Why We Can’t Just Walk Away From Street Harassment

On Behalf of | December 8, 2014 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

During the last week of October, a video about street harassment made the rounds on the Internet.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you can find Hollaback’s two-minute clip of a woman hiking across New York City in Maya’s post from the same week.  Although the video’s female protagonist remained silent throughout ten hours of walking city streets, the video prominently features what many women might think of as their daily soundtrack: catcalling.

As viral videos are wont to do, it ignited some heated debates.  There was, of course, the unfortunate, unproductive, and also unsurprising male commentary about how women love to be told they are beautiful and wouldn’t complain about catcalling if they found the harassers attractive.  More productively, Slate pointed out that the video fails to show harassment by white men, sparking important discussions about how harassment cannot be divorced from issues of race and class.  If you want to delve into some of the various conversations surrounding the video, I recommend this piece.  For more information about street harassment in general, check out this smart video by the always-hilarious Jessica Williams.

Although the absence of white harassers in the video is problematic, Hollaback certainly made a strong point about the catcalling minefield that is public space.  One of the responses I found most compelling was this article by Katie McDonough of Salon.com.  Ms. McDonough aptly notes two often overlooked yet crucial aspects of harassment: context and entitlement.  As Ms. McDonough explains, the context of an interaction – whether there is mutual interest in interacting – distinguishes catcalling from community building and divides the creepy from the friendly.  She also points out that harassment itself, as well as the snide male reactions to the video, reflect “a frightening sense of entitlement to women’s time, attention and bodies.”  As Maya wrote when she first posted the video, many people still mistakenly believe that that they have the right to comment on women’s bodies whenever they want.  Street harassment, which forces women to listen to men’s evaluations of their looks, epitomizes both a misunderstanding of the context and a misplaced sense of entitlement.

Unfortunately, street harassment is just one manifestation of deeply-engrained cultural understandings of men’s and women’s roles.  And cultural understandings of gender roles that are as widespread as those giving rise to street harassment cannot help but spill over into other spheres.  The understanding that men are entitled to women’s time and attention regardless of the context often underlies harassment in another key area: the workplace. A 20ll poll found that one in four women in the United States experiences workplace sexual harassment.  Although street harassment might be more universal, workplace harassment presents distinct challenges.  Unlike street harassment, which often occurs while women are on the move and is perpetrated by strangers, women cannot escape workplace harassment.  When the catcalling is in the cubicles, the victim is literally boxed in.

Yet there is another crucial distinction between workplace and street harassment: women facing workplace harassment benefit from legal protections.  Women who endure sexual harassment at their place of employment can seek a lawyer’s assistance in order to challenge the conduct and hold employers accountable.  For example, Sanford Heisler currently represents female employees of Bayer Pharmaceuticals who faced not just discriminatory pay, but also outrageous sexual harassment.  By invoking the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, these women are challenging the cultural understandings that have dominated society for far too long.

In a climate where men can laugh off street harassment and women still suffer consequences for speaking up about discrimination, conversations about gender discrimination must address the surrounding structural causes.  Only then can we hope to end entitlement and forever change the context.