3.26.2012

shit men say to men who say shit to women on the street

A long time ago, when I was in my early 20s, I was once venting to my mom about some ongoing street harassment. There was a construction site near my workplace, and all the women in the area were forced to run a gauntlet of catcalls and obscene chatter, every single day.

My father overheard us and joined the conversation. He suggested that the women find a different route to work to "avoid that scene".

I explained that this wasn't a "scene" one could avoid. It was everywhere, every day, every place where men gather. I explained that women shouldn't have to inconvenience themselves and take different routes to work because men can't keep their mouths shut. But even if we wanted to, where we would walk? Where was the harassment-free street?

My father then asked what the women were wearing, if their clothes were "appropriate for the street".

He then claimed he had never heard of this kind of thing, even though he walked city streets daily.

He then dismissed the complaints as the over-sensitive imaginations of "womens-libbers". He actually said that. This is the same man who regaled us with tales of striking workers laying down in front of trucks to prevent scabs from entering a factory, the man who took me on civil rights marches when I was barely old enough to walk. The person who taught me to speak out against injustice.

It was a painful lesson in hypocrisy. It was maybe the first time I clearly recognized the gap between believing in the right things and doing the right thing - the space where we take responsibility for the injustice and privilege in our own lives.

This video gives me hope that things can change, and do change, and are changing.

22 comments:

allan said...

Seinfeld (start at 1:30).

laura k said...

I know what bit that is, without even clicking. :)

johngoldfine said...

I don't think any of those reasonable approaches in the video would actually be effective with a testosterone-fueled bully.

I'd go with: "Hey, whaddaya think if I say that shit to your sister, asshole?"

In other words, if you want to stop a bully, be ready to fight a bully.

Your father seemed to have every fallacious counter-argument right to hand, Laura. In some ways he was brave, exemplary, admirable, a man of moral imagination; in this, he was blind, retrograde, narrow, a prisoner of his era or culture.

laura k said...

Yes, John, he was those things. At the time of the conversation, he was also very angry and severely depressed. His bad marriage was crumbling, and he was blaming everyone and everything except his own terrible behaviour. "Women's lib" was one more thing to blame, especially as his wife no longer accepted being treated as a child. So there was some context. But still.

I don't think the men who do street harassment are necessarily bullies. I'm sure many of them truly believe they're "appreciating" and admiring women.

laura k said...

However, I think

"Hey, whaddaya think if I say that shit to your sister, asshole?"

could be very effective!

johngoldfine said...

I'm sure many of them truly believe they're "appreciating" and admiring women.

Naw, they truly want to frighten, intimidate, cow, harass, laugh at, infuriate, diminish, dominate, and fantasize about these women. Appreciation and admiration don't enter into it, except that they want their buddies to appreciate their boldness and admire their 'wit.'

John F said...

Here's another phenomenon that baffles me. Why would you want to make anyone uncomfortable in a public setting (besides a politician)?

I've been present for this kind of behaviour exactly once. My acquaintance was a bit drunk, naturally, and we were on our way to an end-of-course party for our IT training. He picked out a young woman a short distance down the street, waved to get her attention, and said something I won't repeat. I called him on it, of course, then reflected on how little I knew him.

I think the particular comment reflects the intent of the speaker. "Damn you're hot!" may not be ill-intentioned, though still unacceptable. More explicit comments are probably intended as harassment.

laura k said...

Maybe John F's comment more clearly articulates my view on this.

I don't mean to downplay street harassment AT ALL, it's all unacceptable. And I don't want to defend the common jerk on the street.

But I do doubt that every guy who yells out something to a passing female intends to "frighten, intimidate, cow, harass, laugh at, infuriate, diminish, dominate". (I omit fantasize, because there's nothing wrong with fantasizing about anyone at anytime.)

I'm sure some of them do, but I also think many are checking into groupthink, doing something in public or from within the safety of a group of men that they would never do individually. The settings for that behaviour - sports events, bars, construction sites - are often arenas where men are expected to prove their masculinity: this is what's expected of me in public when females are present.

There's another form of street harassment that (to me) is most disgusting: the man who leans into a woman walking past him to whisper/growl something in her ear. This is SO nauseating - and most definitely seems to fit with johngoldfine's description above.

From what I've seen, it also appears to be culturally linked, which fits with the definitions of masculinity and the ways women are traditionally viewed in certain cultures.

johngoldfine said...

It's interesting about 'fantasize,' Laura--of all the verbs on my list, it's the only one I've ever been prone to indulge, but in school, in the halls, with my students, I simply mustn't. Most of the women I see at work are young enough to be my grand-daughters, and I know from their writing that they're very attuned to what the call 'creepers' and what we called 'dirty old men.'

