When people talk about “street harassment,” they are usually talking about a man harassing a woman he doesn’t know in a public place. They are usually talking about a man doing things like whistling, cat-calling, or offering crude commentary about a woman’s appearance or demeanor. In a classic article, Cynthia Grant Bowman documented both the grave harm and the terrible banality of such harassment; her work even validated the experiences of victims by envisioning a legal remedy for their injuries.
Surely the dynamic of the harassing man and the victimized woman is integral to the phenomenon of street harassment. But I this binary formulation is far too simple. Street harassment is the expression of complex and overlapping social dynamics, encompassing not only gender, but also race and class, and perhaps other identity categories as well. Race and class often mark a woman for harassment, or figure in the epithets directed her way. But the race and class of her harasser are also significant.
Understandably, in light of the serious harm that street harassment inflicts, organizations such as Hollaback encourage women to seize power from their harassers by confronting them and by sharing their stories online. Hollaback also encourages women to take pictures of their harassers and post them, along with the location of the harassment, even providing an iPhone app to facilitate this undertaking. I embrace the first two components of the project, but cannot help but feel ambivalent about the third. Scrolling through the Hollaback forums, one quickly notices that the vast majority of photographed harassers appear to be men of color, poor, possibly homeless. Many of the stories describe behavior by harassers that, while frightening and grossly inappropriate, also suggests mental illness.
Men who harass women in the street are often themselves profoundly disempowered. Think of those who spend the most time in the street: They tend to be poor, and, in this country, the poor tend to be racial minorities. These are generalizations, of course, subject to variation and exception. But many of the perpetrators of street harassment are also victims of systematic disadvantage resulting from the structural mechanisms that continually reproduce race- and class-based subordination. In many instances the woman who suffers harassment is—at least from the standpoint of race and class—relatively privileged, and is seen as privileged by her harasser. This does not make her an appropriate target for harassment, but it does complicate our reading of her harasser’s behavior. The harassment begins to look less like a self-congratulatory exultation in masculine power and more like a bitter protest against lifelong disadvantage.
Let me be very clear: I do not in any way mean to discount the injury suffered by women harassed in the street. The helpless rage and lingering fear that women experience as the result of sexualized—or simply sex-based—harassment in the street are real and serious harms. Nor do I mean to excuse the behavior of harassers in any way. Street harassment is sexist, threatening, profoundly disempowering, and utterly indefensible.
But our understanding of the source of harassing behavior may change our response to that behavior. Why would we choose to impose a legal penalty on street harassers, but not on the far more privileged group of men whose more subtly sexist behavior also inflicts grave injury on the women they work and socialize with? Perhaps wealthy white men don’t bother to harass women on the street because their workplace subordinates or their cocktail waitresses or their housekeepers are more convenient targets. Such women are vulnerable to far more subtle forms of harassment: the boss need not yell crude sexual epithets when a raised eyebrow or a caustic comment suffices to cause his assistant to fear for the safety of her job. That sort of abuse is just as harmful as street harassment—perhaps more so, because the assistant’s economic livelihood depends on the relationship in a manner alien to street harassment—but no more legally actionable.
Acknowledging the tangled dynamics of street harassment adds an additional layer of complexity to the project of legal intervention. If we read street harassment as often the product of disempowerment for both harasser and victim, legal intervention offers a sorely limited response to what is only the most obvious manifestation of a much larger, deeper, and more serious problem.
It would be easier for everyone if street harassment were a simple story about privileged men harassing disadvantaged women. But that is not the story the unfolds in our streets.
- Nancy Leong