Well, ok, just to confuse everyone, I’m going to disagree with one feminist claim about street harassment. The claim is in a piece by Kat George (whose work I’m not familiar with) on the harassment video and what counts as harassment. She starts with the fact that with any harassment story there are always men and some women who will say “oh but that’s not harassment, it’s just being nice.” True enough. But then she goes on.
Here’s the thing: by the inherent nature of being a woman walking in the street, almost ALL uninvited attention from men is threatening. Women are victims of sexual violence EVERY SINGLE DAY, even in “liberal” cities like New York. Whether it’s a man jerking off on the subway, a stranger sticking their hand up a woman’s skirt (or worse, raping her) we hear stories of sexual assault on a near daily basis, if not on the news, then from the anecdotes within our social circles. Women feel vulnerable on the street, period. When a man interacts with her on any level she did not invite, it’s threatening, period.
No. That’s really not true.
It might be true for very young women and very busy impersonal big city streets, but other than that, no. A man might ask for directions, for example; that’s not threatening. And there are all kinds of little momentary situations where a man can speak to a woman on the street – even when she didn’t “invite” it – when it’s not threatening. A beautiful day, a very windy or rainy day, waiting for a bus, watching a crane in operation, a bouncy dog making people laugh, a toddler making people go “dawww” – all kinds of things. It’s not that unusual or fraught to have a brief exchange with a man in the street; it’s really not.
So no. Let’s be careful not to get so irritated by poo-poo-ers and deniers that we make wild assertions that it takes 10 seconds to realize aren’t true.
Ophelia Benson says
Actually she goes on to say that herself – but then she should have noticed that sentence and changed it.
No, no, I’m sorry. You’re a Suppressive Person who has to go to the Re-education Center.
It’s the Official Hivemind Feeding-frenzy Thought-police Bullies Rebecca Watson Approved Dogmatic Post-Modernist Radical Feminist Ideology that either it’s okay to proposition strangers for sex in an elevator at 4am, or all men are rapists.
(You didn’t get the memo?)
… I mean, you want to be in a position to testify and jail and man, don’t you?
I’d drifted away from organized feminism because of similar statements from groups in college. In particular the local branch of ‘Take Back the Night’ (Humboldt County, California), was excluding men from their meetings and demonstrations. Or rather, we could go to training sessions and classes that were held concurrently. Because there were members who had been abused, and thus were nervous around men, so no men allowed.
On the one hand I realize a was much less understanding on some issues than I should have been. On the other hand…
When the leadership of the main feminist group on campus started saying that men raped their mothers while being born, I was out. At least out of organized feminism.
chigau (違う) says
I don’t want to talk to anyone. ever.
y’all have a nice day
@ 5 chigau
chigau (違う) says
I never, ever, click on unexplained yutub links.
So be it.
Nick Gotts says
I’m sure you’re right in general, but these days (thanks to an FtB education over the past few years) I err on the side of caution; I would avoid asking a woman walking alone for directions if there was an alternative, because I don’t want to cause an “Oh-oh, is he going to hit on me?” moment if I can reasonably avoid it.
George’s essay seems to me to have a reasonably strong point to make, but to overplay it, for the reasons you point out.
But there’s also something else that she seems to get a bit wrong – she seems to have a tendency to say that harassment is where harassment is felt. And that’s not true, for a couple of reasons.
One is that we could imagine someone who was indifferent to any uninvited attention on the street – who felt no threat. That wouldn’t make any moral difference, though. The wrongness of the behaviour doesn’t depend on it being unwelcome, or unnoticed, or anything like that. In one sense (not the whole story, but in one sense), how the person at the receiving end feels is neither here nor there when talking about the antagonist’s behaviour.
The other is that feeling threatened doesn’t imply any need for the source of the threat to change his behaviour at all. Suppose I’m walking home at night, and there’s another person on the otherwise-empty street. That other person might feel threatened by me. Or I might feel threatened by that other person. Or – and I suspect that this is reasonably likely – we’d both feel threatened by each other.