So I've schooled myself to walk past women I don't know without seeing them at all. I'd be the world's worst eyewitness: hair, clothing, face, height, weight, all mysteries. And that work habit seems to have carried over into the streets too. I just don't look, and I just don't fantasize.

On the other hand, of course, as you might have guessed, I never hesitate to strike up a conversation in public with anyone, male or female, young or old, pulchritudinous or otherwise--if they are accompanied by a dog.

laura k said...

Well, I believe our thoughts are our own to do with whatever we like. It's only when thoughts turn to action that they become inappropriate. The thoughts themselves are completely harmless.

If you fantasized about your young students, and kept those thoughts in your own mind, no one would be hurt. I understand you have chosen a different route, but this is a fact nonetheless.

I believe in giving our thoughts free rein - and in not attempting to control our own private thoughts in any way.

As Jerry said to George, it's like the sun, you look quickly and look away.

redrico said...

I can only imagine what a let down it must be to hear those kinds of things from a man you obviously admire and look up to in so many other respects. I always feel embarrassed when I hear guys saying that kind of shit on the street.

Having said that I'm not sure that men yelling out or being demonstrative towards women on the street is necessarily always an inherently sexist behavior although I think how it's done in our culture usually is. I'm thinking of some of the things that you hear men in countries like Italy or in Argentina say. For the most part they're not rude, sexist or objectifying (not saying that it never happens). They're actually quite creative and playful and I've often heard women say how much they love it or at least find it amusing rather than offensive or demeaning. I'm not making any excuses for the crap that some guys in North America say but I know personally as a guy, and I don't think I'm alone on this one, I sometimes secretly wish I had that kind of confidence.

All I'll say about your dad is that he sounds like a product of his generation. Men have been given a very defined role in life. Produce, bring home the bacon or however you wish to see it. Don't feel too much, don't dabble in feminine things unless you want to be labelled gay etc etc. And if you show any weakness your buddies will pull you back into line. None of that precludes being a good union man or standing up to fight for civil rights. All perfectly masculine things to do. Your buddies will probably admire you for it. Sexism, racism and all those shit ideas are not just ideas, they're part of how people survive their own exploitation and create some sense of dignity for themselves when they're feeling powerless, albeit at the expense of others.

I think all those things are changing because that role is disappearing for men. Women often bring home as much or more than their husbands do. Yes, that kind of macho culture does still exist in some workplaces but I'd say it's a lot less prevalent than it once was. I'm sure it's not pleasant when you do encounter it but the struggles that women have led for rights and liberty have made some important progress and looking at the Arab spring, Occupy etc. and all the women who are leading in those movements I feel pretty optimistic that it will continue.

laura k said...

Sorry, but you're way off base about my father. He was not at all as you describe him - he was very emotional, for one thing, and his wife was in school, then worked, and many other ways he didn't fit that mold. That's partly why this was so disappointing. I neither admired nor respected him at that point. It was simply the godawful hypocrisy of it.

In my experience, street harassment in other countries is just as bad, if not worse, more menacing, than in NA. I've experienced it in France, Italy, Mexico and Peru, whenever I was walking either alone or with another woman. I can't remember if I saw it in the UK. I don't think so.

I find it quite strange that you think such sexism is disappearing.

impudent strumpet said...

The fact that they'd shout at ALL the women ALL the time reminds me of Tala barking at cars. It sounds outright tedious from the point of view of the perpetrator, and I'm genuinely surprised that they didn't get desensitized to what is a perfectly normal every day occurrence. (I'm also surprised they got any work done if they're constantly monitoring the pedestrians).

"Hey, whaddaya think if I say that shit to your sister, asshole?"

Can anyone explain/articulate why statements like this are effective when something like "What would you think if I said that to you?" wouldn't be? I've heard it enough to conclude that it must be effective, but I can't imagine why. And (for reasons I can't articulate yet) it utterly creeps me out.

laura k said...

The fact that they'd shout at ALL the women ALL the time reminds me of Tala barking at cars.

LOL! Too true.

I'm thinking that "your sister" may be more effective than "you", because the macho guy is also a Defender of Women - wife, mother, sister. But he is tough, so if you said it to him, he'd knock the shit outta you, you pussy, blah blah blah.

laura k said...

Your Tala comparison is especially funny since we just got back from a drive to and from the vet, with her barking 100% of the time. :)

redrico said...

