Lauren R. Taylor is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial page staff and a self-defense instructor and anti-violence educator.
You’ve probably seen that viral video where a woman walked around New York for 10 hours and was harassed 108 times. It’s sparked a lot of conversation around two questions: Is that really harassment, and is it really a bad thing? And how come all the harassers were men of color? Here are some answers.
Why are comments men make to women such a big deal?
Most women have negative responses to being harassed. I teach empowerment self-defense, and in almost 30 years of teaching I’ve heard hundreds — maybe thousands — of women talk about feeling afraid, disgusted, humiliated, furious and powerless.
When I was younger and got harassed more often, I was exhausted and irritated (at the very least) every day after I traversed a gauntlet on my 2-mile walk to work from Mt. Pleasant to Dupont Circle. Five to eight incidents of harassment was normal.
When women answer harassers, they often get nasty replies, like “c—” or “uptight b—.” That alone gives the lie to the “compliment” defense. It’s not a compliment, and it’s not just “good morning,” because of the underlying threat of rape. Women fear rape, and it’s a realistic fear: Almost 20 percent of women are raped in their lifetimes, and that doesn’t include sexual coercion other than rape, or abusive relationships. Harassment tells women and LGBTQ folks (the other group most likely to experience this type of harassment) that they don’t own their bodies when they’re in public spaces.
If you wonder why “you look nice” or “smile” can feel threatening, ask harassers why they don’t say those things to the men they pass. If these harassers were “just being polite,” it would make sense to do that, right? That’s the reason such remarks feel threatening: They remind us of our status of “other” and “lesser,” and they remind us that men have to power to objectify us and our bodies. Sexual harassment is on a spectrum with sexual assault, and street harassment is the day-to-day, minute-by-minute, reminder of our vulnerability.
Why weren’t more of the harassers white?
The team that shot the video says that there were white harassers but that the video quality of them wasn’t good and they were edited out. That is a failure on the part of the filmmakers. Though the fact of this video and the conversations it has provoked are good things, the history of racism and sexism in this country leaves no room for blaming such an omission on “technical difficulties.” They should have gone back and shot some more footage to accurately reflect reality.
The intersection of racism and sexism, especially sexual violence, is harmful and explosive. In the past, black men were lynched for being accused of looking at a white woman, and today black men and other men of color are portrayed in media as predators and jailed at disproportionate rates.
The truth is that men who are going to harass (or abuse or attack) do so in the sphere in which they have power. Low-income men of color don’t have as many spheres of privacy, and are more easily exposed, than wealthy white men – especially on the street. Wealthy men (especially in New York) are in a taxi or have a driver. But those who abuse do so in the boardroom, in the office (checking out the intern?), at the opera (a student of mine was once felt up by the tuxedoed man sitting next to her), etc. — or they’re abusing their power to have not-really-consensual sex with the nanny.
The white men with class privilege have lots of resources (read: power) that grant them more secrecy and anonymity than the men on the street. Sometimes we find out about them, like actor Charlie Sheen, who has pled guilty twice to domestic violence (and was accused several more times) or Sen. Bob Packwood, who was accused of sexual harassment and assault by 10 former staffers and lobbyists. Sometimes, it’s someone you’ve probably never heard of, like Michael DeMaio of Greenwich, Conn., who nearly killed his wife by beating her with a baseball bat.
The power and privilege tied to sexism and racism intersect. They are, like street harassment, hiding in plain sight. Harassment is an abuse of power, not an attempt to be nice. It’s a reminder of — and sometimes a precursor to — rape. And it’s not confined to the streets.