I don’t think that that means that either of us should change our behaviour, though. The other person has no need to feel threatened by me (honest!), and I probably have no reason to feel threatened by that other person.
And I want to know more about the claim that women know the difference between niceness and harassment. Unfailingly? How? I mean, I’ll accept that there is a difference, and that you can tell it. But there’s surely scope for mistakes, isn’t there? (Go back to my dark street. If I feel threatened, that’s because I’ve made a mistake. Why can’t it be the case here, too?)
Now, none of this is to excuse the behaviour of (some of) the people we see in the NY video. Nor is it to minimise how some people – overwhelmingly women – feel when out and about. If uninvited comments and catcalls are nothing more than annoyance, then they still shouldn’t happen. And I would hope that most guys would be open to the idea that what they (we) believe to be nice can go awry, and that they perhaps ought to think about what they’re (we’re) doing. There’re plenty of times when people should change their behaviour. I’d sign up to all those claims without pausing to draw breath.
All the same, it’s more complicated than George allows. Like you say, there are hints of nuance in her essay; but I do think she’s overplayed a plentifully strong hand.
If not always threatening, I think uninvited attention from men (strangers) is always at least an interference.
For me uninvited attention from women is never threatening. I don’t have to do anything with it. I can ignore it with no concern about consequences.
For me as a hypothetical woman, I have to give it some energy, I have to become alert, I have to assay what this attention may mean. I have to decide whether or not or how to respond. Even if much of this process takes place unconsciously, it still takes up mental energy and so is an interference whether or not the attention turns out to be benign.
is her point as is, “Schrodinger’s rapist”? granted, the qualifications that we made are important but the point for me was that the receiver gets to decide what does, and does not constitute harassment which will be different given the receiver, the context, and the environment. as Ophelia states. in other words, the world is full of shades of grey, eh?
Ludicrous @ 11
The word I was looking for and couldn’t find in 11 above is “imposition” . I would have used it rather than “interference”
And they know this… how?
Did you ever read this? http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger%E2%80%99s-rapist-or-a-guy%E2%80%99s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/
Except… now you know that women feel threatened even when you’re not doing anything you consider overtly threatening, just (for example) walking towards or ten yards behind them on a darkened street going about your business, you have two options:
1. carry right on going about your business because hey, there’s no NEED for them to feel threatened so if they do that’s their problem, right? OR
2. accept that even though you’re a Nice Guy (TM) that woman is scared of you and it would be a Nice Thing for you to defuse that by, yes, changing your behaviour and, e.g. crossing the street or stopping for a moment or two and allowing her to get WAY ahead or whatever. Minimal disruption to you.
This is, I accept, kind of a difficult point for guys to “get”, and it’s an absolutely stone-cold classic example of that whole “privilege” thing. I’m a solidly-built, six foot tall white male in my mid forties, and for at least two decades I have had absolutely NO idea what it’s like to be scared walking down a street. And two decades ago, heck even two years ago, if I found myself walking behind a woman on a darkened street, it wouldn’t occur to me to think she might be scared of me, and indeed I’d be a bit indignant if someone suggested she had cause to be.
But now (in large part thanks to being strangely addicted to reading FTB) it would. I did, briefly, go through the stage of thinking “but she has no NEED to…”, but it should not be hard for a good skeptic to process the concept that women can’t read your mind. (Insert joke here, if you have to, about how when you’re in a relationship they expect you to read theirs…). And since they can’t, it’s not a stretch to make minimal accommodations to make them feel safer. Is it?
Rowan vet-tech says
Two days ago at work, as I was walking to the south end of the building to medicate kittens, a man who had been chatting with some other people abruptly stopped doing so when I walked past and then began following me at a distance of about 5 feet, silently.
