Focusing on the response of the victim rather than dealing with the perpetrator will not solve the problem
“No one’s holding a gun to your head telling you you have to live in New York City.”
Believe it or not, this was an actual response from a male commentator in a debate about street harassment, prompted by a viral video showing a woman being catcalled more than a hundred times as she walked through the city in a single day.
Though it sounds ridiculous in isolation, this reaction is far from uncommon. The video has sparked a host of important conversations, but as in any debate about street harassment, responses suggesting it was “just a compliment” or “she was asking for it” were depressingly common. “Nothing was disrespectful there,” declared one Fox News presenter, adding that most of the comments were “complimentary” (while his co-host added one more catcall to the bunch: “Damn, baby, you’re a piece of woman”). Some pundits even went a step further, blaming feminism itself for not having dealt with street harassment already.
Many responses, along the lines of “I’d love it if a woman shouted about my body in the street”, revealed a fundamental lack of understanding about the experience of being harassed, both in terms of its disruptive frequency and its threatening aggression. But most frustrating of all were those comments that focused on policing women’s reactions. Steve Santagati, the same male commentator who seemed to suggest that women should just consider moving cities if they don’t like street harassment, also had this pearl of wisdom to offer: “If you don’t like it as a woman, turn around, tell them to shut up, stand up for yourself. Act like a strong woman in 2014.”
As comedian Amanda Seales, appearing on the same segment on CNN, immediately pointed out, such advice is phenomenally unhelpful in a world in which women frequently see harassment escalate into more aggressive violence and even fatal attacks when they try to protest. It is so obvious that we should be focusing on the source of the problem rather than women’s reactions to it, that it shouldn’t even need to be said. Yet the insistence on criticising and mandating women’s reactions to harassment and abuse continues unabated.
Indeed, even when Shoshana B Roberts, the actress at the centre of the viral video, started to receive rape threats online, some commenters on social media still seemed more comfortable discussing whether she should just avoid looking at the internet rather than confronting the blatant misogyny she was experiencing. The policing of women’s reactions is rife when it comes to online abuse, with the common refrain “don’t feed the trolls” directed (often well-meaningly) at victims. Others patronisingly advise women to simply close their Twitter accounts when they receive rape and death threats. As if silencing women’s voices in online spaces is a brilliant way to deal with the problem.
There are lots of different ways to cope with both online and real-world harassment. For some women, taking a break from the internet is a helpful way to preserve their head space, but for others, fighting back gives them a sense of strength and control (whether retweeting their trolls, Mary Beard-style, or bombarding them with pictures of cute kittens like Stella Creasy). The nonprofit organisation Stop Street Harassment has a host of suggestions for responding to street harassers, including the recommendation to name the behaviour and describe the harasser (“Man in the yellow shirt, stop touching me”), which places the usual shame and embarrassment felt by the victim on the perpetrator instead and gives bystanders an open opportunity to step in. For those who don’t feel safe responding in the moment, reporting the incident afterwards is another option, whether to the police or the perpetrator’s employer. Many women who have shared their stories with the Everyday Sexism Project have reported positive responses from companies who have taken complaints of street harassment seriously and acted to resolve the problem. Other women find their own creative ways of dealing with harassers (“Managed to stop white van full of men mid-catcall by shoving a big powdery donut into my mouth then smiling with mouth full”). But it’s not always possible or even safe to react; fear and shock can make victims feel frozen, and the point is they shouldn’t have to deal with the situation in the first place.
As in so many situations, focusing on the responses of those who experience discrimination is often a way for commentators (who may benefit from the hierarchy of power at play) to distance themselves from the problem by implying the fault somehow lies with the victim’s reaction instead.
But we will never solve these problems if we are debating how victims should react rather than tackling them at their root. Whether women close their social media accounts when they receive threats is utterly beside the point; threatening to kill someone is illegal and perpetrators should be brought to justice. Whether a woman being shouted at in the street feels able to stop and respond or chooses to keep walking is completely irrelevant: the point is nobody should be harassing her in the first place. There is no “one size fits all” approach to misogynistic abuse, except tackling the perpetrators and preventing women from having to deal with it in the first place.