Sexual Harassers Reflect Larger Social Beliefs


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. 

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  • squirrely-girl

    And this is why I own a tazer…

  • wolfwytch

    I remember being cornered on an elevator when I was about 14; when I realised he was holding his penis, as well as pinning me to the wall, I gave him a swift knee in the happy sack (as my Dad would say ;) ) and left him crying while I got the building super.

     

    And wouldn’t you know it, “Oh he’s sick” was the excuse… yeah, sick alright… yech!

     

    I wholeheartedly commend that lovely woman, and wish I could give her a hearty round of applause :D

  • amy0440

    based on personal experience I have two comments 1) sometimes there is not enough time to react or do/say anything when faced with a flasher but it still leaves a person feeling violated and scared. I wish I could have “fought back” but it was quite literally one second, step out of bushes, penis flash, step back into bushes and walk away…. 2) I got the feeling from my experience that it wouldn’t have mattered if I was female, male, or what have you I think he just wanted to flash *someone*. That doesn’t make it any less creepy but it’s definitely a profile to consider when writing/talking about flashers/harrassers.

  • prochoiceferret

    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.

     

    I dunno, perhaps it might be a good idea to cater to the desires of men who enjoy getting kicked in the nuts after harassing women!

     

    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.

     

    I <3 this paragraph! What better way to rise above the abortion-debate rigmarole than by putting it all in context?

  • beenthere72

    Awesome swift kick for the win, Wolf!

     

  • crowepps
  • rebellious-grrl

    I agree with fighting back. The woman in the video is awesome and is my shero! She kept her cool and got the guy arrested.

    About 10 years ago this guy tried to sexually attack me on the street at night. I was walking to a friend’s house alone. Luckily I was carrying a glass bottle. When the guy grabbed me I screamed “NO!” I continued to yell at him with lots of expletives. I really gave him a piece of my mind. He got scared and walked away. I continued to yell at him, I broke the bottom off my glass bottle off and chased him down the street with the jagged bottle in my hand, all the while yelling, “I’m going to cut your testicles off.” He vanished. I doubt he’s going to try again, or at least think twice about it. Personally I don’t care what the sexual harassers thinks, or what response he wants to elicit from me. I’m fighting back!

  • eoghan

    That man is not representive of society or men, you misandrist.

     

  • goatini

    I rode the NYC subways to school every day for 6 years.  The creeps, gropers, grabbers, exposers, freaks, and unbuttoners of back-buttoning blouses (THAT was an unpleasant surprise) have been out in force for a long, long time.

     

    I’m talking 1965-1971 here.  I can only imagine things are much, much WORSE now.  I’d say that man is VERY representative of a certain segment of society that has been quite prevalent in the NYC subways for at least 45 years, by my count.   And there are quite a few members of that certain segment of society.  A crowded train where anonymity is possible brings out the creep in many more men than some might realize.

  • goatini

    that the school I was commuting to for 6 years, is the same school where SCOTUS Justice Kagan also spent 6 years of her life.

    (Her commute, however, as an Upper West Sider, was not as arduous as – and I hope, more creep-free than – my schlep from an outer borough.)

    Justice Kagan and I likely brushed shoulders at the office building on Lexington where the school was housed for several years in the 70s, but as she was a brand-new seventh-grader when I was a graduating senior, I can’t say we ever really met. But I’m so incredibly proud that an alum, and a member of the last all-female class, has achieved such stellar success… on behalf of ALL female citizens, I say hooray for Justice Kagan!

  • princess-rot

    Why is it, that whenever we discuss the popularity of sexual harrassment, some special snowflake feels the need to pop up and claim no, it’s not a societal problem (despite all evidence to the contrary), you guys must be lying?

    I cannot comprehend the inherent stupidity of someone who comes onto a reproductive justice forum packed with information concerned with the daily struggle for female autonomy and flat-out denies that the male entitlement is a societal problem.

    Our lives, sexualities, and bodies are frequently the subjects of government debate, man. Does Eoghan not think that all this is strongly indicative of a culture that views women as sexual property, and our sexualities something to be controlled extenuously? And those assumptions do rather overlap into everything else – namely that we exist for pleasure – no matter how sordid?

  • squirrely-girl

    Does Eoghan not think that all this is strongly indicative…

     

    My presumption is that Eoghan doesn’t care.