Why would men minimize or dismiss street harrassment?

By now, everyone with an internet connection is aware of the appalling video depicting a woman being harrassed on the street over 100 times in a single day. What’s striking to me is the reaction on the part of men who presumably would never participate in such overt harrassment. On the one hand, we get the by now familiar #NotAllMen approach, with one unfortunate tweep asking why no one notices the many men who didn’t harrass the poor woman. On the other hand, though, there are a variety of approaches to minimizing the harrassment — basically claiming that everyone is blowing it out of proportion and the woman should simply shrug it off.

Again, I’m willing to stipulate that all the men I’m describing would never actually harrass women on the street. Further, it’s clear that many men are absolutely desperate to believe that systemic patriarchy is actually just a matter of individual behavior on the part of men who they are not. We can see this in the claims that Islamic society as such is irredeemably sexist (whereas in the West, it’s purely a matter of individuals) or in the stereotype that only ethnic minorities or working-class people (i.e., not the enlightened) participate in such harrassment.

Why this investment in explaining it away, then? Why not simply scapegoat the harrassers? I think here we’re dealing with an unconscious acknowledgment that they are complicit with the structure that enables street harrassment. Even if they aren’t going to engage in such crass behavior, all these men are clearly going to be doing things that are along the same basic continuum. “Checking out” women, commenting on their appearance in conversation — are these not basically subtler versions of what the street harrasser does? Simply dismissing street harrassment as completely unacceptable opens up a potential slippery slope!

Even more, every heterosexual man benefits from a situation in which every woman is constantly reminded that she is regarded as a sexual object. There is considerable ambient pressure for women to adapt their appearance to male expectations, which results in a better aesthetic experience for men. Women even internalize these pressures, dressing in broadly man-pleasing ways “for themselves,” because it makes them feel more confident or put together — and if that doesn’t work, the fashion industry is happy to nudge women in that direction insofar as women’s clothing is by default more form-fitting and revealing than the equivalent garment for a man.

Everything conspires to push women toward making themselves visually pleasing for men, and the street harrasser is only the most visible symptom of this general trend. There is certainly something regrettable and uncouth about their behavior, but at the end of the day, they’re on “our” side. We may not agree with their tactics, but we share the same principles — and so we can opportunistically denounce them (in order to make our objectification techniques seem more acceptable by contrast) or explain them away (in order to naturalize the order of which they represent the outer fringe). In the last analysis, though, the street heckler is covered by the equivalent of a “no enemy on the left” principle. After all, without those brave men out there on the front lines every day, women might forget they exist to be ogled by men!

34 thoughts on “Why would men minimize or dismiss street harrassment?

  1. As a heterosexual man what would you have me do about it? I don’t justify the cat calling and I don’t do it. Should I travel thr streets of new york and challenge every man who does it to a duel?

  2. Just for reference, I responded sarcastically because your question was not at all at the level of what I was talking about. You individually can’t solve systemic problems. There’s no “right thing to do” when all of society is fucked.

  3. after watching this kinda shit, there’s lots of us who’d be happy to help you if yr having trouble with the knife… Seriously Wilson, is that the best you can come up with??
    I’m old. So I’m able to say that I just can’t tell you HOW utterly depressing it is to see where we’re at 30 years after I first took to the streets to Take Back the Night as an undergrad. If anybody had told me then how it would still be for my own 18 year old daughter today, I simply would not have believed them.

  4. I agree Adam, but that obviously doesn’t mean there aren’t wrong things to do, or that we should do nothing, which essentially was what Wilson is proposing. We’re all great at diagnosing how fucked society is, but that can’t just lead to resignation or despair, even if that’s how my own lament sounds. At 20, I stupidly but honestly thought that if my generation kept up the militance, then my daughters’ wouldn’t have to. But at least we militated. Now there’s a debate in a middle-class Toronto elementary school my friend’s kids go to over whether it’s ok to use the word feminist in front of the children. Apparently some people find it offensive. For fuck’s sake!

  5. Yeah, I know. I don’t either. I’ve been doing some serious soul-searching about what I work on. It seems utterly wrong that I’m putting my time, energy and intelligence into anything else but struggling against this. I have a lot of women friends and colleagues of my generation who’re asking themselves the same question, all with the same sense of horror and disbelief.

