If You Don’t Take Women’s Harassment Seriously, You Don’t Understand The Problem

photo Jan. 28 piece

One night earlier this week, 29-year old Janese Talton-Jackson was shot to death as she waited outside of a club. The man who shot her couldn’t tolerate her saying ‘no’ and refusing to share her phone number. Every few months stories like these make it into the news cycle, even though related harassment and assaults are happening every day in the US and elsewhere.  When stories like this surface, people rightfully express horror, sadness, anger and outrage. If they can do it along racist, ethnic, nationalist, classist lines, despite the regular assaults of women by men in their own peer groups, they do. This is particularly true now that we live in a transnational media ecosphere.

Consider the assaults of women in several German cities at the turn of the year.  New Year’s Eve wasn’t Day One of gender-based violence Germany.  While the media and public were rightfully appalled by the mass nature of the assaults in Germany, “Arab-looking” men have no monopoly on street harassment, rape, gang-rape, sexual harassment and assault. One in three German women experience violence, primarily at the hands of their male German counterparts. Sixty-eight percent of German women report being groped on public streets, and 80% regularly alter their commutes to avoid harassment.  During the countries’ annual Oktoberfest celebration, an average of 10 rapes are reported each year, but estimated number of unreported rapes is 200. German law still requires a victim to prove that they physically resisted rape. German media did not respond in outrage over the fact that migrant women face similar levels of abuse as German women do in refugee camps and as they make their way to new countries. According to Amnesty International, migrant women consistently reported that “in almost all of the countries they passed through they experienced physical abuse and financial exploitation, being groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees.”

These numbers mirror those in the US.  In the US, 71% of women report being followed and 57% of women report verbal harassment.  In Talton-Jackson’s case, she and her assailant were strangers.  However, he had previously harassed another woman so persistently (once breaking into her bedroom to harangue her) that, feeling unsafe, she’d moved from the state she lived in.   According to a national Stop Street Harassment survey, forty-one percent of American women have experienced physically aggressive street interactions, including touching, flashing, and being forced to do something sexual against their wills. Do people really think that the 72% of women who regularly change their commutes do it because they want a change of scenery or are engaged in a spy fantasy?

Women everywhere, whether consciously or not, have to be vigilance regarding the full spectrum of violence we avoid: street harassmentsexual assault, stalking, and both stranger and intimate partner assault.  A One in three American woman has experienced domestic violence. One in six is stalked.  An American woman’s chance of being sexually assaulted is one in five.

Through it all, girls are taught through silence not to say anything about their growing consciousness of double standards regarding physical integrity and freedom, and women are constantly told to  “ignore” harassment, or to “stay inside,” learn to “take a compliment,” “fight back,” or “focus on more important issues.”  Anything but societal introspection about what goes into making a culture in which women encounter these levels of hostility to our full engagement, in the world. As full human beings and adults with rights.

I’m really hard pressed to understand what is more important than the everyday threat that, for being female and in public, you might be verbally and physically attacked, mutilated, terrorized or killed for not consenting on the spot to what any random man wants, or to understanding that – at home or outside – your physical integrity and consent to the use of your body are not socially, politically, communally respected rights. If you are a transwoman (perceived socially as having chosen to walk away from the privilege of being male) or a woman of color, physical safety is doubly, triply compromised.

Regardless of the cases we learn about, women can say no all the time, sometimes successfully and in ways that are empowering. When they do, people applaud them, cheer them on, make videos that go viral. But, every single time they do so at great risk.  “Just tell him to fuck off?”


No, taking naked pictures doesn’t mean I consent to sharing them.

No, I don’t want to perform oral sex on a stranger.

No, I don’t want to be married to you anymore.

No, what I wear doesn’t give you rights to sex.

No, I don’t want to send you naked pictures.

No, I don’t want to see your naked picture.

No, I don’t want to see you anymore.

No, I don’t want to get back together.

No, drinking doesn’t mean I consent.

No, I won’t go to the prom with you.

No, you cannot share that picture.

No, I don’t want you to touch me.

No, I don’t want to live with you.

No, I don’t want to have a drink.

No, you’re abusing your power.

No, I don’t want to talk to you.

No, I want to keep this baby.

No, I don’t want to date you.

No, I want to go to school.

No, I don’t want to smile.

No, I disagree with you.

No, I want an abortion.

No, I don’t need a ride.

No, I want a divorce.

No, I don’t think so.

No, I will not fight.

No, I will not stop.

No, I’m not going.

No, I won’t.

No, stop.

