If you read popular anti-street harassment blogs and media coverage of the topic, a pattern of perpetrator name-calling rapidly emerges, and some of the most prevalent terms you’ll hear to describe the guys who “holla” at women and girls in public spaces are “pervert,” “asshole,” and “creep.” I’ve always felt uneasy at this type of dehumanizing, knee-jerk response, and at this defining stage of street harassment, it would be wise to interrogate its purpose and meaning in shaping a new narrative regarding violence against women.
When constructing a logical framework for street harassment, and examining patterns of male aggression toward women that are accepted as a social norm, it’s self-defeating for anti-violence activists to strip perpetrators of their humanity, cast them as mentally ill, and criminalize a socio-cultural practice before thoroughly interrogating its origins. Doing so delegitimizes the argument that gender-based violence is a product of our patriarchal, heterosexist environment, and renders it as simply an issue of a few rotten apples that are spoiling the bunch. It removes the socio-cultural aspects of masculinity and gender-based violence, for which we are all responsible, and takes the simpler route of demonizing “bad” or “ignorant” or “sick” individuals instead. While playing both sides of the fence may lend itself to generating a trendy campaign picked up by an uncritical media interested in soundbites and sensationalism, it’s not going to do much in the way of creating sustainable social change that spans oppressions and reaches the populations most impacted. In fact, it’s replicating some pretty substantial movement-building mistakes of advancing one’s own cause at the expense of another’s—which functions to keep efforts for equality in conflict with each other.
As a social worker and radical activist who has spent much of my life advocating on behalf of populations whose behavior is considered by many in the United States to be a product of mental or emotional deficiency (e.g., sex workers, school children with “behavioral problems,” queer folks, trans people, people who engage in S&M), I’m reticent to pathologize a behavior simply because I may not like or understand it, or because it doesn’t conform to the socially constructed “norm.” In our culture, people who have mental or emotional struggles are so devalued that they are regularly cast into the margins. Labeling street harassers as “deviants” relies on this ableist narrative of tossing aside what’s seen as “defective” as irredeemable and unworthy. It also means that we can ignore the systems we help create and fail to hold ourselves accountable for the products of those systems.
Which leads me to another favorite American scapegoat “solution”: criminalization. There are few worse fates that can befall a person in our country than to be branded as a criminal, and the U.S. has a particularly punitive (as opposed to rehabilitative) criminal “justice” approach. We disenfranchise and deny jobs and disallow federal student loans, imposing added levels of lifelong struggle for those caught in the act of social infraction. Additionally, anyone who knows anything about the prison industrial complex can connect the dots between this approach to street harassment, racism, and classism—none of which helps build a more just society for girls and women. (For those who aren’t familiar with this theory, this smart and thorough statement by INCITE! and Critical Resistance will provide a necessary illumination.)
America is also a particularly litigious country, frequently choosing to “solve” our disputes through legal means instead of establishing lasting relationships based on mutual understanding, compromise, and accountability. So, when it comes to the framing of street harassers, and what to do about street harassment, it makes sense that the readymade response is to say it is or should be illegal. For many, it’s hard to imagine what another option might look like.
I am certainly not immune to this framework; the image illustrating this post is a testament to that, as it was created in 2005 by a group of teen women of color with whom I worked to create an anti-street harassment campaign. At the time, neither I nor they were in a place to do the hard(er) work of confronting gender-based violence holistically within our communities, in part because there are precious few models of success in comprehensive approaches. But this type of long-term, difficult, and multi-pronged approach is one we must embrace if we are truly committed to social justice and to systematically dismantling all oppressions, including playing the blame game that makes our brothers, fathers, nephews, uncles, colleagues, and friends the enemy.