I was in public, there are cameras, there were people not 50 feet down the hall, and I *knew* he was probably just heading toward the bathroom (as he was) but for those moments when he was a silent, looming presence behind me I was terrified. I knew it was silly, but there you go.
Having been stalked, having been followed through downtown at 1am, having had an emotionally unstable/manipulative young man attempt to make me ‘his woman’… interactions with males that I don’t know outside of a professional setting (waiters, nurses, employees at the home improvement store) pretty much always give me a frisson of fear.
The guy walking silently beside her for 5 minutes would have probably had me in a panic attack.
I am conflicted. What you suggest reminds me of an old post by Ian Cromwell (Crommunist), discussing analogous behavior by black men. As I recall, even Ian was somewhat conflicted on this issue, but ultimately decided that it is unreasonable and unfair to expect black men to tiptoe around the sensibilities and fears of fellow pedestrians.
To be sure, it cannot be denied that an important difference between Ian’s hypothetical and yours is the notion of privilege. But taken at face value, the situations are identical: one group of persons is expected to change their behavior in order to avoid spooking members of an ostensibly more vulnerable group of persons. And that is unfair, but what is unclear (at least to me) is whether that unfairness is outweighed by other considerations. I am unsure how much privilege counts for balancing the equation. And to be sure, I have plenty of privilege and that is at least partly contributing to my uncertainty.
Of course, reality doesn’t like to conform to strict rules. The ultimate answer to this question will depend on whether we’re talking about an unlit street in a high-crime neighborhood vs. a quiet, middle-class city with street lights and occasional traffic.
Ophelia Benson says
Rowan @ 15 – oh, no question, about the guy walking beside her – that was GROSS. He kept step with her exactly and kept veering closer at random intervals. The rules of the experiment meant she couldn’t alter her behavior, as I understand it, but if someone did that to me I would take steps to evade him instantly – I do that as it is, when it’s just a matter of someone accidentally getting closer than I like. Someone doing it on purpose? Oh, man. That would be a confrontation.
Bernard Bumner says
You identify the crucial difference – people of color modify their behaviour in response to racist stereotyping, and they often do so in order to protect themselves from the consequences of being misidentified as threats – being harassed/arrested/assaulted by the police, being violently assaulted by fearful citizens. The cost to people of colour is that they must constantly modify their behaviour in order to avoid being victimised.
As a white male, if I modify my behaviour to minimise the threat I (quite literally) present to women, then I am doing so to address their fears. The cost to me is normally minimal (a slight inconvenience), and I am making someone else feel safer. The cost to women if I don’t change what I do, is that they must constantly modify their behaviour in order to avoid being victimised.
Privilege makes a world of difference to the cost/benefit analysis.
Anna Y says
I think this calls for a slightly more nuanced analysis. For what it’s worth, I think Kat George may very well be completely sincere. I’ve head a number of women (of various ages and backgrounds) express the sentiment that ANY (and they do mean it) attention from or interaction with a man they don’t know in a public space (i.e. not when someone they know is introducing them to someone new in a space they find safe) feels threatening to them. And this does include things like being asked for directions, or some other innocuous/impersonal stranger interactions. My understanding is that it might be a minority of women who feel this way and that different people come to feel this way for different reasons, but the point is, they do exist.
Personally, my first reaction to such sentiments being expressed is a mixture of disbelief and mild derision: I think to myself, surely, this is entirely unreasonable! This is certainly not my experience: I’m not particularly social, but I’m also not particularly timid, so, while strangers issuing greetings or asking for directions is jarring (I’m usually lost in my thoughts and oblivious to surroundings), it’s neither cause for enjoyment nor alarm and while catcalls might annoy me, they don’t scare me. But on further consideration, I get conflicted: on the one hand, just because my threat assessment is turned down lower than the average, doesn’t invalidate the experience of someone else, whose threat assessment is turned way higher; on the other hand, I resent it when someone who does feel much more threatened pens an essay making assertions like “when a man interacts with her on any level she did not invite, it’s threatening, period”, because a)no, this is actually not universally true, because my experience is different, and just like everyone else I resent someone asserting that my experience is somehow not real and b)because I just know that the anti-feminist trolls out there will just jump on that as an example of how women are all irrational/unreasonable/need to grow a pair/etc.
