Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Street Harassment

I was thinking about tzey's post here about her first street harassment, while walking around my neighborhood running errands.

As I started my walk, I sensed a man walking about ten feet behind me for a couple of blocks. I kept a close eye on him, thinking about street harassment and feminist legal theory. Was he invading my space right now? Is his following me by itself harassment? I decided that walking the common path to down town and shops was not harassment. I mean, this guy is just going about his business and not actually bothering me at all.

Then he called out "Hey, I've been walking behind you this whole time and I don't even know your name."

"Damn it!" was really all I could think. I looked back at him, flashed a confused look and kept walking. I didn't say anything because all I felt was confusion. What did it mean that I gave this guy the benefit of the doubt that he did not intend to harass me, and then he did?

My plans to leisurely peruse Goodwill were ruined. I was angry at him, and I was angry at myself for not saying anything back. 

I left to walk over to CVS.  As I was waiting for a street light to change, and a guy pulled up in a car next to me. He had his music up loud, was rocking out, and would not stop staring at me.  I thought to myself, is staring by itself harassment? Again, I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe it's not. Sometimes I am bored and catch myself staring at people too.

Then, the little white walk sign flashed, and I had to walk in front of his car. As I was crossing the hood of his car, he beeped his car horn at me. It startled me, and I jumped. But I didn't look at him. I just kept walking.

I was pissed. I got the things from CVS and got back home without incident, which by this point seemed like a miracle. After thinking about this for a couple of days, the most frustrating aspect is that there seems to be no resolution. I felt angry at them, angry at myself for not responding, confused as to their intentions, and confused with my fear. Also, the fact that I had street harassment on the mind made the whole thing feel like a big cosmic joke.

I went back to tzey's post and read the comments. It seems like most of us have similar confused feelings with respect to street harassment. Then I read Prof. Pruitt's comment linking to a 1993 feminist legal theory law review articles: "Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women" by Cynthia Grant Bowman in the Harvard Law Review.

I thought the article was interesting, provocative, and put many of my feelings into words. Bowman makes many great points, and I kind of wish I could just copy and paste the whole article. But that would probably go beyond the blog post word count limit.

Bowman's article concludes that street harassment drastically affect's women's liberty, and confers little benefit to men:
In short, the most lofty motivations described by those surveyed amounted either to misguided attempts to render a compliment or simply to enjoyment of a sport that contributes to male-bonding but is carried out at the expense of women's liberty, security, and equality.                                                                         (page 10 of PDF)
Therefore, the first amendment does not protect this speech, and municipal ordinances could be passed that prohibit harassment in a public place, featuring a $250 fine. (page 22-23 of PDF). At first glance, although there are some flaws that Bowman acknowledges, this seems like a great idea.

I think municipal ordinances would accomplish several things. First, they would tell 'innocent' street harassers, those who do it for 'fun' or to 'compliment,' that such invasion of privacy is not welcome or OK. Second, they would educate men and women about the negative effects of street harassment (Bowman does a great job of describing these on page 9-10 of PDF). Third, if victims could threaten legal action for the harassment, perpetrators would be less likely to do it. Then it would happen less frequently, and maybe I could stop thinking about it so much and do something more productive.

These seem like distant goals. One immediate resolution that I hold onto from Bowman's article was to continue to talk about these things. She noted that many women don't talk about street harassment (page 24 of PDF). This may be because it is thought to be trivial or just something women have to tolerate. Instead:
This dialogue and this anger are healthy, and they are creative. As Robin West points out,
"[W]e must give voice to the hurting self . . . even when that hurting self voices 'trivial' complaints; even when the hurting self is ambivalent toward the harm and even when (especially when) the hurting self is talking a language not heard in public discourse." (page 25 of PDF).
 This blog is an attempt to continue that dialogue.


Sarah said...

I think we should spearhead an ordinance Heather! I have this problem all the time, I know most women do. And I really don't think that men 'get it' when it comes to how degrading and harmful it is - how it voyeurizes (this is now a real word, feel free to borrow it) our daily experiences. It's such a predator-prey dynamic.

Also, in response to your self-doubt about whether feeling 'the gaze' from passerby is somehow unfair, my mom had this experience once too - where she felt badly thinking this young thug looked like a thug when they passed in an alley, and then he mugged her. I say, be aware of your biases, but trust your instincts.

