Friday, December 9, 2011

Stranger sexual harassment part 1

You're walking down the street when a car drives by and a man's voice yells, "ow-owwww!" You're in a crowded bar when you feel someone grab your ass. You turn around and have no idea who it was. You're on BART late at night after an Oakland Raiders game when two drunk Raiders fans twice your age start asking you about your sex life and begin discussing how they'd "pound you" if you went home with them. When you decline, they call you a dyke.

Part I will discuss the concept of stranger/street harassment and how it affects women. Part II will discuss anecdotal stories of real stranger harassment and how some countries have decided to deal with it.

Stranger sexual harassment, or "street harassment" is no new phenomenon. When women go out in public, they frequently experience men ogling, cat-calling, yelling sexual propositions, commenting on their bodies, groping them, and raping them. I have personally experienced nearly all of these, and many of my female friends have as well. While other forms of sexual harassment have been considered a problem large enough to garner the attention of the academic, legislative, and judicial communities (see the Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark Supreme Court cases dealing with sex discrimination and sexual harassment), street harassment has been largely ignored.

Cynthia Grant Bowman's 1993 article in the Harvard Law Review describes stranger harassment as including
Both verbal and nonverbal behavior, such as wolf-whistles, leers, winks, grabs, pinches, catcalls, and stranger remarks; the remarks are frequently sexual in nature and comment evaluatively on a woman's physical appearance or on her presence in public.
She suggests that the ignorance of street harassment results from the fact that there is no legal recourse; a woman can't sue a stranger who gropes her and then disappears. She refers to Robin West's depiction of street harassment as a disempowering injury:

Women suffer unpunished and uncompensated sexual assaults continually...Although we have a trivializing phrase for these encounters - "street hassling" - these assaults are not at all trivial. They are frightening and threatening whispered messages of power and subjection...Yet, men who harass women on the street are not apprehended, they are not punished, the victims are not compensated, and no damages are paid. The entire transaction is entirely invisible to the state.

Furthermore, Deirdre Davis suggests in her article that street harassment is essentially sexual terrorism that intensifies the fear of rape and that the trivialization of it causes women not to talk about it, reinforcing its invisibility and effects. Street harassment has become so globally pervasive that women accept it as part of every-day life, even becoming complicit in it.

Kimberly Fairchild and Laurie Rudman's article states that, until 2008, the only attempt to document the differences between unwanted sexual attention from strangers and people known to the victim was done in 2000, using data collected from a national sample of Canadian women through the Violence Against Women Survey. It revealed that "stranger harassment is more prevalent than non-stranger harassment and that stranger harassment more strongly influences fear of victimization:" 85% of women reported experiencing stranger harassment while 51% reported experiencing non-stranger sexual harassment, and, "Stranger harassment reduces feelings of safety while walking alone at night, using public transportation, walking alone in a parking garage, and while home alone at night."

How do women respond to stranger harassment? Interestingly, and not surprising to me, Fairchild and Rudman explain that research suggests that most women are likely to respond passively and non-assertively to stranger harassment. Less than 20% of women use assertive or active coping strategies. Most commonly, women simply ignore harassment or attempt to avoid the harasser.

Fairchild and Rudman sought to expand the research on stranger harassment, and collected data from American female college students. They found relatively high prevalence rates of stranger harassment: 41% experienced stranger harassment at least once a month, 31% experienced it every few days or more. This included non-physical harassment such as catcalls, whistles, stares, sexist comments and "come-ons." More than a quarter experienced forceful grabbing at least once a month. They concluded that "stranger harassment turns public spaces into an everyday hostile environment for women."

The data also suggests that experiencing stranger harassment increases women's self-objectification. That is, they emphasize their body's appearance rather than its function and feel ashamed of a less than ideal body, which can lead to depression and eating disorders. Regarding how women reported coping with stranger harassment, it was revealed that women who responded actively by acknowledging that the behavior was inappropriate and either confronting or reporting the harasser were able to resist feeling sexually objectified. On the other hand, women who responded passively by ignoring or avoiding the harasser reported feeling self-objectified. Passive response was much more prevalent than active response.

It's a vicious cycle. A stranger sexually harasses a woman, increasing her fear of rape. Because of this fear, most women choose to avoid or ignore the harasser. Because there is no legal recourse in most situations, the woman knows she can't do anything about it because it is just part of every-day life. Because there are no consequences for the men that harass, and because most women don't confront them, men think it is acceptable behavior and continue to do it. What's a girl to do?


Brown Eyed Girl said...

I must admit that this series of posts is really depressing. Harassment by strangers is an issue that I think each of us realizes exists, but like so many of the victims of these acts, we react passively. We brush the issue to the side, seeking to avoid the uncomfortable yet deserved confrontation. I agree that the lack of legal recourse provides an environment more conducive to harassment.

I am struck by other foreign nations’ attempts to mitigate the harassment. But I think it is wrong to separate women from men. That doesn’t discourage chauvinist remarks – it merely limits the opportunities to make them. To truly make an impact, I think it is necessary that laws be issued targeting the offenders themselves.

Today, in the sports world, John Terry, an English soccer star and national team captain, was criminally charged with a “racially aggravated public order offense” after he racially abused an opponent during a soccer match. [1] While this may seem completely unrelated to feminist issues, I think it serves as an analogy. At first, I was surprised that Terry had been criminally charged. [Note: I absolutely do not condone racial discrimination but I had never heard about criminal prosecution for language choices in a single, unrepeated incident] But the more I consider it, England’s criminalization of such acts serves as notice that such conduct will not be socially or legally tolerated. Similarly, if we want to seriously change society’s passive acceptance of sexual verbal harassment, the legal system must act.


Girl Talk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Girl Talk said...

I agree, BEG. While in some respects it's kind of... nice, for lack of a better word, that other countries have at least attempted to respond to stranger harassment, the way in which they responded does not target the problem. In fact, I would argue that because it limits the opportunities for men to harass women, it could actually make harassment worse when it does happen. Men may not ride on the same buses as women, so maybe they'll stake out bus stops and prey on women coming off the bus and walking home.

The criminal repercussions for Terry are really interesting as an analogy. I have also not heard of criminal prosecution for such behavior. I am really interested to know whether it is only criminal to engage in this behavior based on race or if sex is protected as well.

Without consequences, behavior will not change.