Like you, I absolutely disagree with Kat George that “when a man interacts with her on any level she did not invite, it’s threatening, period”. I really wish she wouldn’t make such a claim of all women, because I’m a woman and I don’t feel this way. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that this doesn’t represent any woman’s experience and to just brand it as an entirely unreasonable reaction. Perhaps (as is often the case) all participants need reminding that their experience of something isn’t universal, which should help everyone stop feeling invalidated. I honestly don’t know what would solve my problem with trolls brandishing the sentiments of most vulnerable (and by that standard least “rational”) sounding among us, but I suspect there’s no solution to that one: everything can be turned into troll fodder if one tries hard enough.
Apropos of the wider topic of the catcalling video and various responses to it, I just read a really excellent article on the subject by Katie McDonough over at Slate: http://www.salon.com/2014/10/30/americas_catcalling_madness_what_michael_che_co_keep_on_missing/ I think she rather brilliantly addresses the context problem and gets to the heart of why so many men are so upset to be told to leave women on the street the hell alone. Also, while reading this, I kept being reminded of a blog entry of yours a while back that made a brilliant parallel (and I wish you’d extend and repeat it more often, because it really bears entering the conversation on the topic): men don’t approach strangers (of any gender) on the street with invitations to cook dinner together, or go to the movies, but for some reason see it as some kind of holy right to approach women they find attractive and ask for sex. I think this particular reductio ad absurdum is a brilliant answer to the constant (voiced or unvoiced) whine of “well, how am I supposed to meet anyone to have sex with?”: well, how do you find people to cook dinner with you, or go to the movies with you, or take a walk in the park with you, or play video games with you, or whatever else you do that you like doing in the company of other people? I wish more people would respond to this whine with: “well, what if you are walking down the street and you see another guy (of age/socioeconomic status similar to yours) and he’s wearing a t-shirt with your favorite video game’s logo on it (and it happens to have a multiplayer mode), would you then go up to that guy and invite him over to your place to play that video game?”, and then maybe talk through all the if-then considerations that come up, and then ask whether similar considerations would apply to asking a random woman on the street for sex and why (or why not).
Ophelia Benson says
Anna – sure, but note that she didn’t say “Some women feel vulnerable on the street. When a man interacts with a woman who feels that way on any level she did not invite, she experiences it as threatening.” She said “Women feel vulnerable on the street, period. When a man interacts with her on any level she did not invite, it’s threatening, period.” What she actually said is very broad and very emphatic, and that’s the part I disagree with.
Kevin Kehres says
I don’t know about other cities, but I don’t think the vast majority of women in Manhattan consider “Schrodinger’s creeper” when they’re walking down the street. Seriously, do you know how many men you’ll pass in a 10-block walk in Midtown? Hundreds at least.
If every woman had to do the mental calculus as to whether one of those guys was a creep, she’d never go out of her apartment.
And if I had to do the mental calculus as to whether or not I was considered Schrodinger’s creeper every time I approached a random woman on the street … I’d be frozen in place.
That’s not to say that one can be oblivious to their surroundings, however. At night, in “sketchy” neighborhoods, along the cross streets heading toward Penn Station…I’ve crossed a few streets mid-block myself to avoid Schrodinger’s mugger. If I was approaching someone from behind, I always made sure to make enough noise and give a wide enough berth so as to not startle or unduly worry someone–man or woman. And I always backed away from the tracks when the subway was approaching because a friend of mine was killed when someone pushed him in front of a train (it was random murder, before the days of cameras at every station).
