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Harassment 101, part I: On the street

The issue of street harassment has recently proliferated the national media: News outlets and non-profits have issued videos that document the extent of street harassment and articles that define it, as well as social criticism from female and male voices that consider it in the context of the sexualization and submission of women.

Street harassment is a particularly heinous form of sexism because it normalizes the expectation that women are not only objects subject to the proverbial male gaze, but also not invited to live and participate as equals in public affairs. The recent attention on street harassment rightly condemns the idea that it is wanted by women and that it is at all acceptable, notions that contribute to its being considered normal or even flattering.

For one thing, it never feels good to be on the receiving end of harassment, no matter how seemingly “nice” the comment or gesture may be: such comments and gestures only serve to undermine women’s security and increase their self-consciousness. For another, especially because street harassment is commonplace, is it worthy of our attention. After all, its daily onslaught in the lives of women is indicative of stubborn values that require eradicating yet remain unrelenting. Street harassment is a bit like second hand smoke: We are forced to breathe it in and all the while taught that it is not as harmful as supposedly more direct, pernicious examples of a sexist culture.

And while this discussion has pushed back against the concept that street harassment is acceptable, the scope of the problem goes beyond how women in particular are affected. The complacency with which men engage in harassment en masse merits exploration into why it happens and what it says about masculinity. We should turn our attention to why men on the whole feel entitled to comment on women’s bodies, excluding women from public space.

“Why,” a friend asked me, exasperated after a particularly frustrating moment of harassment by a man on the street, “did he think he had any right to judge my body?” Why was she forced to internalize walking on the street as a defensive experience in the wake of such aggression? The answer is not that there are a few bad apples in the bunch. Instead, men learn that they are entitled to women, entitled to sex and entitled to be vocal —verbally and physically — with regards to female bodies.

The past couple of weekends, I made it into San Francisco, and each time, I saw severe harassment. In a ten-block walk, for example, my friend and I dealt with multiple leers and comments, and a creepy car that got too close driven by a man with a stare that lingered too long. On another jaunt through Soma, an unprovoked group of men called my friends “ugly bitches,” prompting the aforementioned exasperated “Why?”

The men among us ask if this happens often. Other times, they are appalled and assume that the incident is so outrageous, it must be a fluke. Unfortunately, street harassment happens amazingly often and is not a fluke. And every time it happens, a woman — it is most often a woman — is left scared, uncomfortable, or at best, bothered. These experiences leave me wondering if women will ever be left alone, if a beloved city will ever equally belong to them so long as this pattern of commentary and abuse is sustained.

These experiences are anecdotes, but they are not mere anecdotal evidence or anomalies. The statistical consensus of social science points to the overwhelming prevalence of street harassment as a gendered phenomenon that targets women disproportionately to men. This demonstrates that it is not sufficient to conclude that some men are malicious. Rather, street harassment represents a norm of a generalized, shared claim that men make to social power, and the ownership of women’s lives and sexual status. Of course, not all men make this claim by partaking in harassing behavior, but all men inherit the subtle and not-so-subtle lesson to treat what’s female as inherently different, a lesson reinforced in infinite ways by parents, peers, media and laws.

Granted, Stanford campus and the Stanford bubble are not equivalent to, nor even a true microcosm of, a metropolitan city like San Francisco. So how does street harassment, especially the culture of entitlement at its source, apply to Stanford culture, and what can we do to combat it?

The entitlement that fuels street harassment is the same entitlement that seeps into our social interactions with peers, a subject I address in Part II of this series. But wherever it leads, we can choose to see this typically street problem as a call to examine our influence in all the public spaces we occupy: on the Internet, at parties or within student groups. Listen when people tell you that harassment is a part of their lives, and always reflect on the difference between a compliment and harassment.

Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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