Street Harassment: My Thoughts

I wrote this article before a major shift in my thinking, but I’ll leave it here for transparency. I don’t know if I would write it now, but if I did it would not be focused around the gender binary and I would be more careful about loyalty to country/gender etc. It’s is nuanced – I like being what I am, but it is no better than that I were something else, nor am I more valuable for it.

I was reading a thread of tweets on a case of street harassment and it got me to thinking (feel free to read the account, below). It is, I think, a fairly normal account: man calls out to woman, man follows woman, woman brushes man off, man keeps following, woman brushes of again, main gets aggressive. It is an upsetting story and clearly one that shouldn’t happen.

My first response to these stories is nearly always the same. I am a human and like all humans I have a certain loyalty to those in my own “group”. I feel loyal to my family, to Christians, to the English, to the British, to Europeans and yes, to men. When a man does something bad, I almost always begin by attempting to justify how maybe it wasn’t that bad or maybe it was just this man who went off the rails. This is clearly problematic. It should be noted that I don’t think the above loyalty is bad – what’s wrong with being in favour of your family or nation – but that it must be tempered by greater things – the notions of truth and justice, a care for the oppressed.

The main issue with my response is that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I am not a woman. I have never been catcalled or harassed on the street. (I know it would be unpleasant but it’s not even easy to imagine myself in her shoes – if a woman showed interest in me on the street it be a compliment because it never happens). So now I would have to imagine what it must feel like to be harassed all the time and I’m not sure I can do that. I know it would be bad, but I struggle to put myself in that situation.) Likewise I have never catcalled or harassed a woman on the street. This is not due to feminist principles so much as never having wanted to. I don’t know what motivates men to do so (we’ll get to this later) so I don’t know what it is that I lack, but suffice it to say, if it is power, I don’t desire to force someone to talk to me. And if it is attraction, I’m a fairly numbers-focused evangelical Christian. The odds that a random woman on the street would be an evangelical Christian too are low, unless I’m walking around a Christian festival, in which case we cut to the chase and reveal that the idea of actively pursuing any kind of road-based romance terrifies and sickens me in equal measure (#slighthyperbole).

Picture of people at christian festival, Soul Survivor

I once mentioned Christian festivals at the pub and a woman literally choked up her drink

So back to the point. I’ve had an initial pro-men reaction which I’ve elected to ignore, followed by some reasoning on my complete lack of knowledge on the subject. A reasonable starting step seems to me to be to consider the injured party. Women say they are harassed on the street and that it is unpleasant. And this is not just a few women. I think it’s nearly all the women with whom I’ve discussed the subject and often to a much greater degree than I expect. In terms of the argument, it doesn’t seem credible to me that these women are lying and frankly I haven’t read anyone who accuses them of it. Street harassment seems universally disliked and almost universally experienced among the women I know. So why would we as a society condone an action that half of society hates? Is there any social benefit? Like, a lot of it?

Again I draw a blank. Now, I haven’t gone looking, but I imagine there are some men somewhere who say that shouting at women across the road is the best thing since sliced bread. This doesn’t satisfy me. Clearly there are other ways of dating women, you can get to know some through social activities, you can use an app, you can ask some of your female friends to introduce you to some. If men and women only met while walking the streets of inner cities, maybe we would have to cede a necessary social function to this unpleasant activity, but that’s not the case. There are clearly other options, and those ones don’t upset women.

The second argument would seem to be something along the lines of “Why can’t I tell her she’s pretty”. Now as I’ve said, I personally don’t understand why you’d want to do this on the street, but if you do, this argument seems to work based on social propriety: It’s good to compliment people and you can’t control it if they get upset. But that doesn’t make sense to me either – social propriety is a set of rules we create to all get along. If someone gets upset when you buy them a birthday card, that’s on them, but if the majority of a majority of the population hates the activity in question, maybe it shouldn’t be proper, maybe it should be socially improper. And what’s more, maybe you never cared about it being social proper in the first place. Let’s remember also, that because a proportion (which I don’t know) of men get aggressive/violent if refused, women are given no clue as to how men will respond if they are turned down, which makes the initial “compliment” likely all the more unnerving.

As we do this, it seems to me we force the discussion closer and closer to whether it is merely an exercise of power on the part of men. Once we get there the game is up – there is nothing moral or worthwhile in that explanation and I imagine if it was commonly agreed that street harassment was about power then it would probably stop. (I mean if it was actually known, can you imagine a frank discussion in which men admitted “I know we only do this for the sake of our own egos but we just think we are more valuable than you are”) It seems to me that if there is self deception going on here then it is what is keeping the street harassment boat afloat.

I’m not seeking to paint catcallers into a corner – if my logic is right, they are already painted in

Finally then, it seems to me you might argue it was a game of risk and reward. None of this is about the men who get violent, clearly their behavior is unacceptable. But for the other men, a thousand brush offs are balanced out by the chance that one woman might actually respond positively. Since the women that turn them down choose not to value them, the men give them no value in return and hence it’s okay to annoy a thousand valueless people in a row. As with much of this, this argument is almost completely alien to me. People have value. Full stop. We don’t get to choose who is valuable and who isn’t.

I have a feeling this won’t cut the mustard with those who disagree, so perhaps I’ll put it like this. Imagine there was a guy a work, who if you didn’t laugh at his jokes, didn’t consider you worth his time. Maybe you’d think he’s a bit of an asshole, but you’d just ignore each other. Now imagine that when you didn’t laugh at his jokes, he got angry or aggressive. Now the guy is a total douche-bag, insecure and probably the sort of person you would hate to have to work with. If you think street harassment is okay, it seems to me you are a version of guy. At best, if you always leave women alone after that initial brush off, you don’t care about the feelings of the women who aren’t attracted to you. At worst, if you carry on after that first brush off, you as bad as the most unreasonable man you’ve ever met.

Ahh, but Nathan, you say, I’m just paying compliments. That’s not like forcing someone to laugh at my jokes. But you aren’t paying compliments to people who want to hear them – only a very small percentage of people you speak to (from what I’ve heard) actually like your compliments. And by not taking those people’s feelings into account, you have chosen not to care about them. And why have you done that? Because of their lack of attraction to you. You’ve made their feelings for you be the sole judge of your treatment of them. And much like angry joke guy, women have free choice whether to choose to like you. To like me. To like any of us, as men. If we use that choice as the basis of whether or not to treat them as they would like to be treated, we are behaving like the guy who forces everyone to laugh at his jokes, who from our experience might become aggressive and violent at the drop of a hat. We would not appreciate jokes from that guy, not even funny ones. That’s like shouting “Mike” at everyone in the hope that occasionally you’ll get it right.

Henry VIII

Take my mate Henry, he’s hilarious, when he makes a joke, everyone loses their heads

It is not even obvious that this final case is even true, but like all the other cases clearly it is unjustifiable. Women do not like to be treated like this and there is no good reason that I can see as to why men ought to do it. It is indefensible on the grounds of necessity, social propriety, power dynamics or risk and reward. It is a thing that most of the women I’ve talked to strongly dislike and something no one I’ve talked to has every come up with a good defense of. It is the behavior of an asshole. So let’s just stop doing it.

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