But on the other side, I can’t tell you how many pleasant exchanges I had walking down the street, waiting for the light to change, waiting at the subway or New Jersey Transit train platform, on the subway, in the park … every day, multiple times a day, 20 years’ worth. Because humans are social animals. And a smile with a “how ya doin'” goes a long way.
That’s not being “intrusive”. That’s being “human”.
I think I drew very different conclusion’s from Crommunist’s piece about Shuffling Feet than you seem to have.
Have a look at this bit about the fact that his neighbors are startled when he overtakes them in the dark of the morning.
Ophelia Benson says
Kevin @ 21
That’s what I’m saying. That’s part of the picture too.
That’s one of the things that made the relentless non-stop harassment I experienced in Paris at 18 so horrible – it made every other kind of potential interaction impossible. I felt on edge and defensive the whole time. One of the hidden costs of harassment is the well-poisoning for everyone else.
To be male in public is to have an aura of threat. Just like being black. The video demonstrates that it is perfectly reasonable for women to cringe away from men.
What is inexcusable is men’s unwillingness to recognize that women’s experience of public space is drastically different from theirs. The ‘but I’m just being friendly’ argument ignores the circumstance and background of the women in question.
The double aggravation lies in having NO ability to shame and scorn men like those in the video. Maybe frat-houses and football teams are different, but in real life stalker/rapist types hide their actions from other men. Treating their behavior as ‘normal’ is the road to purdah and veiling.
Kevin Kehres says
Yeah, that’s just awful. And the creeps probably don’t even consider the consequences of their actions, either. It’s just them-them-them and their little needs.
Agreed, context is critical. I live in a colonial city in La Sierra Gorda, with an east-west orientation of streets, and last month the full moon rose EXACTLY along the axis of the main avenidas. As it rose, huge and orange, over the convent at the top of the hill, I stopped and gaped in awe. I could sense someone beside me doing the same, and completely instinctively, I touched her elbow and whispered “bellisimo!” I then realized what I had done, looked over, and it was a lovely young woman half my age. I immediately said “lo siento” (I’m sorry), and stepped away from her, really embarrassed at my inappropriate contact. She immediately stepped up beside me, hooked her arm around my elbow, leaned against me and laughed, “no, es absolutamente fantastico, MUY bellisimo!” So there I was, an obvious foreigner, with four inches and forty pounds on the average local man, and a clumsy and inappropriate physical contact on my part prompted a warm response.
Still, the STANDARD rule ought to be, if there’s the slightest glimmer of doubt, shut the fuck up and don’t talk to women on the street, unless it’s to ask directions — and even then, if they ignore you and keep walking, then bloody well deal with it, and ask the next man you see.
There’s an important difference there, in that being male IS statistically correlated with being more dangerous to other people than being female is. There is no such correlation regarding the rates of violence between people of different races.
Yeah – I take the point, and there was part of me thinking something like that as I wrote it. Nevertheless, I’m not sure what the best way to address it is. Still – and this is why my analogy is an analogy, and so not a perfect fit – if Smith feels uncomfortable because Jones is doing something that is (a) unexceptionable in its own right, and (b) doesn’t involve Jones actually making any kind of overture to Smith, I can’t help but to think that that’s one of the things that we just have to chalk up to real life. What we see on the video is different: in that, the Joneses are making positive (and, as it happens, unwelcome) overtures. That is a cause for altering behaviour… but then, I’m rather of the mind that it’s deeply antisocial (or perhaps irritatingly over-social) anyway, and that’s a part of the problem – compounded by the fact that some guys think that they have a right to be over-social.
Nick Gotts @9:
I’m not female, but I would think that in that situation she’d be more worried about you attacking her than you “hitting” on her. You hitting on her won’t send her to the hospital.
I’m not usually in a situation where it’s just me (male) and a woman I don’t know, but it’s not something I’d be all worried about. But I would try to demonstrate with my body language (especially distance) and voice and what I say that I’m _just_ asking for directions. In my town (NYC suburb), I generally try to give women space on the sidewalk. In NYC I don’t bother, mostly because it’s impossible; there, I just try to avoid running into anyone.
