I was hurrying to an assignment downtown on a chilly day last week, and a man passing me on the sidewalk stopped as I approached, looked me up and down and said, “Mmm!” as if he’d just bitten into a fantastic piece of pie. His head swiveled theatrically to check out the rest of me as I went by.
What was it about me that made him look? The fuzzy old hat that a teenage friend crocheted for me twelve years ago? My comfortable jeans and brown Timberland boots? The oversized canvas bag? The faux-fleece-line purple hoodie that my dear husband himself last month referred to as “a bit bulky, don’t you think”?
Last week’s post on street harassment got an interesting discussion going, and as I read some similar material from other authors and looked at the comment and social media responses to my blog, I realized that while my post did a pretty good job of announcing that street harassment stinks, it doesn’t say much about why it happens in the first place.
The man who admired me so much last week made me wonder. Do I just radiate so much sex appeal that even when I’m bundled up from head to toe and am rushing to work, I stop men in their tracks?
Some women say they have tried to avoid harassment by hunching down inside a big, baggy pair of sweatpants or similar attire. But many who have done this add in a bewildered tone that it didn’t stop men from calling out at them.
Some men who responded to comment threads about my post chimed in with their disgust at males who think that sexually harassing comments are going to make women like them.
“Why do people do that shit? Do they really think it’s going to win any ladies over?” asked one man on Facebook.
“A lot of the hollerers just want to have sex, essentially,” Lane, one of my female friends, also a local journalist, wrote in an e-mail to me last week, explaining that these outbursts have nothing to do with sincere romance. “They’ll do it to every half-decent-looking girl…and, of course, the super-hot ones.”
According to her, there are a couple main reasons for street harassment:
First, guys don’t know the right way to approach women: they think aggressive advances are good. Secondly, “they can’t control their hormones.” Lane also feels that she experiences harassment often because she looks “young and helpless”. Finally, she suggests there may be cultural factors at work among the hollerers.
But the bottom line is that the intrusive advances she experiences every week, often while on the job as a journalist, are not acceptable. As Lane puts it, “I’m not going to tear off my panties and be like LET’S ****, RANDOM GUY ON THE STREET!”
My husband also weighed in, pointing out insight from acquaintances who are inveterate street hollerers. He says people who do this are indeed trying to attract women sexually, because some people are always desperate for any sort of attention. Men know that most women are annoyed by their shouts and whistles, but the hollering men aren’t bothered, because these more stable women “aren’t the target market anyway”. Annoying 98% of the women who pass is an occupational hazard of snagging someone more insecure.
Another writer to hit my radar on this topic, while also criticizing the male tendency to publicly harass women, has a completely different theory for why it happens, especially when the men are in groups.
In his piece for Ebony Magazine, Interrupt Street Harassment, Dr. L’Heureux Lewis recalls being a nervous member of gangs of boys who harassed girls. He calls the collective habit of whistling, catcalling or “bark[ing] compliments” at women a “rite of passage” that made him silently uncomfortable.
He draws telling connections between street harassment and physical violence against women, and gives his perspective on why the harassment persists: in his case, he didn’t want be perceived as “uncool” or “less of a man” for speaking up against the behavior, but more than that, he says men fear that others in the group will question their sexuality, and then ostracize them, if they don’t harass women.
“This is what sociologist Michael Kimmel identifies as a deep form of homophobia,” Dr. Lewis writes. The problem was “the fear that other men would challenge me, question my manhood, or even call me gay.”
So men harass women because men are deeply homophobic?
I don’t know.
I think the key to understanding why street harassment happens is to pay attention to the reactions some men have when the harassed women surprise everyone by standing up to them or verbally rebuffing the “compliments”.
It seems like every girl has at least one chilling story about what happened when she responded assertively to a man who accosted or propositioned her. Part of the reason so many women avoid responding to harassment are the curses or threats that are often unleashed when they don’t remain passive under this public “flattery”.
“I remember a couple of different times where a man has asked me for a hug or some other contact, and I’ve said no – and not rudely, either – and been subjected to a litany of why me not wanting to have that contact with him is *my* problem,” said one of last week’s commenters.
I’m no sociologist. But to me, that “well, fuck you, bitch!” or similar comments that often fly as soon as a woman rebuffs certain advances is the biggest clue about the real cause of street harassment. The men don’t lash out because of disappointment or embarrassment over having their sexual advances rejected. They’re angry because they just tried to put someone in her place, and that person refused to go there.
To me, believing that harassment is a factor of a man’s attraction to a woman is as unrealistic as believing that my chunky, long-sleeved purple zip-up is the sexiest thing in my wardrobe. People who think the harassment is about sexual allure or misguided attempts at romance and compliments have completely missed the point.
While I’m not necessarily onboard with the idea that harassment is a factor of male homophobia, Dr. Lewis still gets closer to the heart of the issue than anyone else when he writes about male fears of being ridiculed. The harassment is not about sex. It’s about status and power.
Take the incident a twenty-something friend shared on Facebook after she read my earlier post.
“Not long ago my mom was dropping me off at the train station, and two dudes starting making gross/sexual comments about her. I just turned to them and said, ‘THAT’S MY MOM.’ They stopped and apologized profusely, but after a few minutes they turned their harassment on ME…Fortunately the train soon arrived and I escaped.”
If we assume that men harass women because they’re after sex, we’d have to assume that in this situation, the men found a middle-aged woman accompanying her adult daughter an irresistible sexual prospect. Then, shortly after apologizing to the younger woman for their gross behavior, they realized that she, too, was really hot and decided to let her know it.
I think one of the comments from last week’s blog also proves my point. One woman replied that her attempted solution to the harassment she got as a teenager was to “wear baggy clothes, walk fast, make a glum face, and don’t look anyone in the eyes.”
The image of a person huddled in ill-fitting clothes, hurrying along with a gloomy demeanor, afraid to look anyone in the face, is the epitome of an individual who has been robbed of respect. All of the tips this woman gives for avoiding harassment are also the hallmarks of a person on the bottom rung of society.
And that’s why street harassment happens.
The man who seemed to admire me in my purple hoodie wasn’t trying to give my self-image a boost. He was, perhaps out of habit and not malicious personal intent, reminding me that I’m not a person on her way to work: instead, no matter what I wear or how I act, I’m an object for his appraisal.
One commenter on last week’s blog took Lane to task, for describing an incident in the comments in which she rolled her eyes and then resorted to rudeness after a group of guys began calling at her on the street at night. To make her willingness to defend herself clear to blog readers, she wrote that she would take her knee to someone who refused to leave her alone.
“You weren’t harassed,” one man responded to her story. “Your willingness to resort to physical violence makes you seem like the deadbeat.”
I replied that Lane was in the right to be rude to protect herself, and that women willing to defend themselves when threatened, physically if necessary, aren’t deadbeats.
“Shame on you,” he answered. He implied that Lane, by her behavior, was responsible for the guys’ negative attention.
“Rolling eyes is a provocative reaction that invites a response,” he said.
In this man’s view, there’s nothing wrong with a group of guys making unwanted advances on a young woman alone on a dark street. But for her to respond by rolling her eyes at them is unnecessarily “provocative” behavior. In this version of what is acceptable behavior for men and women, we can see the underlying power dynamics at play, and how they’re stacked decidedly against Lane.
Street harassment is more about perpetuating dominance than anything else. I see this not only in the men who harass women, but in the men I know who don’t.
These men don’t fail to harass women because they have a weak appreciation for the female form or have no sexual temptations. They don’t harass women because they have an abiding respect for other people. Where there is no need to put other people in their place, there is no harassment, sexual or otherwise.
But what do you think?