I am NOT Here for You: The Relationship Between Sex, Power, and Street Harassment

In Kristen Barber’s article “Sex and Power” (NSS 45-48) an argument linking compulsive heterosexuality to societal dominance and rape culture is made. Throughout the article, Barber opposes the views of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon to those of Pat Califa. All three feminist critics agree that many social expectations are predicated on male dominance and the limiting effects that patriarchy has on women. However, they have very different views on how these ideas play into heterosexuality (this article made little to no mention of other sexual identities). Califa does not “believe heterosexual sex is only about power and women’s lack of it” (NSS 45). While she does acknowledge that women have less freedom in these types of sexual relationships, she believes it is wrong to view women as victims of consensual sexual encounters. MacKinnon and Dworkin, on the other hand, are much more antagonistic toward men. They assert that the woman’s role in heterosexual sex is “passive and accommodating” and and that women are raised to “view sex in a way that reflects men’s desire and wishes.”

Keeping this in mind, let us now look at street harassment through the lens of sexual dominance. According to R.W. Connell, sexual violence is part of being a “real” man in Western society (NSS 47). “Real” of course is referring to a white, heterosexual, cisgendered man, but that is a blog post for another day. Many sociologists have posited that men use this sexual dominance to intimidate women and assert control over them in situations where sex and gender should really not come into play. In Connell’s words, some men believe it is their right to exercise this power over women because they are “authorized by an ideology of supremacy” (NSS 47). This ideology not only shapes the way society views rape, but it also plays a part in how some bodies are objectified for walking down the street.

The most troubling part of this ideology is that it rationalizes reducing certain bodies into less than human, that they exist only for the pleasure or amusement of another body. When confronted, some men use religion as their pretext for getting to yell at women who are walking to work. (Men have the right to make sexually explicit comments to random women?? According to The Bible?? Seems like a bit of a stretch..) Others use a much more appalling tactic, justifying their advances by claiming that the woman wanted to be cat-called by the way she dressed.

This sounds eerily similar to the practice of victim blaming when in rape or other sexual assault cases, proving that rape culture expresses itself in many mores ways than just explicit sexual assault. Let’s be very clear here: women do not appear in public places with the primary goal to receive perverse comments from strangers. Period. Regardless of what she is wearing. Regardless of her race. Regardless of what part of town she is in. End of discussion.

So why don’t women call men out? In the Jessica Williams video at the beginning of this post, I think gives a good anecdote as to the paradox that women face when they are cat-called on the street. If women acknowledge the culprit with a gentle smile, or perhaps a “thank you”, it not only validates the harasser’s actions, but gives other women the impression that she is a slut or “easy”. In all actuality though, as Williams points out, if a woman reacts in a passive, but positive way, she is almost certainly just trying to deflect the interaction and end it quickly. On the other hand, if the woman tries to confront the harasser about their actions, she is putting herself in danger for further harassment and, potentially, physical violence.

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

-Margaret Atwood

So what, as a socially conscious society, can we do to end street harassment? There are a multitude of online communities, such as http://www.ihollaback.org, that provide open forums for women to share their stories about their gross encounters with street harassment. Women have taken to wearing cameras and walking down the street, recording their interactions as they go, and posting them on YouTube. While these are great initiatives, what more can be done to negate the inflammatory ideologies that exist toward marginalized bodies?

Although the Barber article did not explicitly focus on street harassment, she focused on the power dynamic between men and women in a fairly heteronormative context. And from the independent research I have conducted on street harassment, it has all been within the context of straight men and straight women as well. While it is great that straight women are standing up against grossly misogynistic practices, it is equally important that we do not leave other stigmatized bodies behind, as it is completely plausible for them to be subjects of street harassment as well.

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One thought on “I am NOT Here for You: The Relationship Between Sex, Power, and Street Harassment

  1. I think this post makes fantastic points in relation to street harassment and sexual violence in society, especially American society. I love the way you tied in the Jessica Williams piece, and the issue of how to best respond to street harassment. Here I see very evident ties between the expected response and the idea of a woman “asking for it”. Women who either ignore or smile away a crude comment are seen to be encouraging the comments, much as women who wear revealing clothing are seen to be “asking” for sex, even if they vocalize an opposite desire. The role of street harassment, and how it plays into rape culture, is far more important than it is often viewed as. All people deserve the basic right to feel safe walking down the street, and as long as men feel comfortable calling a woman out on what she wears or stopping to take a picture of her, this right is not being provided.

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