What we’re really talking about here is etiquette. So we should use the right words.
The right word is interrupt.
A general rule of civilised conduct is that it’s never OK to interrupt anyone’s speech or activity unless you need to tell them their shoes are on fire or to save them from some other calamity (quick, the boss is coming). The specific rules of conduct about interrupting or talking over people vary from place to place, culture to culture. But on the street? To a stranger? Never interrupt is the baseline.
Apart from the question of threat, perceived or overt, it’s just plain rude.
“I’m a solidly-built, six foot tall white male in my mid forties, and for at least two decades I have had absolutely NO idea what it’s like to be scared walking down a street.”
Well, y’know, how shall I put this… I’m a thinly-built, 5 foot 2, “weak” looking, often “effeminate” looking male, and I have ALWAYS known what it’s like to be scared walking down a street. I’ve been sexually harassed, I’ve been in a hostile environment, I’ve been physically assaulted. This is probably actually fairly common for boys who went through US schools, unfortunately. My threat assessment is turned WAAAAAY up, all the time; I have PTSD.
And nobody is running a special campaign to make me more comfortable, or to claim that “all men” are scary — if I find *all* men scary, uh, that’s my problem to get PTSD treatment for, and I will.
If I find men who are behaving in a *creepy, inappropriate, impolite, and boundary-ignoring* manner scary, on the other hand — which I totally do — that’s *entirely another matter*. They *are* scary.
Harassment needs to stop, and frankly it’s bloody obvious when someone is harrassing: harrassing means *not taking no for an answer*. Rude, selfish interruptions such as catcalls aren’t technically harassment individually (only in large numbers) but are equally inappropriate. Both are often indicators of someone who *might* turn out to be violent. Stalking and invasion of personal space is even worse and even more of an indicator.
Politely talking to people about contextually appropriate things obviously isn’t harassment. The way I was brought up, if you really want to talk to a stranger, you nearly always start with “excuse me”. (For instance, “excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice your WHATEVER T-shirt; I’m a big fan of WHATEVER, and I don’t meet many fans of WHATEVER, are you a fan?”, or “excuse me, I hate to be a bother, but I have always wanted a hat like yours, where did you buy it”.) Then it’s their move conversationally. You stop. If they do nothing or don’t respond, you say “Sorry to bother you,” and leave. If they answer your question politely but brusquely, you say “Thanks,” then accept that they don’t want to talk any more, say “Sorry, I won’t take up any more of your time,” and leave. It’s still their move. If they then say “no, wait” and ask to talk to you, then you have a conversation.
If you’re looking for directions, you should be staring at your map and looking lost before saying “excuse me, I’m lost”…
I don’t know when I learned those rules for talking to strangers, but it was *young* — elementary school, perhaps. I have never had any problem with talking to strangers.
I guess a lot of older men were trained to be inappropriately and offensively pushy towards women on a routine basis. They need to learn not to do that; they’ll mostly probably be happier, on the whole. It just seems so bizarre to me, since I was brought up post-1970s in what I think of as a normal environment.
The other issue here is the men who are defending the idea of making inappropriate pushiness the *norm*, who really *want* it to be the norm, who get angry at the idea of obeying normal norms of polite behavior when women are involved — I suspect these men, who are *so upset* at the idea of behaving in an ordinary polite fashion, of being actual predators, who need a rape culture in order to hide their behavior.
Another little point: from what I can tell, assaulters and harassers really really like to gaslight the third-party witnesses (when there are any). The witnesses often start out with “Hey! Why did you do that to him/her, that’s awful!”, and then the gaslighting starts… “oh, you didn’t really see me just barge into her, really, I was further away, no you didn’t really see me rudely yell at her, I was politely talking to her…”