Monday, December 08, 2014

Street Harassment as a Class Issue

A brand new grocery store has been recently built a block from my apartment. To clear my head in between work assignments, I visit several times a week. Unwittingly, I've attracted the attention of three or four women who work there. They are very flirtatious and loquacious in my presence. I'm not used to this treatment. It is flattering, yes, but a little embarrassing at the same time.

Recent feminist discussion has addressed, once more, the issue of unwanted catcalls and other invasive behavior that falls under the category of street harassment. What I've experienced myself is different, but has some similarities. It feels good to be complimented, but a little unnerving when it is so overt and not subtle. The analogy I am seeking to draw here isn't entirely congruent, I recognize, but the two of them share a few things in common.

As a man, I know that I probably don't have to fear pursuit or obsessive attention from a woman. What I have been experiencing is a kind of good-natured, somewhat ribald teasing. I could let it go to my head if I wanted, especially because I've never seen myself as especially good looking. They wait for me now, ready to pounce and to initiate conversation the moment I enter the self-checkout line. If I were less socially phobic, I might be able to even enjoy it, since this appears to be utterly harmless.

What I experience over the course of five minutes is experienced, at least partially, by many women every day. As a male ally, I've observed behavior like this at times when out in public, out in the streets, or on the bus. But street harassment is different. In those situations, I've felt completely impotent and powerless. Is it my role to intervene, perhaps risking a physical altercation in the process? I can't fight every battle and my religious beliefs discourage violence in any form, for any reason. The best I can do is let my life shine as an example of proper conduct and privately instruct other men who behave in inappropriate ways.

The rules and codes of conduct for male feminists are frequently, frustratingly absent. Feminists, either male or female, are often misunderstood, many times a projection of fears that reveal more about personal bias than actual doctrinal misunderstanding. But again, what can men do to eliminate cat calls, wolf whistles, and inappropriate remarks?

None of my male relatives engaged in such behavior. I take an outsider role from the outset. My father viewed it merely from a male perspective as a male-only matter, but was nevertheless critical of these acts. For him, such behavior was low-class and inexcusably coarse. Over the passage of time, men have formulated acceptable codes of conduct within themselves, and many men were brought up to believe as I was. Street harassment in any form is seen as inappropriate by many men, but our mistake is not moving from disgust to intervention.

One incident of street harassment is too many. I wonder sometimes if feminist thinkers and writers have looked deeply enough into Patriarchy, and viewed it on the merits of its complexity and nuances. At times, I feel like a self-designated expert on men behaving badly. If we talk about street harassment, we'll need to discuss the men who maintain the practice and where they learned the behavior.

I began with a story of receiving attention that, while not unwanted, certainly took me out of my comfort zone. Before I read the personal anecdotes of women, I assumed this sort of behavior was consigned only to construction workers. But on second thought, I do recall that a former girlfriend lived in a rough part of town. She enjoyed my company when taking a walk. That way, random men passing by in cars would leave her alone. She saw this as inevitable, not as a personal affront.

This issue is often tied closely to class and socio-economic status. I was taught that this was behavior performed by other men who were borderline criminal. Other men might think these thoughts but not verbalize them, or at least not verbalize them in this way. That was part of being a respectable citizen, not a deadbeat.

In the same way, shouted words and an energetic argument is one way of vocalizing conflict. The appearance of a handgun is another. And until we are really willing to dig deeply into class distinctions and cultures not our own, not to avert our eyes and mutter things under our breath, nothing will change.  

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