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Street harassment: What men can do to help

19 August 2014, 18:00

Lagos - Street harassment plagues women around the world, and it's time for men to help put an end to it.

I don't really walk in the street. In fact, I barely walk beyond my study, save to fuel myself with coffee and cat attention.

My renunciation of bipedal mobility is due primarily to a few years of living with a physical disability.

But, when I do walk in the street, my main concern is being mugged or held up, whether it will rain, and how long until I'm back in the cocooned safety of my study and cats.

What is not my main concern is having strangers yell at me, follow me with crude whispers, try to solicit sex, berate me for not giving them attention, touch me without permission, surround and isolate me.

Men twice my size do not grab my arm or threaten to rape me for not getting into their car, while nudging each other in the ribs or while driving past, getting angry when I ignore them.

And yet this is the reality women face everyday, in Western democracies and Muslim countries.

This is street harassment and it's seems to exist like another dimension sitting atop our current one; a world where violence drips off words from men's lips, distorting their perception of what they consider "compliments"; it's a place where you become an immediate target, not because of how much skin you're revealing, but rather how much of yourself you’re revealing as a woman.

Women in "full veil" in Muslim countries receive harassment and unwarranted solicitations for sex, just as their more liberal Western counterparts.

It’s not and never has been about what they’re wearing, but rather their mere presence as woman, propelled by the ubiquity of male entitlement.

The problem is that the targets of harassment are, mostly, the only ones who recognise it exists and the extent of the problem.

Indeed, probably many harassers themselves obviously don’t consider what they do harassment. Guys will label it “banter” or “compliments” – after all, don’t women like being told they’re pretty? She’s walking around in “that dress”, she wants to be noticed!

And if men are not actually catcalling, they’re denying it exists or that it’s a problem. This is just typical “feminist whining”.

While it’s true that some – some – people enjoy attention and compliments of random strangers, there’s no guarantee that attention is always welcome. There’s no guarantee a simple one-word appreciation will remain that.

The idea of going up to a stranger to comment on her appearance should be first considered creepy and unwanted – enjoying such a compliment should be considered, by men, as an exception.

And we don’t base actions on exceptions, on the least likely events, but what is most likely to occur, right? If so, we’d never fly in airplanes, drive cars, etc.

Street harassment and the reaction to it are both a problem.

Take a moment to listen to what women say and experience.

Again: this is what makes it so strange, why it seems like another world sitting atop our own.

How can this happen in broad daylight in so-called civil societies? What kind of person thinks it OK to treat other people this way, even when confronted?

What’s awful, too, when you watch people like “Lindsey” confront her harassers is the respect her non-existent male companion gets.

Yes: When she asks her harassers “Would you say and do those things if I was with a male companion?” men consistently say “Of course not”. As if it’s the most obvious thing in the world – because it is!

Except that they’re restricting the obvious respect everyone deserves – regardless of gender – to one particular gender: their own.

Women get respect by proxy: in their relation to men, as if they’re the men’s possessions, not because they themselves deserve it.

When “Lindsey” asks why men get respect but not women, these dudes cannot mount any reason. They stumble and fumble. They’ve never considered why women are always to be pursued, except when they’re “owned” by men.

When they can see the leash has a hand, they back away not realising there is no leash in the first place – because women are people, not possessions or pets.

It’s hard to know what other men can do about this.

The first, I think, is to get men to realise this is a problem. A ubiquitous, ongoing, ever-present problem maintained by men that doesn’t discriminate based on dress, attitude, etc. It’s primed by entitlement to women’s bodies, which lands up in seemingly innocent gestures men make at strangers.

Consider the classic “Why don’t you smile?”, said with puppy eyes and made out to be cute. It’s actually horrible.

Non-smiling women are commanded by men to smile because they’ll “look prettier”, as if “being pretty in the presence of strange men” is a woman’s highest priority.

Again: no consideration that maybe, as a person, she doesn’t want to smile. That maybe it’s her damned face and she do whatever she wants with it, thanks?

Men need to recognise the mere action of commenting on a stranger’s appearance in the street – or gym, or workplace, etc. - directly to that person is a pretty gross violation of her sense of safety and security.

You may not think so, but ask women themselves what they think.

As indicated, plenty are raising their voices about this being a problem so maybe theirs are the voice to use as default, not yours.

Sure: they’re exceptions, but even people who don’t mind strangers coming from nowhere to comment on their appearance don’t always feel secure, don’t always exist in safe environments, etc.

This doesn’t mean men should never do say anything, only that you should take two seconds to consider whether this situation, right now, aimed at a person you don’t know, who’s merely moving through locations or doing their job or working out, is the right one.

How about things called “parties” - that other people are always going to? How about dates or speed dates? How about online dating?

We’re not talking about telling a woman you’re on friendly terms with you think she’s beautiful when she displays up a photograph of herself (though, this can also be done badly too); we’re talking about commenting on a complete stranger’s appearance and expecting her to be nice and receptive to it.

Second, don’t allow it to happen. More men should speak up when it occurs.

This is definitely the case if it’s your friends, with other men who aren’t likely to hurt you physically if you step in. We should be doing this when anyone is unfairly targeted, for their gender, race, sexuality, etc.

The difficulty here is, of course, numerous: Treating women as fragile princesses who need a brave knight to defend them, going up against brutish oafs who knock you to the pavement, wanting some kind of “reward” other than making spaces safer for more people, etc.

I don’t know what the best way is when it involves strangers.

Suggestions I’ve encountered are: if you’re with like-minded friends, you turn the tables and make the catcaller the target of catcalls; that you stress to the harasser he’s making everyone uncomfortable, not just the woman he’s targeting.

Another great example is to engage with the target with something innocuous, like asking the time – as horrible as it is, when a harasser sees her engaged with another man, he’s likely to stop.

It shouldn’t be this way. But men have an advantage when it comes to other men and the failure to speak up – to friends, in articles, on social media, to harassers, etc. – helps create a border of acceptance, enclosing apathy and allowing harassment to continue.

Women shouldn’t be doing this by themselves, just as members of the LGBT community shouldn’t be the only ones defending their existence.

Yes, it’s horrible if men use harassment as an excuse to themselves harass, but we can’t use that as an excuse to be silent. True: we don’t want to be adding to a situation to make a targeted woman feel worse, but time and again, silence is worse than inaction.

Why isn’t the hesitance of crowd opposition something that worries harassers?

They can continue their behaviour in broad daylight because the environment is such that it perpetuates: no one speaks up, women are isolated. Women’s discomfort is usually sufficient grounds for it to continue.

As Tiffanie Drayton puts it: “This discomfort is often internalized and so passively condoned, empowering the aggressors in not only continuing their harassment but justifying their behavior.”

She’s not saying anything, therefore she must like it. Rinse and repeat.

Silence is treated as condoning from the outside world; denial is seen as hard to get.

No means yes.

This is the ugly world harassers have immersed themselves in and it’s time to burst it open with public moral action.

Don’t do it because women “need saving”, women are “fragile”, etc. Do it because people deserve respect and you would speak up if anyone was targeted unfairly.

Indeed, that’s how we need to always frame catcalls: unfair targeting by virtue of being a woman.

And it needs to end now, and more men should doing something about it. The first step is realising it’s an actual problem – even if you never do it or you’ve never seen it.

And considering the invention of the Internet, you can’t really have a claim to the latter.


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