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Witnessing Street Harassment As A Straight Male

12/09/2016 17:00
JackF via Getty Images

Used to experiencing prejudice as a youngish baldie, Scott Manley Hadley begins noticing it elsewhere.

I'm a straight, white, male, so I don't get sexually harassed. And though I don't see it, though I don't do it, though most (I couldn't vouch for all) of my straight male friends don't do it either, all the women I know experience street harassment on a regular basis.

I say I don't see it, I didn't see it, not until recently.

I was driving through the city one hot Summer night and heard, clear, loud, and shouted across the grey road:

"Leave me alone, you f*cking paedo, I'm f*cking fourteen."

In the rear view mirror I saw three male figures on one side of the road, all tall, wearing hoodies, two smoking, the third leaning on the handlebar of a BMX. Opposite were two girls, half their height, one in double denim. My eyes wide, my thoughts racing, I sat in the car for several minutes once I arrived home.

My first feeling was a sisterly, feminist, pride. 'Right on,' I thought, pleased this young woman had shouted back with righteous anger at a sexist stranger. Tell him off, shoot him down, own yourself!

But then: 'Oh, god,' I thought, 'This isn't a young woman, this is a girl who's just experienced a big, strong, stranger looking at her body and harassing her ACROSS A ROAD.' I felt deep pity and horror for the child, repulsed by the world that we live in, where even the bodies of children are desired.

However, I then considered that maybe the victim was a young woman, who had a stock response to make harassers feel bad - no man wants to be seen as a paedophile. 'Hit him where it hurts, sister!' I thought, before this feeling also crumbled into dust.

If a young woman has developed a coping strategy for street harassment, this means she needs one. I asked some female friends, and they all have them. They cross over roads when passing building sites, they take taxis to avoid bus stops, they fake phone calls, they wear headphones with no music on, they consider how likely street harassment is when choosing their clothes.

And that is f*cking bleak.

When a woman is harassed on the street it is never her fault, never her intention. But it is not just the harasser who is to blame, but also the society that condones his behaviour. Especially to blame are the liberal, feminist men like me who ignore it when it happens beside us. We ignore it because it's normal, because we've seen it so many times it barely registers. It was only when I heard a woman screaming in the dark that I started paying attention.

I was wrong to say I'd never witnessed street harassment before. I'd just never noticed it. Because now I see it every day, and all that's changed is me.

There are plenty of male feminist keyboard warriors retweeting for change, but that's not enough. Liking feminist posts on Facebook but doing nothing more than rolling our eyes at our sexist mate's comments in the pub renders us useless.

Those of us who are big enough and strong enough (or shaven-headed thug-looking enough) to not be intimidated by presumptive, aggressive men have to speak up, we have to call out our friends and we have to reprimand our brothers, not respond with a silence they see as permissive.

This all reminds me of an old song by West Midlands ska band The Specials, 'Racist Friend'. The central issue is different, but the politics of prejudice are the same. The lyric, which I'm going to end with, makes it clear that when you're the recipient of privilege (i.e. being a straight, white, man), not condemning prejudice is as bad as committing it. Every time I apathetically ignore a friend or colleague's sexist comment, I'm normalising my own silence and the other man's idea that he can behave like that unchallenged. Liberal, feminist, men have a responsibility to engage with our sexist acquaintances. We have to stop biting our tongues, no matter how socially unacceptable speaking out may feel.

I'm not intimidated by the average horny male. And if I don't use that for the greater good, I may as well be harassing women in the street, because my silence allows it to continue.

"Tell them to change their views", say The Specials,
"Or change their friends,
"Now is the time, now is the time, for your friendship to end."

Quite.

Scott Manley Hadley blogs, mainly about books, at TriumphoftheNow.com. This piece is part of a series on baldness and prejudice, other pieces here.

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