Reading posts about street harassment from around the web, I’ve noticed a theme in many comments sections:
“Usually it’s women who are low in self esteem and lack a sense of self worth who just put up with [street harassment] and enjoy it since they need a validation of their looks.” Raven
“Some women actually like having those types of comments throw (sic) at them. I’ve seen it happen and I felt disgusted. I guess if your self-esteem is low enough you like that attention.” starxduzt
“I have enough self esteem of my own, and I don’t need to accept a compliment from some slob on the side of the road to feel good about myself.” Juno Eclipse
“I’ve actually seen girls flattered by that approach of yelling and touching. Of course they’re most likely girls with low self esteem looking for any type of validation from the opposite sex.” Quixotic1018
The disdain in comments like these is palpable and the message they hold is clear: if you’re a girl or woman who likes receiving overt sexual attention from men and boys (in public), it’s because you lack the self-respect necessary to throw off the confines of external validation regarding female sexuality and beauty. We hear this self-esteem argument in various places, including conversations about female promiscuity, girls and women who wear revealing clothing, and the reasons women become sex workers. The underlying assumption in this logic is that desiring or expressly seeking out male sexual attention is the result of having low self-esteem.
For starters, comments of this kind set up a false dichotomy of women who have self-confidence and those who lack it (as though we don’t all struggle with confidence in various circumstances), which allows the speaker to denigrate and “other” women who engage with men unfamiliar to them in a sexual manner on the street, blame these women (at least in part) for the problem of street harassment, and bolster one’s own sense of personal integrity and moral superiority. The logic goes like this: if women who tolerate street harassment are duped and weak, then those who don’t tolerate it are savvy and strong. And since I want to perceive myself, and be perceived by others, as a strong and savvy woman, then I shouldn’t tolerate (much less enjoy) being objectified or sexualized by men I don’t know. Oh, if it were only that simple.
For a long time, I identified with that line of thinking, but at some point things got murky for me. For one, I started considering the implications of growing up in a society that assigns value to women and girls according to their perceived beauty and got real with myself about my own relationship to that perception. Try as I might to be a “good” feminist who doesn’t judge a book by its cover (especially when that book is my own), the desire to feel pretty just would not disappear, nor would its connection to the commentary of other people whose opinions held weight for me: my partner, my friends, my family, and sometimes even strangers and acquaintances I found attractive. To receive positive reinforcement of my appearance felt good, especially as I aged and stopped fighting the ubiquity of my belly.
Naturally, this begs the question: who determines the difference between a compliment and street harassment? The simple answer is: you do. The not-so-simple-answer is that we all do… and it depends heavily on context. If John Abraham sat next to me on the subway, said “Good afternoon, beautiful lady,” then asked me for my name, I’d be much more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and, rightly or wrongly, be more lenient when sussing out the situation’s level of safety. But because most of the men who speak to me in the subway are guys to whom I don’t feel the slightest bit of attraction, my response leans toward feeling my safety may be in jeopardy and my thought goes something like this: “Why does he feel so entitled to approach me?!” (Or, if I’m being really honest, “Does he really think I’m so unattractive and desperate that I’d bother talking to some busted dude who approaches me on the street?!” Newsflash: That ain’t low self-esteem. That’s arrogance.) To varying degrees, these responses are at least partially rooted in my own desire to feel attractive. So, why isn’t an exploration of our desires and how they do or don’t fit into social norms a more prominent feature of the way we talk about street harassment?
I think the way conversations about street harassment are typically framed now leaves little room for this kind of honesty without the fear of being judged. It’s hard to go against the grain and open oneself up to that level of vulnerability. (Sidenote: my hope is that commenters on this post particularly will recognize the difficulty of my being forthcoming before crafting their responses.) Also, the type of complexity that would come up in those conversations doesn’t lend itself to the kinds of quick-fix solutions contemporary feminism gravitates toward. Many times, when women do confess their mixed feelings about street harassment (especially when they’re older, fat, trans, or a woman of color in a white community who express feeling sad about the fact that their kind of beauty is rarely acknowledged or valued by strangers in public, and that when it does happen it can feel nice), the responses can be pretty nasty… if it’s even responded to at all. I suppose one could blame this response on low-self esteem, but it might also be a function of being real with oneself about the necessity to negotiate the space one occupies in the social hierarchy and feeling sad about having to constantly struggle with not internalizing one’s lack of social value—and that takes an enormous amount of personal strength and self-worth.
We all need to do some critical analysis of the intersections of oppression, self-esteem, street harassment, sexual desire, and social desirability. And I wish we were more purposeful about doing it in a way that validates the fact that our respective points of entry are not the same, and that wasn’t so quick to dismiss the experiences of folks who come at this issue from a different point of entry.