I'm honestly a bit surprised that you think things are getting worse. I'm not denying that there is sexism or even that I'm probably guilty of it (knowingly or unknowingly) myself at times. I just think there is obviously a big difference between the way things were 30, 40 or 50 years ago and how they are now. It's horrible that there are still some guys who will behave like that but I think they are the exception rather than the rule. Doesn't make it any less pleasant when it happens but at least it is possible to take heart from the fact that progress is being made in general. And I feel really hopeful when I see the kinds of movements that are going on all over the world with so many amazing women leading the way.

Pretty understandable how you feel about hearing that kind of crap from your dad. It's always tough when you have to deal with things like this coming from within your own family. Hopefully he'll come around at some point and realize how wrong he has been. I've always found it hard when personal relations and politics get tangled up like that.

As for other cultures I think you do have to allow for the possibility that flamboyant, demonstrative public behavior is a more natural part of some cultures than others. We're arguing without any numbers so it really just comes down to impressions and mine has been that in some cultures it's not rude or insulting for men to express their interest in women in public. It's a kind of flirtation rather than an attempt to oppress or to impress other men etc and that's why the content and the manner of it is so different from the kind of construction site mentality we're used to in our own culture.

laura k said...

I definitely don't think things are getting worse - nor did I say so. In certain areas of the world, great progress has been made. I simply see no sign that sexism is disappearing in any way.

Street harassment is not the exception. In many many places, including in my hometown, New York City, it's the norm.

There are certainly cultural differences, and in some places it's much more acceptable for men to harass women in the street. But that doesn't mean the women in those cultures like it!

As for my father, he's been dead for a long time, and I was estranged from him for many years before he died. So no worries there! I was just using that story as a story. I'm way past waiting for my father to come around, thankfully I got over that around 25 years ago.

laura k said...

Also, I would note there's a similarity between your perception that street harassment is not the norm, and my father's perception that it does not exist.

impudent strumpet said...

Coincidentally, this keeps getting tweeted into my timeline today (It's part 4 in a series, parts 1-3 are linked at the bottom).

One of the commenters says: "There is a difference between catcalling and men noticing you as a woman and smiling at you or giving you a second glance. The first is based on anonymous objectifying and the latter is normal human attraction/attention. And if both women and men can't tell the difference, that's sad. I've always wondered what men who catcall actually hope to achieve. Do they imagine the woman stopping and engaging them and then magically hooking up with them? Please, in what universe is that going to happen?"

And this made me realize part of the reason why the "your sister" thing creeps me out so much: by landing on "What if I said that to your sister" rather than "What if I said that to you", they're not identifying with the victim (and, by extension, with me) as a fellow human being, by rather as a poorly fleshed out supporting character defined only by the role she plays in the harasser's life. They're completely writing off her feelings, as though his feelings are the only thing that matter, even though he's a third party to the interaction.

Which kind of dovetails with Laura's comments about her father in the original post, and something similar my father would do. If I wanted to spend time with a guy or go out somewhere, he'd get all overprotective. But if I expressed discomfort about a guy or a situation, I'd get a lecture on how unfair it is that men might get looked at askance just because a woman says she's uncomfortable. As though his feelings as a bystander trump my own experience as a person immediately involved.

laura k said...

If I wanted to spend time with a guy or go out somewhere, he'd get all overprotective. But if I expressed discomfort about a guy or a situation, I'd get a lecture on how unfair it is that men might get looked at askance just because a woman says she's uncomfortable.

This is exactly what my father used to do that I found so baffling and infuriating.

He wanted guys to treat me with respect, and was very wary that I might show affection for a guy who didn't. He wanted me to be safe, and he wanted me to be independent.

BUT he would also do what I said in this post - taking the side of random stranger shit-talkers. He would lecture me on not being too independent or strong because (he said) guys don't like that.

And he would casually deny or disbelieve rape if the two people were acquaintances, married or had previously had consensual sex.

All this "product of his time" thing doesn't wash with me. As if that mindset doesn't exist now. If only.

redrico said...

Hmm. Well I agree with you that sexism isn't disappearing. It's just too darn useful to the powers that be. So they'll keep pushing it. But I think the difference now is that people, including men, are more likely to question it than they once were. And I do think it's fair to say that political correctness, with all its limitations, has succeeded in making some of the more vulgar forms of sexism less common. The video is interesting in that respect because it confirms that street harassment still goes on at the same time as it shows that it's not so widely accepted as it once was. I'm trying to imagine this video getting made in your dad's day and I can't see it happening.

laura k said...

And I do think it's fair to say that political correctness, with all its limitations, has succeeded in making some of the more vulgar forms of sexism less common.

If by political correctness you mean feminism, then yes, I agree.

As I said in the post, the existence of this video gives me hope.