Sunday, 28 April 2013

Street harrassment is not my fault

[CN: sexual harassment, misogynism, victim-blaming]

What's wrong with this statement I recently heard from a friend?
"[Sexual] harassment is an aggressive act, and if you do not protest it, that's your problem. How is a man supposed to know what he's doing is wrong unless you tell him?"

And when queried whether she had ever experienced sexual harassment:
"I've only been in that situation maybe twice... perhaps because I'm aware of what I say, to who, and why."*

Go on, think about it. I'll wait.

Of course harassment is aggressive. It's meant to be – its purpose is to forcibly draw a woman's attention to the perpetrator, to get a reaction. Men do not leer and yell at women because they want a date, they do it to feel superior, to bond with their (male) friends, to feel in control. Often, lack of a reaction results in even more aggression, and the man may angrily call out something to the effect of "I wouldn't fuck you anyway, you frigid bitch".

[For a great illustration of this phenomenon, go here.]

But saying that it's the victim's responsibility to stop harassment? That's not okay. In fact, that's some bullshit victim-blaming going on right there.

If the mere lack of a reaction results in escalation, what do you think is going to happen in a confrontation? If a woman objects to being harassed, she risks the perpetrator (who is often much larger than her) becoming even more violent. This is especially relevant in cases when the perpetrator is not alone, but with a group of friends. When alone, the harasser is performing for himself, sometimes for bystanders, but is not so deeply invested that he cannot back down. At the very least, there is a lower risk of physical violence. But in a group, the harasser faces pressure to uphold his "masculinity"**, and retreat is no longer an option.

Another problem with public sexual harassment is that it is often not seen as a real problem.
"... while public harassment motivated by racism, homophobia, transphobia, or classism—types of deplorable harassment which men can be the target of and sometimes women perpetrate—is recognized as socially unacceptable behavior, men’s harassment of women motivated by gender and sexism is not." Source.

Sexual harassment is often portrayed as a "compliment", for which the victim (especially if she is black, older, overweight or disabled) should be grateful. This understanding of public sexual harassment is what allows bystanders to put the responsibility for stopping it onto the victim, rather than the perpetrator. It is also how the statement above was justified in the mind of the speaker, despite its internal inconsistency – if harassment is inherently aggressive, why should the victim risk exposing herself to more violence to stop it?

Sexual harassment is also frequently seen as the victim's fault. She "asked for it" by wearing revealing clothing, by being alone, too ugly, too pretty, any combination of the above. But the reality is that nothing a woman does will stop her from being harassed. Certainly, covering up did nothing to lessen the harassment I experienced while in Jordan. And despite the cultural differences that may have motivated the perpetrators, ultimately their goal was the same - to exert control over me and provoke a reaction.  

Thankfully, there are voices of reason out there.
"Sexual harassment is imposed sexual attention. No matter how complicated the situation is, the harasser is responsible for the abuse." Source.

Sexual harassment also has very real and very serious consequences for its victims.
"[It] creates a climate of intimidation and repression.  A woman who is the target of sexual harassment often goes through the same process of victimization as one who has suffered rape, battering or other gender-related crimes – frequently blaming herself and doubting her own self-worth." Source

Finally, let's put to bed the myth that men don't know sexual harassment is wrong. It's insulting to their intelligence and paints them as little more than ignorant children who weren't taught the basics of social interaction. Very few women react with pleasure to being harassed. Whether by the lack of a reaction, or by protesting at being treated like objects, we make our displeasure clear to anyone with a modicum of social grace.

If someone is a repeat harasser, they will know that their actions do not make women feel comfortable. If they continue harassing anyway, they are not doing it to "compliment", they are doing it to feel power. And again, to anyone who wasn't raised in a cave, it should be obvious that using another person that way is neither polite nor socially acceptable.

By now a few things should be clear. Sexual harassment is serious. It is wrong. And it is not the responsibility of the victim to stop it.

And for the friend who made that statement, here's something for you to read. The fact that you haven't been harassed is not thanks to your amazing skills at reading the situation around you; you're just incredibly lucky.

* Translation.
** There is more than one masculinity. Unfortunately, our society has imposed a very rigid, and difficult to follow, definition of what is "masculine", namely: being strong, not showing emotion, being heterosexual... The list goes on.

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