My friend Emmylou wrote me after my Jezebel post appeared last Friday, noting that we need to remember the problem of “third party harassment”: the impact that the problem can have on witnesses.
On Friday I was crossing the street when I saw a man in a large panel truck inch up in his lane so he could stop and look down at a woman in the next car. She was in the passenger seat and never looked up and to her right as far as I could tell. While walking by, I saw she was wearing a tank top with some cleavage showing and the perv staring hard…not an appreciative look at all. Once I passed them, I turned around and yelled at him. “I know what you’re doing, creep! Stop staring at her!” She didn’t react but the truck driver did. He was both shocked and angered by my calling him out on it.
She didn’t know. But I did and I was offended by it and put off. Someone might say it is none of my business since it didn’t happen to me, but I think it is. It isn’t only the recipients of this kind of behavior who get to be outraged. I think if my goddaughter or nieces had been with me. They have every right in the world to not be exposed to this kind of lecherous behavior. And so do boys.
It isn’t just the one-to-one impact. It’s the example and influence on display for everyone else to see…
Emmylou is right on the money. Street harassment teaches all who witness it lessons about men, women, and sexuality. When children witness adult men leering and catcalling, they learn a lie about male desire. They learn a truth about our collective hostility towards women, and the way in which we use harassment to display power and to slut-shame. Harassment — even if it’s only a prolonged, silent, penetrating gaze — impacts everyone close enough to see it take place.
I’m perhaps too quick to bring up the unethical aspects of my past, but I’ve got some familiarity with this concept. As I’ve often written, I slept with many students during my early years at PCC. All of these relationships, however unethical, were consensual and not in violation of college policy — because the college had no policy against profs and students engaging in “mutually desired amorous relations.” But of course, I was about as subtle as a Labrador in a flower bed, and many of the women I was with “talked.” And as I learned, this all-too-true gossip proved shattering (or at least upsetting) to many other students, who not only lost respect for me but felt as if the classroom had now been sexualized. Indeed, the only people who ever complained to the administration were not the women I was involved with — but others who “witnessed” the behavior in one way or another. Arguably, the greatest harm I did during those years was not to my student lovers, but to those “third parties” who felt unsafe and confused when they found out what was going on.
Third party harassment is widely acknowledged in law. But while it is used in litigation in corporate settings, we don’t often talk about it when it comes to something like street harassment. But we need to remember that harassment is didactic: it’s meant to teach a lesson. The woman being harassed is being reminded that she’s vulnerable, that her body is public property for men to leer at and comment upon. She may be affluent or poor, she may be in a short sundress or in sweats — it doesn’t matter. She’s being “taught a lesson”, and it’s not a complimentary one. And when we hear it or see it, we’re being taught a toxic lesson as well.
My friend Emmylou made the courageous decision to “teach a lesson back”. Not everyone can be expected to do as she did; harassers can turn violent when called out. But where we can do something, we should. This is especially vital work for male allies to do. As I always tell my students, the litmus test of a male feminist is not just how he treats women, but how willing he is to challenge other men on their words and attitudes. As we know, harassment and sexual assault thrive in a culture that normalizes and accepts that behavior. Every rapist or harasser has someone in his life who is complicit in his behavior, who gives tacit approval to his actions. And make no mistake: harassers and abusers invariably interpret the silence of their friends and family as an imprimatur for their behavior.
Without completely disregarding personal safety, we need to be aware of our opportunities to be like Emmylou this week, finding ways to challenge those who make our public — and our private — spaces unsafe.
For more on ways to fight back (whether you’ve been harassed or have observed it as a third party) check out the international Hollaback community.