This poster depicts a cartoon-like drawing of a racially ambiguous young woman in the foreground wearing a t-shirt and jeans looking over her shoulder. In the background are outlines of several men in different manners of dress to indicate that men who harass women don't fit a certain physical description. The poster reads:

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.

Photo credit: Girls for Gender Equity

by Mandy Van Deven
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Faulty comparison between harrassers and marginalized groups

While I appreciate Ms. Van Deven's interrogation of labels like "wacko" and "criminal," I find her attempt to connect street harrassers to queers, trans, etc, extremely problematic: "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." So, men who choose to bother and harrass random women should be "understood" and accepted? This seems to be the implication of Ms. Van Deven's statement. Of course, "understanding" a behavior doesn't have to lead to acceptance of a behavior, but when it comes to sex workers, queers, etc, it damn well should. And, how is a sex worker, a school child, or a trans person remotely similar to a man who makes the choice to harrass a woman on the street? Yes, our culture produces these men; yes, our culture should be inclusive and reach out to these men, rather than stigmatize them or criminalize them. But, am I going to "accept" harrassment as I "accept" homosexuality or alternative lifestyles or sex industry professions? Absolutely not. They are not even in the same ballpark. For one thing, the woman being harrassed is not a willing participant. I'm not sure this article connects the right dots for me, or offers any real solutions. A well-written, thoughtful article, to be sure, and I'm glad I read it, but I'm still having trouble with its central message.


I don't mean to say that harassment should be accepted, but that we need to look at the social elements that influence behaviors in deciding whether or not we think they are indicative of mental illness or criminality; hence my comparison to homosexuality and gender identity disorder, both of which have been (and still are for some) pathologized and criminalized.

Also, I do think there should be a conversation about how much blame lies where -- society and/or the individual -- in considering the responsibility for street harassment and the strategies to address it. If this is a "normal" behavior for men and boys that society sanctions and even promotes, then how can we demonize them and hold individuals as having the primary culpability for doing what they're told is expected of them? Which is to say that conversations must function on both a micro and macro level, and solutions must do the same.

I'm sorry if I

I'm sorry if I over-simplified your message--I see the nuances in your post and appreciate your approach to a difficult issue with a long, complicated history--but as I mentioned I just had problems with the comparison between these men ("street harassers") and some of the groups you mentioned. I agree that a conversation is necessary, and also that our society sends very mixed signals to boys about how they should interact with women, especially women whom they find attractive or "hot".

no worries!

Just wanted to be sure we were on the same page. This isn't something I've entirely reconciled myself, so I certainly appreciate your honesty. :-)

I can appreciate where you're

I can appreciate where you're coming from. But I don't think that the article is asking us to accept harassment of any kind and certainly not in the way that you would accept homosexuality and alternative lifestyles. Toni Morrison's novels come to mind. She tells the stories of various characters who do unthinkable, unspeakable acts, such as incest, rape, infanticide, and murder. And she forces her readers to understand and even have compassion for people who commit what are in name the worst of human acts. Through examining your own reactions of perceiving why someone would do what you can't understand or tolerate, you can begin to see the steps that came before that caused the behavior and also the responses and actions that continue to elicit and promote such behavior. You don't have to accept it, but understanding why the behavior happens opens up an entire field of opportunity to change it. Criminalizing the behavior won't stop it. Condemning it and demonizing it won't stop it. But understanding what is happening in our society and communities to perpetuate and proliferate it enables us to get to stopping it and healing the wounds that lead to aggressive, victimizing, and demeaning acts.

At least, that's what I took away from it. This kind of work can be the hardest to do as an individual, I think. But I agree that operating within that framework and with that beginning seems to be the only option or hope.

i love this!

i really appreciate what you're saying about the nuances of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance of difference and imperfection.

All societies are to blame,

All societies are to blame, not just patriarchal, heterosexist societies.

But what do I do when it happens?

I'm glad I read this article too, and I think I understand the central point (that street harassment is a problem that goes deeper than the people who engage in it, and that there are societal, and cultural reasons behind the behavior that need to be addressed in formulating strategies to respond the behavior rather than just saying that everyone who does it is automatically a horrible person who hates all women). Simplified, but close? Okay, so:

I guess my trouble is that, while the goal of addressing the underlying reasons for the harassment makes sense, that doesn't feel very helpful to me in facing the actual everyday presence of harassment. I feel like I get holla'ed at every day, just living my life in public spaces, and before the increased attention that's been given to street harassment being a problem, I felt completely powerless and shut down every time it happened. But reading the stories on ihollaback.org, and seeing that other women also sometimes feel the same way I do, and that there isn't a necessarily "correct" response to being harassed because everyone is different and will feel differently and act differently... it just made me feel more empowered. That, coupled with the fact that the site has made there be increased awareness of the problem (in the media, anyway), has made me feel better about standing up and saying something when I'm in those situations. And since I usually only have a small window of time to respond to harassment, and often am really f*cking angry when I'm in that window of time, if I'm able to say something, it has often probably been a "dehumanizing, knee-jerk response," as you put it. (If I'm able to form words; sometimes, I just sputter angrily, and when I'm on my bike and dude's in a car, he usually just gets flipped the bird.)

So I guess what this article left me thinking was: okay, I can get down with thinking about this issue in a more critical way, because of course there's a lot of cultural and social reasons behind street harassment, and those should be addressed as we figure out how to deal with it. But I didn't come away with what might be a better alternative for what I should do in the heat of the moment. So, I'm wondering... can I still hollah back?

knee-jerk vs. kneeing the jerk

Thanks for this comment, Casey! In a future post, I will be discussing what strategies folks might use to address street harassment -- both in the moment between individuals and also on a community level -- in a way that validates all parties' humanity, as well as the effects of telling street harassment stories.

In the meantime, my pithy advice is this: do what you need to do to stay safe.

More soon!

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