Street Harassment: An Awful Narrowness of Attention and Why “Men” Aren’t Just the Problem

“You look just like Chinatown.”

“Let me taste your pussy.”

For me, living in Philadelphia often means getting sexually harassed on the street. Almost every week, I am the object of an unwelcome comment or stare from a strange male. This attention sometimes comes from men I do know, such as my neighbor, who deserves his very own blog post. Some comments are more banal than others, but all of the energy directed at me carries the ultimate message — “you are not a person.”

“Ride my dick!”

This post by Soraya Chemaly at Salon hits the nail on the head about street harassment. I completely agree with her comments that street harassment is indicative of how our culture subjugates women. However, what she fails to discuss is how street harassment often makes up for or masks other social subjugations. The black man who asked for spare change and didn’t receive any from me and then lashed out at me verbally with lewd comments — he doesn’t have any social power. So he turned to the one framework in which he felt he did. Recognizing the other social subjugations for men at work in street harassment doesn’t make it okay. However, I am concerned with the pervasive way men are criminalized, when I feel that they are just as frequently caught up in and at the mercy of larger social forces which likewise seek to dehumanize and flatten them as individuals. Yes, men regularly behave criminally towards women and those actions should be punished. But for true justice to occur, I think the conversation needs to expand to take in a broader view of subjugation more generally in light of larger historical sociopolitical flows. Global capital, race, urbanity, etc etc. Let’s not just beat men over the head about this stuff. Let’s have a genuine discussion about power.

I find that street harassment is usually a compensatory gesture for the men who use it against me. The men who have harassed me are disproportionately ethnic minorities, of lower socioeconomic status, under-employed or unemployed. They are sometimes under the influence of some psychotropic substance.

Philadelphia is a city at some risk. Our public school system is actively being dismantled by forces that want to see everything privatized. (For more about this IMMENSE CRISIS, please visit The Notebook.) We are still teetering from the financial crisis and housing bubble collapse. There are more and more yipsters (young urban professional (? I never know how these folks are employed) white hipsters) moving into the city, pushing out longtime residents. Once while biking home, I saw a white guy in a beard and flannel shirt holding a large package get SCREAMED AT by another white man in a car. The white man in the car was a prototypical working class Fishtown-ite who was foaming at the mouth at these “asshole kids” moving into his neighborhood so he can’t afford it anymore. A friend of mine — a tenured professor — recently moved into a block where she noticed that a home was for sale for over $600,000. To turn the gas on at her apartment, she had to take a signed copy of her lease to the utility company because they described her block as “low income housing.” The breaks between those who have and those who have-not and those who are actively having-things-taken-from-them are very thin.

It is in this framework that I can appreciate why I get harassed here more than any other place I have ever lived. While in Boston, I was hardly spoken to on the street. The same goes for New Orleans. But here in Philadelphia, it’s endemic.

The compensatory function of street harassment is terrifying — what other violence will such men take up against me in order to vent their social impotencies and frustrations? I won’t even get into the other optics of race that shape how I am perceived by these men. I’ve had glass bottles thrown at me and once feared I would get pulled off my bicycle by a white man who was *clearly* angry, sick, and high.

These men are behaving badly. They are dangerous. But they are also caught in a system that is bad to them and dangerous to our humanity. Simply condemning them isn’t helping us think more clearly about the broader social ills that have placed these men in such precarious and socially abjected positions. Yes, women still occupy some of the lowest rungs on the social pole, which is why these men turn to harassment in order to empower themselves — but that doesn’t mean that these men’s stations are actually any “better” for it. If we want to genuinely stop harassment, we can’t just criminalize men and their behavior, but get at the root causes for these actions. Telling a poor, frustrated, politically impotent man (often of color) to be polite to women is potentially just one more way of policing him. Where and when does he ever get to be bad, mad, and powerful? I’m not licensing harassment. But we need a broader view for the conversation to have meaningful social change derived from it.

I am writing this in the wake of four Indian men who are going to be executed for raping and killing a young Indian woman. These men are murderers. They are also without social prospects and opportunity. If these men had a stronger political consciousness, would they be trawling around town in a bus looking to attack women? This case ignited a global furor that will now be slaked with their deaths. And whose heads rolled when the global economy nearly collapsed? The perceptual blade of criminality and justice only cuts one way — down.

And another point — personally, I have noticed one major, unexpected consequence of being the object of this type of harassment, which I wanted to describe a bit.

One of my responses to street harassment had been to narrow the focus of my attention when I walk through the city. It was a defensive gesture on my part — of not letting myself make eye contact with men in public, of not turning my head and looking around. All of this was in order to convey an aura of “she is so terrifically focused and bad ass that nothing I do or say will penetrate her attention.” I used to try to actively embody a certain kind of shark-ness as I walked — a sleek attention that was dormant and too powerful in its inattention to provoke any comment. You can marvel at a shark, but the shark is too otherwise to even know about it or care. Its silence eats your words. It is of the deep and alien sea, without ears.

This had the negative effect of making me less attentive to the details and environments of my daily life. I noticed this when I was walking through town with CA Conrad a few years back. He kept pointing out and commenting on amazing graffiti, colored lights, and details on buildings that caught his attention. All I could see was a gray street and the road ahead of me. This made me incredibly sad. CA’s world was textured and vibrant, magical. Mine was dark and quiet, encased like a bullet in its shell.

People often list low self-esteem, depression, and body image problems as results of sexualized harassment. I noticed an awful narrowness of my attention. Time and space were flattening for me. I didn’t allow it to surprise and challenge me. I did not want to let my city in.

Now, given so much that has happened in the past few years, I see how I do not have skin, that I have been misled my entire life by all the forces of society and “learning” that sought to teach me otherwise. I am actually porous with my location. It is coterminous with my consciousness. Its horizons equal the limits of my spiritual focus. You are as much a part of me as I am of this earth.

I still get pissed off when I am harassed, but I also try to forgive my harassers with the same generous kindness I seek to permit for myself when I fail to be “good” — when I am bad, mad, and powerless. And then I write and think about these things and talk about them with friends and try to effect a change.

I want us to be emotionally round and psychologically full, not spiritually flat and politically thin. I want to be free to move through a textured and surprising world. I want men to have these same freedoms, too.

Can we work against the awful narrowness of attention that this world constantly seeks to impress upon us?

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