  6. I would contend that over exposure to brain dead idiots may be basing your reaction. I’m fortunate enough to not interact with those who respond in the way you describe, and having only recently seen this video, found the racial dimension horrifying and tone deaf.

  7. Seriously???! I’ll take your sexism, and raise you a racism?? Must I point out to Hill that the most universal form of oppression is the oppression of women? Why do I even need to say this?! Of course I take your point that there’s a problem with the race angle of the video, but how the fuck is that “more interesting”?? Try being a woman of colour – no, fuck it, any woman – walking down the street listening to this shit all day from random strangers who think it’s their right because they have a dick, or dealing with a LOT worse, because trust me, we all have – and then see how you feel about “scapegoating” poor black guys.
    Wilson, your question wasn’t serious, so it doesn’t deserve a serious answer. And why woud what I said make you be “happy for me”?? When you’re ready to offer a serious opinion, I’ll give you a serious answer.
    WTF people!!

  8. I’d like everybody on this blog to reflect on tone and content of Hill and Wilson’s responses, which only reinforce Adam’s point. I’m appalled and furious, and I won’t be making any more contributions to this discussion.

  9. I am merely echoing the comments of those offered by a woman who lives in Harlem and experiences the very type of street harassment depicted in the video. As she says, to the extent that this video is racist, it ought to be rejected. Why ought we be bullied into accepting a video that is so clearly racist? In this blog post, Adam is saying “if you have any qualms about this video, you are a piece of shit.” I’m pushing back on that, and if you can’t see the reason and humanity in that sentiment, I’m not sure what to say. There are ways of speaking out and rejecting street harassment without invoking on literally deadly racist tropes.

  10. I mean seriously why pick this video? Why is this particular video the litmus test that if you don’t accept unequivocally, you are a sexist pig? It’s because you got trolled incredibly hard on Twitter. It’s the only explanation.

  11. “Street harassment is such a huge problem, that if you aren’t willing to affirm overt racism to speak out against it, you are a morally compromised human being.”

  12. And I’d add that it is almost entirely my encounters with women of color on Twitter that have formed the opinions I’m voicing here. I was actively avoiding the video for as long as I could.

  13. Ok, I said I wasn’t going to comment again, but I can’t leave it with Hill ventriloquizing women of colour. The problem of the video’s racism, in a city like NYC, is a serious one, which I’d never dispute. But it’s missing the point of my larger argument. You can’t forgive sexism because you might be racist in doing so. Women of colour on Twitter protesting it’s racism doesn’t mean that there isn’t a culture that encourages violence against women in poor African-American communities, only that a video like this lets white men off the hook, and makes women of colour have to chose between two evils. But that doesn’t make the one not chosen any less evil! The only reason it’s being talked about is because it’s gone viral. There are many others on the same subject which I’d rather have seen go viral, but they didn’t. This is an interesting question, but it’s not more interesting and it deflects the entire conversation away from the problem of sexual harrassment and violence against women. Seriously, talk to the poor brown girls in Lagos or Delhi or Cairo… I could keep listing…So no, it’s NOT more interesting or problematic – it’s another way of silencing women of colour on the problem of gendered violence and letting white liberal men think that the important discussion is elsewhere. Moreover, my post was clearly not about the content of the video, but about the ongoing lived reality of sexism and gendered violence and my reflections on the backlash 30 years after my youthful optimism.

  14. And anybody has any doubt about terrible cultures of sexism and violence against women amongst western white men and their various sub-cultures, try college frats, Gamergate, or internet trolling. It’s a whole other level of violent misogyny.

  15. I reject my “interesting/problematic” formulation entirely. It was a throwaway rhetorical device, and I was still collecting information when I said it (I literally hadn’t watched the video… just read the accounts I’ve described). But I took this blog post to be about this particular video, and I intend my remarks to be limited to the wisdom of having a conversation about street harassment that takes this video as the entirety of the issue, or even an essential part of it.

