When over 200 press outlets worldwide covered the street harassment hearing in New York City, the photo that accompanied the popularly distributed article depicted four construction workers watching a woman walk by. Despite the fine print reading that none of the construction workers in the picture were actually harassing women, their guilt is implied in the composition of the image, the fact that its accompanying an article on street harassment, and a widely held stereotype about construction workers’ propensities to cat call women. Whether working-class men truly engage in harassing behaviors more than men from other socioeconomic groups is up for debate, but because they’re stereotyped as such from the jump, the workers themselves and the women who pass by work sites are taught to expect the men to act that way.
It’s probably for this reason that working class men are complained about so frequently at talks on street harassment, depicted alongside news articles and blog posts about the issue, and featured in anti-street harassment videos – all of which reify the idea that working class men are harassers. This classist framework really bothers me. Maybe it’s because I grew up working class and my step-father is a truck driver – a profession that’s often perceived as being full of men who demonstrate lewd behavior (a stereotype that contributes to the erasure of the growing number (5%) of women in the industry, but I digress) – that I am resistant to such overarching characterizations. My familiarity with men in these fields makes me sympathetic to arguments of perception vs. intention. Social behaviors differ across class identification, and what may be deemed “crass” or “trashy” or “inappropriate” according to middle or upper class values might be entirely acceptable in my family’s neck of the woods. So, whose standards should get top billing?
My answer is somewhere between neither and both. We’re fond of saying that the victim’s perception is the key element in determining whether or not a person has been harassed, and while I mostly agree with that sentiment, how does that square with the knowledge that some of our perceptions are a product of the values and norms we subscribe to that are determined by economic class? And furthermore, by race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, geographic region, etc. For example, as someone who actively bucks prescriptive gender norms, I feel uncomfortable when my Southern-by-the-grace-of-God father-in-law “compliments” my appearance. Yet, as a Southerner myself, I recognize this behavior is a standardly exchanged pleasantry that is generally regarded positively by most women from the Deep South. So, in a case like this, whose sensibility should each of us be expected to conform to? My point is that intent, like perception, is an important element of the debate.
Conversations about street harassment must include an element of self-interrogation, not to deny or invalidate our feelings of violation, but to understand the personal and socio-cultural complexities from which incidents of street harassment arise and use both as a point of entry to discussions about who is included and excluded in strategies to increase public safety.