Patricija said...

I think Sarah hit the nail on the head when she analogized to a predator-prey dynamic. This dynamic lingers well after the encounter. You and I personally have talked a lot about "good men" who don't engage in this kind of behavior, and in many ways these cat calling and other harassment hurts them as well, as it makes us wary of all men.

On a legal note, how would this hold up under a 1st amendment analysis? Even under Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress doctrine, courts have held that a man has a right to "ask."

KRB said...

Great post and interesting proposal. Like many of my colleagues, I have also experienced street harassment and the anger and anxiety that lingers even after the encounter is over. I think the hardest thing about drafting an ordinance like this would be drawing a line between misguided compliments and harassment. For example, I can think of times when an older man has called me “pretty” or something along those lines in the grocery store and it felt completely non-threatening. However, if a man did the same while following me in his car, it would be a completely different story.

Jihan A. Kahssay said...

This post reminds me of an incident a few months ago when I experienced street harassment in Davis. The peculiar thing, however, was that I was harassed infront of my own house by teenaged boys!

At first, since the boys were so young, I just thought I happened to fall prey to a common teenaged prank. But after some further contemplation, I decided that my gender had a huge part to play in the boys' decision to play a prank on me.

This is what happened: I was driving my car down my street on my way home from school. At the same time, a group of about 5 teenaged boys on bicycles were riding up the street in the opposite direction, towards me. Then, suddenly, one of the boys shifted his trajectory and started heading straight towards me on his bike. He was peddling at full speed, charging towards my car.

His friends were laughing and egging him on. He was playing chicken with me; him on his bike, me in my car. I didn't understand what was going on, and I panicked because I was afraid that I would collide with the boy, so I quickly hit the break and brought my car to a sudden and jerking stop.

My heart was racing and I was terrified that I almost killed him! But he was not afraid or shocked. He was proud that he managed to startle me. He laughed, his friends laughed, then he cruised around me as he high-fived his friends down the street.

I realized later that this was a manly assertion of dominance over a woman. The boys high-fived each other, and the entire episode was a bonding experience for them. They were men. They dominated women, even women in cars.

tzey said...

I agree that we as women need to be more vocal about street harassment. Just because its something we expect does not mean we should have to accept it. The first step is framing it as the obvious harassment that it is. Men often find nothing wrong with a whistle here or there. I have been around male friends when they have done this and they feel no remorse for their actions. They think this is a compliment to the woman walking by.

It is necessary for us as women to point out harassment when it occurs. THe best way to do this is to talk to our friends and family about the behavior they are partaking in. It is not the best idea to walk up a stranger who has just whistled at you and tell them they are being inappropriate. But talking to a friend or family member about their actions is safe and powerful conduct we can all take.

Mo said...

As to Patricija’s question, and as a follow-up to something I posted on tzey’s initial entry, I think it would be difficult for an anti-street harassment provision to withstand constitutional scrutiny. If I remember correctly from my Constitutional Law courses, language that simply annoying or bothersome is still afforded First Amendment protection. That is, states generally cannot criminalize it. In fact, the City of Davis used to have a municipal code section prohibiting something similar to street harassment, but one of our fellow King Hall students, Daniel Watts, successfully spearheaded efforts to have that statute repealed. (As written, it was apparently vague and blatantly unconstitutional.) You can read more about Mr. Watts’ crusade against the Davis municipal code here: http://davisvanguard.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3359:candidate-watts-gets-victory-as-city-to-repeal-unconstitutional-portions-of-the-city-municipal-code&Itemid=81 And for those who are interested, the current Davis Municipal Code is available here: http://qcode.us/codes/davis/ The provisions relevant to this discussion fall under Chapter 26.01.

Sophie said...

This article speaks to me, as I'm sure it does most women. Lately, my biggest problem with street harassment is the comment "you should smile" when men pass by me on the street. This comment infuriates me more than anything!

However, I do think street harassment has become more a part of the dialogue lately. Several months ago, women began filming their experiences on the street and tracking how many times a day they experienced catcalling and street harassment. This has inspired several campaigns to put an end to street harassment. My personal favorite artwork was inspired by street harassment (Seen here: http://stoptellingwomentosmile.com/). Ultimately, I agree with the previous commenters that women need to be more vocal about street harassment and that individuals need to under this is harassment, not a compliment.