Nancy Leong’s Harassment in the Intersection: Gender, Race, and Class in the Street at Feminist Law Professors echoes many of the sentiments expressed in the Feministe discussion on legislating against street harassment, specifically the idea that the women victimized by street harassment are usually more privileged than the men harassing them.
The assumption is that the typical victim of street harassment is a middle or upper class white woman and the typical harasser is a poor, possibly homeless or mentally ill, man of color. “Think of those who spend the most time in the street,” writes Leong, as she asks us to picture the typical perpetrators of street harassment. What neither she nor the Feministe thread mention is that this applies to the victims of harassment as well. Poor women, who are disproportionately racial minorities, are considerably more likely to experience frequent street harassment because they spend more time in the street and on public transportation. They are less likely to own a car, and cabs are out of the question when you’re poor. That means lots of walking and taking buses and subways, all of which expose women to harassment.
That has certainly been my experience. When I first moved to NYC, I was very poor. So poor, in fact, that I walked almost everywhere. As a result, I spent a lot of time in the street. The harassment was relentless. Walking even one block without commentary of some sort seemed to be too much to ask. I was harassed by men of all races, ages, and classes. Boys who looked like they were in junior high and men old enough to be my great grandfather. Wall Street types and construction workers. The only thing they all had in common was that they were male; therefore they felt very much entitled to let me know what they thought of me and what they would like to do to me.
One day I decided to count all incidents of street and subway harassment I experienced from morning to night. Result: nearly 100 separate incidents. Most were of the “Hey, Baby!” variety and typically included comments on my appearance, some were sexually explicit, and a few were extremely disturbing. Some guys would start out being complimentary and erupt into a torrent of misogynist threats when I ignored them. It seemed that there was no correct way to respond to the harassment.
White men, black men, and Latino men all seemed to be about equally likely to harass me. On the whole, blue collar men were probably more likely to harass me than their white collar counterparts, though one of the more disturbing incidents involved a group of young white men in suits who appeared to be on their lunch break. They surrounded me, and one of them held my arms, so his buddy could check if my “thighs feel as good as they look.” One of the guys in the group then slid his hand under my skirt and grabbed my thigh. They were laughing; I was in shock. I couldn’t believe this was happening in broad daylight in the middle of the sidewalk with so many people around, so I just stood there. Later I was incredibly angry with myself for not yelling at them or fighting back.
When I started making a bit of money and was able to take cabs sometimes, I began to experience slightly less harassment. But the street harassment came to a virtual standstill when I moved in with a rich dude and started taking his limo everywhere. No more walking places, no more subway system, no more waiting at bus stops = no more opportunities for harassment.
Street harassment does not affect all women equally. Poor women and women of color (who are not only more likely to be poor than white women, but also more likely to live in urban areas where street harassment is a much bigger problem than in suburban and rural areas) are disproportionately affected. And while poor men who spend a lot of time in the street certainly have the option of NOT harassing women, poor and low income women can’t opt out of the harassment. Yet some feminists seem far more concerned with the plight of poor men than the physical safety and psychological wellbeing of poor women.
But what about cases of street harassment where the victims do have class and possibly race privilege compared to the perpetrators? According to Leong, in those cases, the “harassment begins to look less like a self-congratulatory exultation in masculine power and more like a bitter protest against lifelong disadvantage.” Really? If that were so, wouldn’t the targets of the harassment be wealthy white men–i.e., the people who own almost everything and make almost all the rules? Why focus primarily on young women who are themselves quite powerless? No, I read this type of harassment a little differently. I see it as a way of reminding women that even as they appear to be succeeding in a man’s world, they are still nothing but a f*ckhole. It’s a way of saying, “I may be poor, I may even be homeless, but at least I’m a man, and that gives me the right to treat you any way I damn well please. Because no matter how wealthy, educated, or successful you may be, you’re only a woman.” I view street harassment as a definite exercise of male privilege, regardless of how privileged–or not privileged–the victim and the perpetrator may be in other ways.
A friend who thinks Leong may be partly correct about poor men’s sexual harassment of class- and/or race-privileged women as a “protest against lifelong disadvantage” answers my “why target women and not wealthy men” question this way: Because men are far less likely to put up with it. True enough. Harassers know that women are safe targets because of our socialization and fear of triggering male violence. If Leong is right about the motives behind the harassment in these cases and the victim is indeed “seen as privileged by her harasser,” it is ironic that the reason he is targeting her is that he views her as weak and powerless–because she’s a woman. He believes there won’t be any negative consequences for harassing her. He can demean, humiliate, and frighten her, and she’ll be powerless to do anything about it. She’ll just have to take it. Because she’s a woman. Organizations like Hollaback are working to change that, which I wholeheartedly support.
As women, we are taught to put ourselves last and to sacrifice for others. Overcoming that socialization can be very difficult, even for feminists. The consensus of the Feministe thread was that we shouldn’t legislate against street harassment because poor men and men of color might be disproportionately arrested. Of course the same thing could be said for most other offenses as well, but it’s only when the victims are predominantly female–and targeted specifically because they are female–that a potentially inequitable response by the judicial system is considered reason enough to let all perpetrators (the majority of whom are not poor men of color) off the hook. Note that I’m not necessarily arguing for the criminalization of all street harassment (and obviously some forms of street/subway harassment are already illegal); there are a number of practical issues that would have to be addressed to my satisfaction before I could support such a proposal. However, I reject ruling out such legislation simply because less privileged harassers are more likely to face consequences (which, by the way, should not consist of jail time if the harassment is strictly verbal) for their actions.
Men have been making the streets unsafe for women since before I was born. Finally, some of us have had enough. But as we are attempting to take control back from the men who treat us like walking vaginas, others are quick to remind us that some of those men are disadvantaged too. In fact, because some perpetrators of street harassment are less privileged overall than some victims of said harassment, we are told that we shouldn’t hold the perpetrators accountable, whether by posting their pictures online or demanding legal action.
As a woman who has experienced extreme violence, harassment, and poverty–most of it as a result of being female–I am tired of seeing feminists treat the oppression and abuse of women as less important than other forms of oppression that also affect men. Because if even feminists won’t make sexism and misogyny a priority, who will?