    Again, this blog post, the one we are all commenting on, implies that an unconditional, uncritical support of this video is required for anyone who would hope to avoid hopeless chauvinism. I hope it’s clear how problematic that is. Ruth, I can almost guarantee that you and I have no substantive disagreements on the severity of the problem of street harassment, but I think taking up this particular video as an essential part of that conversation is a mistake, and the communities that actually have skin in that game have explained why more eloquently than I have. I simply refuse to pit one marginalized community against another to advance a cause. As horrifying as this video is, I’ve seen a black man killed in broad daylight by police in the same city. He might have even been a chronic street harasser. That was pretty horrifying, too.

    Seriously, though, who is silencing woman of color? I’M LINKING TO WHAT THEY ARE SAYING. Next time I will just anonymously post links without comment. I’m trying to summarize it as fairly as possible. Maybe you don’t agree with them, but you are being totally unfair to me in that regard. I felt like Adam had made a serious oversight in this post and I was trying to respond to that effect.

    It honestly wasn’t clear what your comment was about (the video or the larger issue), but this blog post is substantively about that video and people’s reactions to it. That’s what I was addressing. I hadn’t even read your comment when I responded. Just so it’s clear: I’ve been talking about the video the whole time, in direct response to the content of this blog post. You subsequently attributed all manner of ill will to me on the basis of three sentences.

  16. And yes! Ban all frats and gamer gate is probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen on the internet. That doesn’t change the fact that this video is dangerously racist. I think that is an objective fact for anyone with eyes to see.

  17. It’s exactly because gender oppression as a global phenomenon that any “interesting” or productive analysis has to focus on how it is being articulated specifically–in the context of the US and New York, that means, at a minimum, race and class. It’s not an issue of ‘priority.’ In this case, it’s relevant that “protect the white women” is a classic trope of Nazi and US propaganda (used to oppress and murder certain groups of women and men on behalf of other women and men).

    On that topic, it’s disturbing how ready people are (were, now that the Slate piece about the race angle came out) to just accept this as a naturally occurring slice of reality, and not a produced video. Some people did immediately suspect the video as edited in just this way–I wasn’t one of them, but I consider that a failure, to have not been more sensitized to how it promotes/coincides with a certain worldview and set of expectations about race (in addition to gender).

  18. I don’t intend to make this video itself a litmus test. I’m talking about the responses that have used the video as an occasion to minimize or dismiss the problem of street harrassment in general. The racist editing does render the video itself very problematic, but if we’re laser-focused on the problem of street harrassment in itself, the net result of the editing is that she was harrassed even more often than the video portrayed.

  19. Street harassment is a problem and it is a bigger problem in some places than others. People should not harass other people in the street. Pretty clearly there are cultural controls on street harassment so some more of that please.

    There is some harassment of the “please perform femininity better” variety (“smile”). But in general, harassment pushes women to cover up. The main way that non-harassing heterosexual men benefit from street harassment is that it stops when they are around.

  20. I’m happy to refrain from further discussion of the particulars of the video, if you want, but I think it’s an important discussion, and I want to add that it’s not really about the editing. Street harassment as a particular form of misogynistic harassment is primarily an “urban,” lower-class phenomenon, which is to say, brown and black. So even if it was the case that in 10 hours, not a single white male street harasser emerged, the video would still be racist. Street harassment is a part of a larger (world-dominating and totally inisidious) complex of misogyny. What we have here is an organization that self-describes as a “startup” and has VC funding and a white dude viral video specialist creative director making a video that is already getting favorable press on Fox News. Also keep in mind that the way NYC solves the problem of white people’s discomfort when walking down the street is by systematically harassing and sometimes killing black people. This video has chosen literally the least powerful participants in misogyny to attack on the subject of street harassment, which on the list of “bad things that men to do women” must be closer to the bottom than the top, right? (Honestly correct me if I’m wrong about this.)

    Like I said, I’ve avoided the cess pool of reactions (thankfully) that seem to have motivated this post, but clearly, it’s this video that is the locus of outrage, and I think we ought to be more circumspect about why it has been so effective in that regard.

  21. Perhaps, instead of “an unconscious acknowledgment that they are complicit with the structure that enables street harrassment,” we can attribute a bit more self-awareness, ala Zizek, to the ideological subject: the “explainers” are rather promoting an “Actor–observer asymmetry” in which a complicity with the social structure is consciously acknowledged.


    What is an “unconscious acknowledgement” exactly? Seems contradictory.

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