Mar 11, 2013

Sexual harassment & assault in public places - does it matter?

So there was this very interesting series of tweets from Dusty this morning, which I briefly storified:

I think the most important question though, and the one she asked by way of conclusion, is this:

The automatic response to this question (and I think the one Dusty was going for, by way of sarcasm - though I may be wrong) is "of course it bloody matters! It's terrible! And unfair! It limits women's freedom! It's a violation of our collective human rights!".

And clearly all of that is completely true. But I think it also matters very much for a different reason, and one that is less often discussed than the impact of harassment on individual women (or even women as a class):

It matters because women's fear proves it's working.

I'll explain.

The question that often arises when street harassment and casual sexual assault are discussed is: why do  men do it? What drives individual men to curse women on the street, shout at them, follow them, grab them? And the assumption is that it will be something individual - some kind of choice that individual men make or a set of fears/insecurities they have that express and alleviate themselves via this medium of humiliating women.

Do a degree, that is probably right. Not all men harass, and not all men sexually assault women in bars & clubs. So there's got to be some kind of distinction between the ons who do and the majority who don't, probably at the level of personal histories & psychological profiles. But while that might help us explain away individual instances of harassment, it doesn't explain the phenomenon. Why is it the public sphere made so persistently unsafe for women?

[Note to sceptics: if you don't think it is, please, go here and read this, and then come back & read the rest of this post. Go on, I'll wait. It's fine, I was getting a cup of tea anyway. Off you go.]

Like I say, the common hypothesis seems to go something like "there are a lot of fucked up men in the world". Which there are - there are a lot of fucked up people of all genders in the world, 'cause it's a fucked up world & patriarchy & capitalism mess with all of our heads. I'd like to propose an explanation for why these particular fucked up men feel that they need to express their damage in this particular and very commonly predictable way; why they grab women's crotches in clubs or shout obscenities at them from moving cars, almost as if they want to punish us for being out and about in the first place:

They do. They do want to punish us and put us off being out in public. Because they don't think women have a right to be there. They don't believe that women have an equal right to occupy, much less enjoy, the public spaces they see as belonging to them and their peers. To men - especially white, dominantly coded men - the whole world is a "safe space". And the way they keep it safe for themselves is by making it unsafe for everyone else. That's pretty much a textbook definition of discrimination anyway: making sure not only that you withhold certain rights from some groups, but that they are constantly reminded of their inferior status. Otherwise where'd the status brownie points come from?

It's not strictly speaking about doing harm or damage - more about constant, pulverising reminders that damage is a distinct possibility. The world would not become a safer place for women if all men stopped harassing & touching them in public: rape rates would not go down, domestic abuse would not vanish; the only noticeable difference for women would be that we would occasionally forget to be afraid, and forget that we do not have an equal right to the streets, bars, schools & workplaces that we share with men. 

We might just - horror of horrors - start acting as if we do have a right to leave the house & walk down the street like we're some kind of 'equal citizen human being' or something.

In other places (and in other times), the prohibition on women sharing men's world is expressed much more straightforwardly: they're simply prohibited from leaving the house. Or if they're allowed to leave without being accompanied by a relative/driver/guardian, they have to cover up - so men don't actually have to look at them, & can continue to pretend they're not there. Or they have to ride in the back of the bus. Or pray in a back room. You get the idea: one doesn't have to go far to find examples of women being quite simply told, without inhibitions: you don't belong. You're not allowed. Not just in this university or this profession, but here. In this world. On these streets. With the rest of humanity.

Luckily we're way more enlightened and advanced here in the post industrial, democratic, liberal global North. Men here don't just tell women to fuck off out of it & make themselves scarce or else; they 'only' act on the "or else" part of things.

This doesn't have to be the avowed & consciously acknowledged aim of every wolf whistler or tit-grabber. It's still what the result is. It makes sense to judge widespread social phenomena by their outcomes rather than the atomised intentions of individual actors, and in this case the outcome is that women self-police by staying out of certain places at certain times, to their own detriment and for the glory of patriarchy. 

So that's why it does matter, very much, that women (for entirely sensible reasons of self-preservation & well-being) end up policing their own movements: is proves the effectiveness of harassment, and it reinforces the status of women in the world as subordinate, inferior members of society, allowed to move in the shared spaces that make up society only on sufferance and with the constant threat of their 'living a normal life' privileges being revoked. 

What is taken for granted by men is a special privilege for women, open to attack & liable to be challenged by every bored van driver or tipsy Norwegian tourist. And by taking the no-choice choice of avoiding them, the message that is being sent back is: keep going, lads. It's working. 


  1. Coupled with the reading I'm doing about DVA at the moment, the world is looking pretttttty shit. It's all part of a continuum.

    1. It so is. And all of it is in place to control us & keep patriarchy's minority beneficiaries in their cushy place.

  2. Agree. women need to reclaim public spaces

  3. Thank you for sharing this informative post! Yes, sexual harassment and assault in public places does matter for girls because that's really unrespectful.

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