Cynthia Bowman, “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women,” A Retrospective

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I can hardly believe that this terrific law review article was published almost 15 years ago. I was reminded of it when I stumbled upon this Salon essay by Debra Dickerson in the course of some research. Dickerson wrote:

… In her article, Bowman labels street harassment a grueling, humiliating and frightening fact of women’s lives “that has not generally been viewed by academics, judges or legislators as a problem requiring legal redress, either because these mostly male observers have not noticed the behavior or because they have considered it trivial and thus not within the proper scope of the law.” It’s certainly the case that many men haven’t noticed it. When I discussed this article at our staff meeting, a male colleague asked, “Are you saying that when you leave this office, say to go to lunch, you’ll be harassed?” He was shocked.

In her first-of-its-kind academic article, Bowman proposed an anti-harassment ordinance, featuring a $250 fine, “but, if I had it to do again,” she said, “I might leave that out. It was an afterthought. Everyone fixated on the ordinance, but that’s just the kind of thing you do in a law review article, you propose a remedy. I just wanted to stimulate discussion of how the law too often ignores women.” Stimulate discussion she did. She was denounced from one corner of America to another as the epitome of political correctness and feminism run amok, then held aloft as an icon by legions of pissed-off women who wanted her to go even further. “I was astonished by the response,” the rueful professor said this week, tired from grading end-of-year exams. …

Both the article and the essay are interesting and provocative reads. Sadly, most of what they describe doesn’t seem to have changed at all since publication of Bowman’s piece. And while we are on the subject of sexual harassment and long ago law review articles, here is a short excerpt from Duncan Kennedy’s 1992 article entitled Sexual Abuse, Sexy Dressing and the Eroticization of Domination (26 New Eng.L. Rev. 1309) (can’t find a free link to the full text, sorry):

… According to Catharine MacKinnon, the traits of women identified by Carol Gilligan in her studies — empathy, the “relational” as opposed to rights focus, contextuality as opposed to abstraction, and so forth — are the strategies of victims who must minimize their vulnerability to abuse of various kinds. If women are empathic, it is because they have to be alert to the moods of the dangerous men in their lives; if they are relational, it is because they need solidarity to deal with the constant reality or threat of violence. If they shun abstraction, it is because men control the textual universe of abstraction in ways that disempower and disadvantage them when they try to enter it.

The theory suggests that the idealization of these feminine traits, by cultural feminists as well as by traditionalists, plays into the interests of men because the traits are empowering only or mainly within the context of liberal patriarchy. If the goal is to challenge and change the regime, such traits are problematic, since they involve renouncing the male-defined techniques of power that anchor the system. For this reason, it is in the larger interest of men that women should embrace an essentialist understanding of themselves as bearers of these passive virtues, even if it means men are less powerful in particular interactions at the micro-level than they might be if women were less empathic and relational.

It is not surprising, in this view, that women with these traits tend to accept the unconscionable bargain proposed by the culture as a whole and by “right wing women” ideologists in particular. The bargain is: A “real” woman is heterosexual, monogamous, maternal, submissive to her man and sexually pleasing to him. If she manages to be or to appear to be these things, she can claim in return her man’s protection, backed by the legal system if necessary, from other men.

Street hassling sometimes seems to say: “Have a man with you as your protector, in which case we’ll leave you alone because that’s the appropriate way for women to be on the street. If you choose to present yourself as a single woman, then you have to deal with our conception of what single women are which is up for grabs. You choose yourself to be hassled. But the minute you have a man with you, we wouldn’t dream of bothering you. You won’t have to worry. So get yourself a man.”

Incest, rape, the sexual enslavement of prostitutes, domestic battery, and sexual harassment in the workplace are all targeted, according to this theory; they put “teeth” into the message of street hassling. They do this because playing the submissive role in a conventional marriage seems like an obvious and sometimes effective way to prevent them. Sometimes effective is enough; the culture teaches that the risk is reduced even if these things can happen to any woman anywhere.

In this light, the female roles in the scripts of sexual abuse take on a new importance. They are not “just” stereotypes. The provocateur, the vindictive liar, the hysterical inventor and the over-sensitive woman all fail to keep their part of the bargain and therefore forfeit patriarchal protection. Watching women victims victimized again in the legal process or just in the media teaches men and women that redress for sexual abuse is conditional on being or appearing to be a “perfect” victim, and that means conforming to patriarchal norms. …

I should also note that in the very next paragraph he refers to Andrea Dworkin’s book Intercourse “wild, brilliant [and] subtle…” even though he goes on to disagree with much that she has written. How much nicer the blogosphere would be if this kind of collegiality was more common, and there was less blog harassment of everybody and by everybody, feminists included. I’m very glad and lucky that academia is my primary gig, rather than blogging per se.

–Ann Bartow

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0 Responses to Cynthia Bowman, “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women,” A Retrospective

  1. ssladler says:

    “Sadly, most of what they describe doesn’t seem to have changed at all since publication of Bowman’s piece.”

    Is that true? What would we measure to test this? The past is a different world, and I don’t know if we can just count on reflection to compare the way it is now to the way it was then.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    Well, if you read the Bowman article, you will see that she charts the way that the legal system ignores or frustrates women who want to use the law to address the problem. So we can “measure” whether there are improved legal mechanisms in place. And in my observation based opinion, and I do follow this area fairly closely, for the most part, there aren’t. Why in the world would you think I was “just count[ing] on reflection”? Unfortunately, when it comes to this issue, the past is not a different world at all, see e.g.
    http://www.streetharassmentproject.org/

  3. ssladler says:

    Ohh.. I didn’t mean changes in the legal system, I meant changes in the levels of street harassment. Since there seems to be quite a bit of geographic variation (just from anecdote), without much legal variation (since there are practically no laws against it, as Bowman notes), I suspect there has also been some variation over time. It would be interesting to see what leads to a change in the levels.

    To tie back into your post of harassment and football games, I bet there’s some sort of general equilibrium effect. Imagine that there are two types of women in the world: high-status women who are rich and powerful and harassing them is very dangerous and low-status women who it is relatively safe to harass. Now picture a society in which the only women who went outside without a male “escort” were the high-status type. The reaction of men from seeing a woman alone would probably be very different from a world in which only low-status women went out alone. But, if getting a male escort is costly, of course, the first world would never be sustainable in equilibrium because low-status women would try to freeride and pretend to be the rich and powerful women. But the second world would be sustainable, since no high-status woman would be willing to go on her own, since she would be mistaken for a low-status woman and harassed.

    Now there are several ways we could lower the level of harassment in this world. We could make it dangerous to harass the low-status women too, by passing a anti-harassment law and enforcing it, this would lead to no women using escorts at all, but would be costly to enforce. We could transform some of the low-status women into high-status women, it’s not real clear what this would cost.. depends on what this “status” is exactly. Or we could raise the cost of the male escort so much that even the high-status women go without them. This makes it risky for potential harassers, since they might get a high-status woman by accident, so some of them will not be willing to take the chance.

    My question, after all that wind, is which of these (or some other thing) accounts for variation in the level of harassment geographically/historically? I think “reflection” is a good start, as are the stories collection by the street harassment project, but what we really need are data.