Self Esteem and Street Harassment

Originally posted at Female Impersonator

Mandy van Deven over at the Bitch Magazine blog brought up a problem about the way some self-proclaimed feminists judge people (usually women) who are flattered by street harassment that I have always felt but never articulated. Namely, that sitting in judgement of the victim of street harassment’s reaction to their harassment is just as counter-productive as victim-blaming when trying to reduce other crimes instead of focusing on stopping the perpetrators of it.

…The message they [commentators] 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.

I thought Mandy’s points in the rest of the article (which I highly suggest you read) were really spot-on and insightful. I especially appreciated that she mentioned how fine but distinct the line between street harassment is. I thought she put it well when she said, “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.”

I do have one criticism with Mandy’s article, however. While she quite rightly states that the distinction between flattery at street harassment is partially defined by what the target of the comment or gesture thinks it is, I think she should have clarified that street harassers aren’t people who meant to pay a compliment and were just misunderstood. Street harassment, like sexual assault, is not the result of the perpetrator finding their target so irresistible that they cannot control themselves. It is about the perpetrator trying to exert power over and intimidate the person they are directing their comment or gesture at and it is not okay.

While I don’t think Mandy was in any way disagreeing with what I said, I do wish she clarified what she meant. Street harassment is unfortunately so normalized and accepted that many targets of it feel they don’t have a right to be upset about it or take action against it. In our current environment, myself and my fellow feminist bloggers out there need to be careful that we do not accidentally reinforce an upsetting misconception by not clarifying our meaning.

All in all though, I thought Mandy made some really great points and I applaud her for taking on this issue and pointing out a common problem in the way people talk about victims of street harassment.

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