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Masculinity and Street Harassment

dchin's picture

            After watching the documentary “Live Nude Girls Unite!” for the sex work unit of our curriculum, I was initially struck by the scene in which the camera records a man’s steady and clear gaze on one of the dancers. During our discussion, I realized that it was watching this gaze—the male gaze—that made me uncomfortable in ways that seeing the nude dancers in the documentary did not. Upon further reflection on this moment, I found myself thinking about the male gaze in relation to street harassment. Stop Street Harassment, one of many websites and blogs that deal with the issue, is an organization that defines street harassment as “Unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.”[1] According to this organization, street harassment occurs frequently and globally. In Academic and community studies, research done in thirteen different cities found that of the statistically significant results, Beijing, with seventy percent of women reporting experiences of street harassment, had the lowest statistic. Indianapolis and the California Bay Are, with the highest statistic, had one hundred percent of women reporting experiences of street harassment.[2] Street harassment is clearly very prevalent, but what interests me about this phenomenon is gaining a deeper understanding of the role and motivations of men who engage in it. My primary question is why these men feel that it is acceptable to harass women publically—to force their gaze and presence on women who do not want it.

A recent post on Racialicious, a blog concerned with race and pop culture, “The Politics of Safety for Women” by Erika Nicole Kendall, addresses the issue of street harassment.

It compels women to react not out of their own choice, but out of fear…Women act out of fear…not out of                                                                                                                                   desire to choose their own destiny, even when that destiny is so simplistic as “what to wear that morning.” Because, remember, if you’re wearing a short skirt and you’re raped on a street corner…it’s your fault.You shouldn’t have been  wearing that. Hell, you probably shouldn’t have been out of your house. Why aren’t you barefoot and pregnant, again?[3]

The fear that street harassment causes and the negative ways it pervades other aspects of life are not usually acknowledged or discussed, but the cause of this harassment is often brought up, and for many, as Kendall notes, the blame is on women. It is a woman’s fault if she receives unwanted attention because her appearance must somehow be “inviting” it. Since she chose to look that way, she must be welcoming of any attention she receives, and is complicit garnering the unwanted attention regardless of what she actually says. This mentality means that women do not have the right to their own bodies or the choice to dictate their appearance. Their behavior is policed by the men who feel entitled to cross boundaries of personal comfort and safety, and yet the blame still falls on women. Why should it be so difficult for a woman to wear whatever she wants to or look however she wants to, without the fear of unwanted attention? Moreover, why would the men who engage in street harassment feel that it is acceptable for them to cause this fear or to police how women dress through enforcing this fear?       

            Michael Kimmel’s essay, “Masculinity as Homophobia,” illuminates a perspective of men and power that may be helpful for answering this question. Kimmel argues that men feel a sense of inadequacy in terms of achieving masculinity and are afraid that other men will see this inadequacy, leading to shame and humiliation. This fear of other men is tied to “the fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man” and it “keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women.”[4] Not only do men feel fear of other men, they feel powerless. Kimmel asserts that men see themselves as powerless because of the “discontinuity between the social and the psychological, between the aggregate analysis that reveals how men are in power as a group and the psychological fact that they do not feel powerful as individuals.”[5] These men are taught to believe that they are entitled to power, but then do not feel powerful. However, as Kimmel further points out, while this experience of powerlessness is very real for men, it does not “accurately describe their condition” because “it is not true.”[6] As a symptom of how institutionalized sexism is, the privilege that men enjoy is often invisible and so much the norm that it goes unconsidered.

            On The Good Men Project, a blog that focuses on men’s issues and perspectives on family, fatherhood, current events, etcetera, the piece “Jezebel Wants You to Be Less Creepy,” written in response to the Jezebel article, “How to Be a Good Guy on the Sidewalk,” revealed a lack of understanding of why and what about street harassment needs to be addressed. The Good Men Project post expressed this sentiment, not in the main article, but in the comments section, where one reader posted: “To expect strangers you encounter on the street to not only know your thoughts and fears but also adjust their behavior because of them is, in my opinion, unreasonable – especially if you don’t take steps to keep yourself comfortable.”[7] This comment misses the point—it is not only about adjusting behavior to make others more comfortable or whether or not you believe that you should do this. The deeper question is why a woman should be blamed for feeling uncomfortable, and why is this blame acceptable? Why is the discomfort that arises from street harassment acceptable?  

            Kimmel’s argument about the inadequacy, fear, and powerlessness men experience is useful for addressing this question because it deepens what could be a very reductive understanding of power dynamics between men and women. If most men feel powerless because they are at the mercy of other, more powerful men, and so do not have the experience of manifesting it in their daily lives, then street harassment is an outlet for this frustration. Unable to capitalize on their sense of entitlement to power in their relationships with other men, then perhaps men who engage in street harassment find power in exerting power over women, who through the exercise of this power are policed. It ensures that every man who feels that entitlement to power can fulfill it, and in a way that has become an accepted part of masculinity. When participating in this activity, these men are reaffirming their masculinity in the eyes of other men, thereby calming the fear of being judged and “outed” by those other men for not being masculine enough. Street harassment is abetted by the fear of the accompanying shame, and “Shame leads to silence—… The frightened silence as we scurry past a woman being hassled by men on the street…Our fears are the sources of our silences, and men’s silence is what keeps the system running.”[8]

[1] "Stop Street Harassment-Definitions." Stop Street Harassment. Web. 20 Apr. 2012.                 <>.

[2] "Stop Street Harassment-Statistics." Stop Street Harassment. Web. 20 Apr. 2012.                 <>.

[3] Kendall, Erika N. "The Politics Of Safety For Women." Racialicious. 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2012.                 <>.

[4] Kimmel, Michael S. "Masculinity as Homophobia." Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology. Ed. Estelle         Disch. 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill. 103-09. Print.

[5] Kimmel 106

[6] Kimmel 107

[7] Schroeder, Joanna. "Jezebel Wants You To Be Less Creepy." The Good Men Project. 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 Apr.       2012. <>.

[8] Kimmel 104


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Anne Dalke's picture

What to do?

you've covered some distance this semester, from a first webevent that read an unconventional text in a fairly conventional way (in terms of the terms set by its predecessor); to a second one that looked @ the really troubling phenomena of female suicide bombers; to this one, which begins in the space of your own discomfort, and really quite successfully, I think, finds an answer to a question that started w/ your own awareness of fear, and wondering why...

The next step here, then, would be...what are the next steps? If the street harrassment of women does have its origins in men's generalized sense of disempowerment...

what to do? How to intervene in, and begin to alter, this dynamic? What actions might be a start?