For Men Who Don't Mean Anything By It
Sexual harassment matters.
Sexual harassment sounds such a formal term, it sounds like a case at an employment tribunal. Everyone knows that sexual harassment is wrong and most probably illegal and certainly not politically correct. But an awful lot of people think that men sexually harassing women in the street is just harmless banter and that to be concerned or outraged by this is some sort of bourgeois indulgence or privileged first world problem.
It is right to be outraged by the normality of street sexual harassment, it matters. It matters even when men don't mean anything by it. It matters even when it was only meant as a compliment. It matters even when it was just a joke.
All those men who say that they are not that kind of man and that they would never hurt a woman and that they don't mean anything by the odd comment - should use their heavy male brains to think some more original thoughts than an assessment of the size of a passing woman's breasts.
Because it is constantly necessary for feminists to justify themselves and their perspective, I'll just make it clear here that I'm not talking about reciprocal flirting or welcomed compliments. Of course, people of all sexual orientations may want to flirt with and compliment each other, including in public spaces. That's mutually desired, positive and engaged in freely by both parties. That's a different thing to a stranger leering at you in the street.
Some men say that they genuinely only intend their uninvited barking as a compliment. So chivalrous are these men, so strong does the heart of a knight beat in their manly chests that they have an uncontrollable reaction when any fair female crosses their line of vision and they are forced, forced by nature to assure her of her physical attractiveness. Boosting her esteem and greatly enhancing her evening no doubt.
Perhaps some men do believe this. Perhaps some women believe it. Indeed, some women report that they do find such comments flattering. Of course, it's hard to separate that out from the years of cultural conditioning that teach women to value and judge themselves based on their level of perceived attractiveness to men, but anyway. The point is that no man knows how a comment is going to be received, regardless of his intent. The passing woman in the street doesn't know his intent, she doesn't know him. He's just a stranger shouting at her in the street. A male stranger. Sadly, that phrase has an almost mythical quality for women, from girlhood, a mythical quality that far aggrandises the banal, baying and uncivil behaviours of many men on a regular Friday night.
What if that woman in the street is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse? What if that woman is on her first night out after being victim to an attack? What if that woman was raped last week, last year? What if that woman is anxious about being on her own and has got separated from her friends? Or, what if none of these things have happened, but she's just enjoying a night out and would prefer it not to be interrupted by some oaf making personal comments about her? How are these comments taken? What message is being sent?
Many women are alarmed, angered and/or frightened by sexual harassment in the street. It can often be threatening and it can feel threatening. Women don't know that this guy isn't one of those kinds of men, they don't know that he likes kittens and is really good to his mum. They don't know that he won't follow them down the street, or try to grope them as they pass. While he has a laugh and moves on, those women might wander on seemingly unperturbed, but they might surreptitiously be looking for their keys to hold in their fist, or pretending to take a phone call or crossing to the other side of the road. He may not even notice; such is the level of unexamined privilege that what's quickly forgotten banter to him might last a whole journey home for the woman.
There's quite a lot of risk involved in this interaction, for the woman, not for the man. What's the worst that can happen to him? She might shout back with some witty riposte she's thought up for just this occasion. She might laugh or make a comment about his appearance in return. Or she might just ignore it. She's not going to physically attack him, or truly demean him, or report him to the police, he's not committing a crime after all. While there are numerous risks for the woman, there are rewards for the man.
Because, of course it really isn't about the woman, it's about the man, his identity and his standing amongst other men. We may academise about the 'male gaze' - the extent that women are sexually objectified in culture leading to them internally judging themselves and grading their appearance in the same way. But men see themselves with a sort of male gaze as well, they internally judge themselves by the standards of some scrutinising external male who appears to do masculinity better than them and they seek to measure up.
Shouting at women in the street is a collective, communal activity for men in a group. It forges a shared identity and camaraderie - an identity defined against the woman, in contrast to the woman, at the expense of the woman. These actions reinforce the predator/prey dynamic and many men love to think of themselves as wolves running together in their pack, sniffing out females. Outside of this romanticised Iron John bullshit the reality is just pathetic, but sadly persistent as a gender marker, gender display and reinforcement of sex rank.
Men might say it doesn't mean anything, but it does, and they know it really. That's why they do it, they get something from it. What they get is a laugh or a kick, a thrill. That's about power. The thing about power in our culture is that it's usually something you have over other people. If you are getting a power kick out of something, that usually means you're kicking someone else, and disempowering them in the process. Sexual harassment is about entitlement, and the entitlement so many men feel to treat women like property is a legacy of centuries of formal and informal erasure and control. Feeling intimidated and harassed shouldn't be part of a normal night out, it's not normal. It is a daily reminder of how urgent women's liberation remains.
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