Women. Don’t.  Have. The. Right. To. Say. No. And. Be. Left. Alone.  Not on the way to school, not in school, not at work, going the dentist, picking up our kids, not in emergency rooms.  Last month, a man, angry that a woman had rebuffed him earlier in the night, knocked down the front door of her apartment and, when he found she wasn’t home, grabbed her three month old puppy and threw it out of a third floor window. Last week, a man was sentenced to two years in jail for attacking his spouse with a hammer. Another was arrested for attacking his girlfriend as she tried to attempt leaving him. And yet a third was arrested after killing his wife for wanting divorce. This week, police in Florida are trying to locate a man who has been serially harassing women real estate agents while they work.

In some countries, the most violent attacks against girls and women involve acid throwing, in others, like ours, its more likely to involve setting a woman on fire, as happened in Pomona, California on Christmas Day. If it had happened in, say, India, chances are you would have heard about it. That might sound like an outlier, until you begin to look. There have been similar cases involving women saying no and men dousing them in gasoline before lighting matches in Maryland,  Florida, Ohio, MichiganMissouri, Oregon.  Clearly all these women weren’t subservient enough and just as clearly, no mainstream media outlet is keeping track.  If these, and countless others cases that don’t get compiled in a sensible way, were happening in another country, our media would be all over how incredibly abusive, patriarchal, misogynistic that country’s culture really is.

The largely tolerated right and ability of strangers to harass women in public coexists with the largely tolerated right and ability of acquaintances to harass women in private.  A newly released study, for example,  found that sixty percent of women in Silicon Valley report workplace sexual harassment. Can’t a girl take a compliment? Play with the big boys? One in three women said that they feel afraid for their personal safety because of work-related circumstances. Men might not mean to provoke fear in their clumsy and exploitative attempts to have sex with someone who is not interested, but they do it anyway because what they do doesn’t happen in a social vacuum.

The physical reality of harassment and violence has a thriving corollary online. The 2014 nonconsensual sharing of stolen intimate photos of more than a hundred women celebrities was a high profile example of something that happens regularly.  Danielle Citron explores these issues in her book, Hate Crimes In Cyberspace, where she cites a study of 1,606 revenge porn cases that revealed  90% of those whose photos were shared were women, targeted by men they knew. A 2012 National Network to End Domestic Violence survey of US domestic violence programs reported that 89% of victims experience intimidation and threats by abusers via technology, including through cell phones, texts, and email.

Last year, Rama Lakshmi, a correspondent for the Washington Post in India, reported that rapists are increasingly filming their rapes on cell phones so they can blackmail victims out of reporting their crimes.  Again, no country has a monopoly on cell phone recordings depicting rapes. From India to the United States to Turkey to the United Kingdom, boys and men are recording their crimes and either sharing for status points or for intimidating, threatening, and manipulating their victims. Then we turn their assaults into affective products and data points using hashtags like #Jadapose#Slanegirl#Steubenville, or #HandsUpForRaehtah. Most cases though, we never hear about.

The male sexual entitlement that fuels so much of this gender-based violence is so wrapped up in how we teach boys to be men that it’s hard to know where to start.  Once in a while an illuminating video, utilizing a gender reversal, makes the rounds and captures people’s attention.  But, while videos depicting gender reversals are good catalysts for discussion and awareness, they are superficial at best and create a false equivalence. There is no gender equivalence because there is no systemic power inversion that would support it. Sexual entitlement doesn’t exist in isolation, but thrives alongside political, economic and social male domination.  Girls are socialized to please other people because just the act of women saying “no” is fundamentally, politically and socially, disruptive. Combined with racial and class dimensions, even more so.  By far the easiest way to make sure women aren’t comfortable saying “no’ or expecting to be paid attention to when they do is to regulate women with gender and race-based violence or the threat of it and socialize them to limit themselves.

The concerns and fears that women have aren’t “hysteria,” but reasonablejustified adaptive responses to an environment of pandemic threat. As is always the case, clearly not all men are to blame, but, as we keep asking, how are we supposed to tell?  What are we supposed to say every day?  It’s so tiresome.  Anyone who waves of women’s concerns about “something as trivial as street harassment,” as I’m so often told, is actively, and now consciously, part of the problem.

A common objection to women “whining” about these problems is the claim that men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes. And, yes, men too, are subject to violence and its threat – but almost entirely at the hands of other men. Additionally, men are no longer more likely.  The Department of Justice’s most recent crime report shows that between 2004 and 2013 the rate of violent crimes against men and women reached equal levels of prevalence, crimes against men flat-lining, but against women increasing.


Photo Credit: Wikipedia 


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