Street Harassment Movement Should Be Careful Not To Overlook Culture.

I’ve recently began doing a ton of reading and research on street harassment. I initially became intrigued because I find alternative interpretations to every-day life-functioning to be worthwhile issues to explore. And the more I read about it, the more evident it became that it is a rather polarizing issue. There are a ton of perspectives on street harassment, and men and women view things differently on both sides of the issue.

Firstly, I believe street harassment is a legitimate issue in this country that significantly affects non-paternal-heterosexuals. Also, I consider the issues inherent in street harassment as a useful tool in curbing not just how men approach prospective targets of sexual desire, but also how all genders conduct themselves in public. However, the biggest trouble I have had with street harassment (and what I also think creates a small portion of the polarity on the issue) is identifying what street harassment looks like, and how to discern them as I see them.

Granted, many instances of street harassment are plain as day. Disparaging a woman after a woman has spurned a man’s passive/aggressive advancement toward her is clearly street harassment. If a newspaper salesman offers you a newspaper, and you decline, then you should not be met with pejorative slander. Also, following a woman for blocks is arguably sufficient enough grounds to be stabbed.

It is awful that I cannot for certain categorize those instances as exceptional or of an insignificant minority.  Conversely, I do consider that a substantial amount of interactions can be interpreted as street harassment but don’t quite fall within the aforementioned egregious categories. Many instances border between harmful and harassment, culturally offensive, or simply just being lame. The differences are significant for a few reasons:

  1. Harmful and harassing acts compromise the safety of individuals in the public square in a tangible way. While comments like “hey beautiful” have serious ideological implications, categorizing it as harassment (something that has legal implications) implies a serious physical harm that can come out of those statements. While “hey beautiful”, and “why don’t you smile” and “Damn!” certainly are annoying and offensive, it doesn’t signify harm in a way that speaking aggressively or following a person for blocks can. While those same actions might be considered harassment in a workplace, it would be disingenuous to impose workplace conduct standards in the general public.
  2. What is offensive is often subject to cultural, class, and racial bias. This is the much-beleaguered “some women like that” point. While I personally agree that much of the language men use in the street against women are harmful and based in a series of horrible assumptions about womens’ identity, receptivity to such language often depends on cultural norms and gender expectations. In significantly integrated and diverse societies like New York City, language like “hey girl” and demands like “come here” can be more-likely interpreted as offensive. There’s much more diversity in terms of sensibility present in many metropolitan communities. Columbia-educated students occupy many of the same streets as high school dropouts. More and more communities hold project-dwellers, college attendants and professionals all within 5 square blocks. A woman more in-tune with the cultural and traditional approaches of masculinity may see them as equally irritating, and some may be flattered by such advancements. These dynamics change in a variety of groups. I find it harmful to exclude those voices from the discussion. Allow this example to illustrate my point:
    1. In http://stoptellingwomentosmile.com/ feature video, the narrator discusses how she talks to women and helps create awareness for street harassment. While her video is definitely a small sample size, the women featured in the video lack aesthetic diversity. Many of the women shown in photos are natural-haired, stereotypically “well-spoken” women. I’m aware that I am basing this somewhat on stereotype. However, ideologies often have their own physical properties– styles of dress, fashioning of ideas, and association of symbols. When assessing cultural relativity, physical aesthetic plays an important role. A lack of diverse physical aesthetics also assists in informing us of lacking diversity in cultural mindset.This is important because it reminds the viewer whose cultures/ideologies are present/absent from discourse. Do not get me wrong– their lack of women with colorful weave, tattoos, and a cultural vocal affect doesn’t invalidate their issues. Nor am I making an assumption that women more in-tune with the other cultural norms are never offended. Nor am I suggesting that such women are intentionally left out. However, if we surveyed some women on, say, the south-side of Atlanta- an area significantly segregated by race, class and culture, the conversation and how we look at those dynamics would change significantly. Thus, differentiation about what is harassment and what is simply offensive should be interrogated. What is offensive is subjective; what is harassment seeks to occupy a greater degree of objectivity. If you have an issue with any generalizations I make here, it is legitimate. I do not think it is irrational, though, to generalize that in isolated communities– where men and women are more likely to think similarly– that there is less disagreement in how genders interact.

Cultural miscommunications are common. Those cultural miscommunications often result in being offended. The discourse on street harassment often overlooks that place where they intersect.  Thus, when things that are culturally relative and up for interpretation are considered to be street harassment, it has the potential to be culturally offensive. This may play a role in why the issue has been so polarizing for some (I am sure other factors are at play).

Nevertheless, just because something may be culturally offensive to someone doesn’t mean we should allow it to persist if it causes real harms. But it should inform how we frame, discuss, and present the issues. Being clear of what is actual harassment and what can possibly be cultural disagreement/misunderstanding is paramount. We should take into consideration that while we could be highlighting an issue that affects a certain group of people, we may also be chastising cultural behavior that an equally significant group of men and women deem valuable.

Being able to categorize and distinguish behavior that is threatening and behavior that is offensive could do bounds toward helping resolve such a common, everyday problem. In a world so rigidly stagnated and divided by culture, race, and class, gender is one of the areas where culture is most permeable and most likely to collide. Why? Because its likely the only time in your day when you come into direct (personal, not business-related or spatially related) confrontation with a complete stranger. Attraction is the only time where people feel bold enough to reach out to someone of whom they’re not certain thinks, looks, or acts the same. And for cultural, traditional–and arguably evolutionary– reasons, men are most likely to initiate that permeation and they do so 100 times a day.

The frequency at which women experience such cultural clashes can feel like harassment, but they are certainly not objective forms of harassment. Feeling harassed is indeed significant enough to warrant a discussion about issues and grievances. This essay does not seek to undermine whether women actually feel harassed. That cannot– and should not– be challenged. However, this essay seeks to address the implications of uncritically conceding that feeling harassed is a sufficient enough warrant to actually categorize something as harassment in the objective sense. Feelings are subjective interpretations of events.They’re extremely valuable for discourse. Conversely, when deciding how to intellectually adjudicate harassment, we need more-objective standards and defined lines on what categorizes as harassment and things that could feel like harassment but are actually offensive. The difference between the two are essential. Assuming the former forces us to criminalize men, whereas the other enables us to have discourse in the ways that men– and “masculine” culture– undermine womens’ agency. In some cases, we need to make men criminally accountable for their actions. In others, we need to make men civically, culturally, and ideologically accountable for their actions.

Maliciousness and passive/aggressive behavior certainly is harassment. And while a man signifying and cool-posing, blowing kisses and calling women “beautiful” instead of trying to figure out their names, are, in my estimation, based in heterocentric righteousness, those same actions hold personal and cultural significance to both genders within some cultures and real men and women interact in meaningful ways based on that. Approaching a stranger based on your own cultural frame of reference may offend others, and may even make others feel disrespected; but it is NOT harassment.

Men are going to approach women more often than the opposite. That’s a fact. What affects your approach toward the opposite sex are your culture, your education, and an amalgamate of experiences. A culture of oppression can exist, but only insomuch as it tangibly damages a groups’ ability to be active in a society. Many forms of interactions between men and women do indeed fall within that form of cultural oppression. Just as many, however, are simply clashes of culture. The latter is a better problem to have because the solution is in understanding each other, whereas in the former the solution is in punitive action. Just as we want men to be more careful in the language they use because of it’s implications, Street Harassment needs to be aware of the same.

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