his interaction as street harassment. “You are a Commie dirtbag,” however, is the political version of “Slaggy bitch.” No one, for obvious reasons, wonders what Reich was wearing. But, moving right along, because there’s serious work to get to. Reich probably hasn’t spent significant psychic energy or time avoiding being accosted by a stranger in this way. Besides, he was targeted for his political ideas, not his body. Political ideas are Big Ones. Crass, gendered and prurient imprecations, not so much.
While public harassment motivated by racism, homophobia, transphobia, or classism — types of deplorable harassment which men can be the target of and sometimes women perpetrate — is recognized as socially unacceptable behavior, men’s harassment of women motivated by gender and sexism is not. In reality, like other forms of harassment, street harassment is bullying behavior motivated by power and disrespect.
There are people with less power and respect in society and those with more.
Consider the experiences of people with disabilities. For example, women in wheelchairs have to be on the lookout for men who push their groins into their faces. An “architecture of aggression” renders people with disabilities far more vulnerable to harassment and potential violence. Add to the suggestion that disabled people, especially disabled women, should consider themselves especially “lucky” to get any attention.
Likewise, transgender people, or those expressing their gender in unconventional ways, are relentlessly targeted. For example, this summer 21-year-old Islan Nettles, a transgender woman, was attacked by a young man upset to learn she was transgendered and so he and his friends killed her. New Yorker magazine called this a “come-on gone wrong.” Hey, he was just flirting. Lighten up. Dwayne Jones, a young Jamaican, was killed in similar circumstances only three weeks earlier.
Nettles was killed in New York at the end of a summer in which the city experienced a spike in sex- and gender-based hate crimes. This is important because these assaults, many of which start in “harmless” street harassment kinds of ways — comments, slurs, maybe some touching — are understood as hate crimes. When a group of men yell slurs at gay men and transgendered people and then proceed to hurt or kill them, we recognize, legally and as a society, hate and the culture of domination and machismo that fuels it. So, why, when a group of man yells, “Fucking slut” at a woman who rejects their demands and then follow her or grab her or kill her, don’t’ we recognize it for what it is, a crime of gender-based harassment and hate? Why do people insist on making excuses?
In 2005, Emily May started Hollaback!, an anti-street harassment organization, to help amass the street harassment experiences of women and members of the LGBT community and to provide a way for them to fight back. Hollaback! created a mobile phone app that users could use to map harassers and to share their stories with others. Last month, they came out with a new version for New York City, which gives users the option to report harassment directly to their city council members.
“On ihollaback.org we’ve seen hundreds of cases where verbal harassment escalates into more extreme forms of violence,” explains May. “It’s time we acknowledge that street harassment is unacceptable in all its forms.”
Why focus on extreme cases? Because they are end-result manifestations of everyday misogyny. Because the danger of street harassment isn’t in a lunatic lashing out violently but the risk of a “regular guy” lashing out violently. This is not an indictment of all men, the vast majority of whom don’t engage in these behaviors. However, most aren’t considering others’ tolerance and behavior enables the men who do and way too many are too comfortable dismissing this reality. As Gradiant Liar recently explained succinctly, “Male privilege means that most men are never street harassed, period.” While the work of anti-street harassment movements is essential, especially for raising public awareness and understanding the power dynamics involved, it cannot sufficiently address the root causes informing the problem. We have structural problems with toxic masculinity and violence. Street harassment doesn’t work in isolation from those problems and isn’t an issue with the occasional, outlier creep. This post will show up in the “Crime” department, but, in reality, it belongs in “Culture.”
After I wrote about street harassment two weeks ago, I was deluged by messages and comments and tweets. Many messages were from people sharing their stories. However, there was a hard core of people saying variations of “Refocus on the real issues,” “Lighten up, baby,” and “Nobody likes a Debbie Downer.” My favorite? ”I avoid American women at every venue. My life is much more satisfying and peaceful as a result.” You have to find humor in the absurdity.
What I really love though, is the people who refuse to believe this is taking place all around them or, better yet, that people targeted for harassment “can’t understand what flirting is.” Let me put this as simply as possible: If your way of flirting scares and repulses people, then you need to stop and find a new way of flirting.
Just because men’s casual perusal of and unwanted interactions with women are normalized doesn’t make street harassment okay. Just because men want dates and aren’t sure how to get them doesn’t make street harassment okay. Just because we have bigger misogynistic fish to fry doesn’t make it okay. Even if you think that harassment is the “natural” result of evolved psychologies, that doesn’t make it okay. Or desirable or inevitable. Even if you are a woman and you like it, that also doesn’t make it okay given the costs associated with a brief surge of endorphins.
Lastly, not to be forgotten, those who say, “women do this to men all the time,” I am out of patience. Go do some homework and consider context and power and systems and what false equivalences are. Think about how and why smaller than average men have a to make different assessments about their safety and defense when approached by larger men and what that means for smaller-than-men-on-average women. Read about gendered asymmetry in violence.
Street harassment is serious because it is a symptom of much deeper problems having to do with civic life, public life and people’s rights to privacy, autonomy, violence, speech and safety. But, as is clear as the noses on our faces, it’s also often dangerous in and of itself.
Photo Credit: Hollaback!