Large, Deep and Serious: Sourcing Street Harassment

By Olivia Henry, writer and Canimiz Sokakta: Hollaback! Istanbul volunteer

Last year, Nancy Leong wrote an entry for the Feminist Law Professors blog in which she criticized Hollaback’s response to street harassment:

Scrolling through the Hollaback forums, one quickly notices that the vast majority of photographed harassers appear to be men of color, poor, possibly homeless…

In many instances the woman who suffers harassment is—at least from the standpoint of race and class—relatively privileged, and is seen as privileged by her harasser…The harassment begins to look less like a self-congratulatory exultation in masculine power and more like a bitter protest against lifelong disadvantage.

Leong makes no apologies for harassment. She wants us to reconsider the source of street harassment and the way it’s treated in the legal system:

If we read street harassment as often the product of disempowerment for both harasser and victim, legal intervention offers a sorely limited response to what is only the most obvious manifestation of a much larger, deeper, and more serious problem.


Large, Deep and Serious: Sourcing Street Harassment

Leong’s assumption of a predictable class dynamic to street harassment is little simplistic – poor women are, of course, harassed. Here at Hollaback Istanbul, we can’t draw any conclusions from user photo galleries as Leong did: this branch doesn’t use the mobile application (Turkish law somewhat restricts this). Without any statistics, it’s impossible to deny or endorse the author’s generalization, especially since disadvantage manifests in Turkey very differently; darker men suspected of Kurdish or Roma descent may suffer discrimination, but mannerisms or dress indicating poverty or “rural origin” are also significant sources of prejudice.

Whether or not the class dynamic is consistent, Leong is touching on a real paradigm within Hollaback and anti-street harassment groups at large: the legitimate indignation of privileged and non-privileged women alike takes precedent over a deeper examination of why the phenomenon exists.

A sociological explanation of street harassment doesn’t involve an uncomplicated disparagement of the male reptile brain, but acknowledgement of how social and economic factors determine gender relations. Both sexes suffer poverty, racism and urban anonymity, but women suffer from these doubly: first as direct victims, and then again as isolated, threatened, disenfranchised men articulate their rage by punishing women. Leong reminds us that at least some instances of street harassment can be attributed to this double victimization. Women’s punishment doesn’t always originate with a man in the street but with the agent of these systemic wrongs – a man in a corporate high rise.


Organizational Solutions

Instead of tackling larger themes of economic justice or social norms that create and encourage street harassment, the prevailing messages of organizations like Hollaback are empowerment, awareness, and “speaking out.” They counsel women on how to react to harassment in the moment. We’re encouraged to share our stories. It’s not wrong, but it’s not enough.

Hollaback is primarily by and for women, but ultimately street harassment isn’t about us – its about society and the men it produces. Nancy Leong challenges how we look at these men: who they are, why they are and why they harass. The “why” of harassment could be reclamation of space, a punishment of privilege or an expression of power in light of its absence.

Confronting street harassment in the moment is a powerful tool – the immediate gratification, the prevention of harm, and the sense of personal empowerment are all things to work toward, to say nothing of hopefully regulating the harasser’s future behavior. Women should live and play in public without fear, and even “hollaback” at those who persecute them. This is a noble goal and we should advocate the hell out of it. Although engagement with the larger structures that produce and encourage harassment is a less tangible, less tactile task, it is surely part of Hollaback’s work as well.

Our work is to creatively and effectively respond to street harassment in the moment. By engaging with the social conditions that precede and follow that moment, we can elevate our temporal triumphs into lasting change.


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