Talking back to street harassers just went viral: Hollaback posted a video of a woman on a subway train who, when she realized the man that was crowding her on the subway was doing so because he’d pulled his condom-sheathed penis out and was rubbing it on her, started to berate the man and tell him that she was going to have him arrested. She got her wish, since the assailant was quickly arrested. (The article minimizes the reality of sexual assault by diagnosing the assailant as “sick” from afar. This kind of thing should be stopped, as it implies that women should pity and tolerate sexual assailants, instead of fight back against them.) Score one for the strategy of fighting back.
Fighting back has more to offer for it than just raising the possibility that street harassers face legal consequences. As Jaclyn Friedman noted, it helps reverse the narrative on which street harassers rely, which is that women should be embarrassed by sex, and that when men harass them on the street, they should take the abuse in silence and shame. By turning the tables, you make this not about sex-shame, but about boundaries, respect, and women’s right to move freely through the world. And, of course, fighting back (when it’s safe, as it appeared to be for this woman) raises the price for harassers.
But a lot of this is guesswork and conjecture. If we really want to stop street harassment and assault, we have to start with the question of why the men who do this are doing it. If we can get at their reasons—instead of simply dismissing them as “sick”—maybe we can come closer to the answer of what it would take to get them to stop. Luckily, we live in the age of the internet, which, combined with traditional male privilege means that for every sexual desire that men might have, no matter how illegal, there’s an internet forum for it.
After the subway groper incident, both Broadsheet and Jezebel posted the video on a forum for men who like to waggle at or rub their penises on women who are committing the crime of being female while out in public without a male escort. The site is decorated with pictures of the fantasy being catered to—pictures of women looking shocked and angry, but also awed and, in some cases, a little pleased. (The reality, of course, is much different.) For men that are “sick”, they sure are organized! As Tracy at Broadsheet reports, the forum posters took great interest in this video, denouncing the woman for being uppity and not just taking it, but admiring the assailant for being smart enough to use a condom, which they do to keep the evidence of their crimes from staining their pants. (All of which shows a level of planning and thoughtfulness that would preclude an insanity defense if the crime was eligible for it, like murder.) What we learn from this is that the men on the forum are steeped in entitlement, that they view women as objects and supplicants who exist to get them off and have no real rights of their own.
The forum posters neatly disprove the stereotype of rapists, harassers, and other assailants as men who are simply compelled by their victim’s sexiness to act out of hand. These are no impulse crimes. The men on the forum use experience to teach each other how to find vulnerable victims and strategies to avoid detection by anyone but the victim, and they let the lack of respect women get do the rest of the work by making women afraid to speak up or ignored if they do. According to Jezebel, a great deal of mental effort is expended in figuring out who to target—young women are preferred, precisely because they are more afraid to fight back and because they are dismissed if they seek help. One poster suggested attacking non-white women. He had elaborate rationalizations, but the basic gist is that white women over 25 have too much social privilege, which means they are more likely to take effective action to fight back. Other suggested targets are service workers that can be assaulted in solitude, such as hotel maids or nurses.
Flashers seem to be divided into two groups: those who enjoy scaring their victims and those who cling to the delusional belief that women secretly like it. In both cases, victims are dehumanized. The latter group might invoke sympathy, because they’re delusional, but let’s look at what they’re suggesting—that women behavior doesn’t resemble human behavior. I don’t imagine any of these men would like it if a man rubbed his penis on them and then suggested he secretly liked it. They also strain to redefine survival strategies women use—such as smiling to placate an assailant while you look for a chance to escape—as evidence the women like it. But many of them also express frustration and anger that women don’t actually do what they want, which is apparently to like it so much they actually act like they do.
Taking all this into account, I think we have a better idea of what it would take to bring an end to these kinds of assaults. Fighting back is definitely an important strategy. It not only raises the price of doing this to women, but it signals to the wishful thinking guys that their fantasies that women like it are not true. However, we must understand that fighting back might be desired by the open sadists, though obviously it’s a better response than simply being afraid.
What was really interesting to me was how much these men have taken society’s sexism and have amplified it to justify their own desires, however. The reason they can believe that women are there to be used sexually and mistreated is that society teaches that women don’t have full rights, dignity, or autonomy when it comes to sex. In a society where people argue with a straight face that a woman gives up her right to say no to child-bearing because she chooses to have sex, it’s not much of a leap for a sexual assailant to believe that a woman gives up her right not to be molested because she leaves the house. When we live in a society where anti-choicers argue that women must be prevented from having abortions because they don’t really want them, it’s not much of a leap for assailants to believe that the woman who runs away in disgust and fear really wants to have sex with him.
Flashers don’t come by their beliefs—that women don’t know their own minds, that women don’t have full human rights, that women are “asking for it” by making independent choices—by accident. They’re picking up on ideas that are in the larger culture, promoted by authorities like politicians and churches. If we want to stop sexual harassment for good, then we as a society need to bring a halt to these sexist narratives about women.