I got an e-mail last week from a man named X, asking about pro-feminist men and responses to sexual harassment — particularly on the street.
There’s been a lot of blogosphere discussion about street harassment lately, and I was interested in your thoughts about how, and whether, men can help (aside from Not Doing It, and acknowledging the pain it causes).
I’m embarrassed to admit that I only started to become aware of how big a problem this is fairly recently, and so it’s been on my mind. This morning, for example, I was walking to the subway and right about when I passed by a woman, a guy sitting in a parked van made some remark to her. I felt ashamed to just walk by, as if I didn’t notice or I approved, but also couldn’t bring myself to say anything.
On the one hand, I think there are good reasons why confronting other men in situations like this might not help at allâ€“as a post at Feministe (where I originally posted this, before realizing maybe asking you would be a better venue) and some comments have noted, most harassers simply won’t acknowledge their behavior as wrong, and there’s a non-trivial chance of violence. (This inability to productively engage may be even more true insofar as class and race issues enter into things.) It seems that especially in cities, people almost never sanction strangers for their public improprieties; attempting to do it on a regular basis, especially as a third party, is hard to imagine. On the other hand, is that just cowardice speaking?
I agree with the suggestion that verbally accosting harassers in the street can be dangerous and (almost worse) unhelpful. While we might be called on to jeopardize our own safety to assist someone who is being physically assaulted, I’m not sure that that moral mandate applies to all instances of sexual harassment. Male feminists are not asked to be “knights in shining armor”, rescuing helpless damsels. And while it is certainly true that male feminists have a special and vital role to play in challenging other men to rethink what is acceptable, that doesn’t mean that we ought to ask men who embrace feminism to put themselves into regular physical danger.
As X points out — and as was indeed discussed in this Feministe thread – there’s often a race or class element to responses to street harassment. In some urban areas, the harassment that is most obvious (though not necessarily the most prevalent) is largely committed by men of color. For obvious reasons, we are all particularly sensitive to the classic scenario in which a middle-class white woman on her way to or from work gets whistled at and taunted by a group of Latino, black, or white working-class men. That doesn’t mean that men of color or poor men are more likely to harass women; it does mean that more affluent men are more likely to be able to harass women in, say, a workplace setting. A woman walking to work might get harassed twice, say; the first time, by a group of Hispanic construction workers on the street and the second time by her leering white boss. Of course, as was pointed out over and over at Feministe, it’s the first instance of harassment that’s much more likely to be noticed by the public. The second usually stays invisible.
But recognizing that there’s a race/class component to the ways in which we think about sexual harassment shouldn’t serve to paralyze those of us who are white and middle-class from responding firmly to all instances of such harassment. The wolf-whistles of the lads on the street corner and the lecherous advances of a workplace supervisor are both equally unacceptable. Both behaviors have the capacity to make their targets feel small, vulnerable, dirty, angry, exasperated. And both sets of behaviors call for a feminist response.
Though there may well be times when overt intervention in cases of street harassment is called for, being the public hero can’t be the primary focus for feminist men. We battle harassment — in the street, in the workplace, in our schools — by speaking first and foremost to the men we already know. As frustrating as it is to acknowledge, most harassers harass because they understand that their behavior is sanctioned by their male peers, be those peers on a golf course or a basketball court. A great deal of sexual harassment takes place in the view of other men; frequently, the harassment is a form of puerile male bonding. The best counter-attack to this behavior goes beyond confrontation. The best long-term solution is creating small communities of men who are willing — as a group — to model a very different way of being male. It’s about connectiing with other men with whom you can stand in solidarity and together speak out against harassment that happens in your community.
Ultimately, the most effective agents against harassment are those who fight it with a recognizable credibility. A white man confronting a group of young men of color on a street corner with an impassioned cry that says “Don’t speak to women that way” is unlikely to be get an enthusiastic reception. Indeed, he risks — at best — being dismissed as patronizing, racist, and clueless. He’s right, of course, that it’s never acceptable to demean and objectify women, and that one’s status as a victim of racism doesn’t offer a right to be sexist as a response. But we have to do more than make flamboyant gestures — we have to work at changing the culture, and that means identifying strong male allies who carry “cred” in whatever community they find themselves, be it the Deke house on a college campus or an urban basketball court.
I’ve long advocated using the “alpha male” strategy. It’s an old trick from campus evangelism: the missionary identifies a young person who carries a lot of weight with his or her peers, and works on reaching him or her. Once the “alpha” has been won over, he or she will — through their own charisma and popularity — bring in others. The same strategy works with recruiting male feminists. The most popular alpha males are, usually by definition, the ones least concerned with what other men think of them. Though they are often the instigators of the most brutal forms of harassment and sexism, they also — if cultivated and won over — can be the change agents. Over and over again, my strategy as professor/youth leader/feminist evangelist has been to target the alphas for this reason.
So in the end, there is no quick and easy answer to how feminist men can respond to instances of street harassment that they witness. Given all the possible variables, prescribing a particular reaction is impossible. Some men will feel moved to intervene, and if they can do so without further inflaming the situation or risking their own safety, they ought to do so. Others may have to use what they’ve witnessed as an incentive to work all the harder with the men (particularly, the young men) with whom they work or interact. And, if they’ve got a cell phone camera, they can use the Hollaback project, which I endorse without reservation.