Takin’ it to the Streets: Class-ifying Street Harassment

A collage of four photos depicting working-class men engaging with women on the street in ways that lead the viewer to believe they're committing street harassment.When over 200 press outlets worldwide covered the street harassment hearing in New York City, the photo that accompanied the popularly distributed article depicted four construction workers watching a woman walk by. Despite the fine print reading that none of the construction workers in the picture were actually harassing women, their guilt is implied in the composition of the image, the fact that its accompanying an article on street harassment, and a widely held stereotype about construction workers' propensities to cat call women. Whether working-class men truly engage in harassing behaviors more than men from other socioeconomic groups is up for debate, but because they're stereotyped as such from the jump, the workers themselves and the women who pass by work sites are taught to expect the men to act that way.

It's probably for this reason that working class men are complained about so frequently at talks on street harassment, depicted alongside news articles and blog posts about the issue, and featured in anti-street harassment videos -- all of which reify the idea that working class men are harassers. This classist framework really bothers me. Maybe it's because I grew up working class and my step-father is a truck driver -- a profession that's often perceived as being full of men who demonstrate lewd behavior (a stereotype that contributes to the erasure of the growing number (5%) of women in the industry, but I digress) -- that I am resistant to such overarching characterizations. My familiarity with men in these fields makes me sympathetic to arguments of perception vs. intention. Social behaviors differ across class identification, and what may be deemed "crass" or "trashy" or "inappropriate" according to middle or upper class values might be entirely acceptable in my family's neck of the woods. So, whose standards should get top billing?

My answer is somewhere between neither and both. We're fond of saying that the victim's perception is the key element in determining whether or not a person has been harassed, and while I mostly agree with that sentiment, how does that square with the knowledge that some of our perceptions are a product of the values and norms we subscribe to that are determined by economic class? And furthermore, by race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, geographic region, etc. For example, as someone who actively bucks prescriptive gender norms, I feel uncomfortable when my Southern-by-the-grace-of-God father-in-law "compliments" my appearance. Yet, as a Southerner myself, I recognize this behavior is a standardly exchanged pleasantry that is generally regarded positively by most women from the Deep South. So, in a case like this, whose sensibility should each of us be expected to conform to? My point is that intent, like perception, is an important element of the debate.

Conversations about street harassment must include an element of self-interrogation, not to deny or invalidate our feelings of violation, but to understand the personal and socio-cultural complexities from which incidents of street harassment arise and use both as a point of entry to discussions about who is included and excluded in strategies to increase public safety.

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Comments

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Thanks for this post. I see

Thanks for this post. I see a lot of classism when discussing not just harassment, but violence against women as well. The accepted trope that blue-collar, working men hit their wives/girlfriends/daughters more often than white-collar men is offensive, not to mention completely inaccurate (women across all socio-economic divisions are victims of domestic and sexual violence), and the fact that the stereotype is sometimes used as a source of humor or laughs makes it even worse.

I do wonder, however, if there isn't some connection between exerting a social-construct of masculinity (through what can be rightfully called sexual harassment of women) when other avenues of supposed "masculinity" seem out of reach (providing financial security for your family, for example). I also think there's a definite cultural component in whether or not certain behaviors are deemed harassment; working in low-income urban areas, as an outsider (a white woman from the suburbs) it initially astounded me the sort of language that I would hear from guys on the street that wouldn't even raise an eyebrow from female colleagues who were from the same background (whether it should or not is up for debate).

The first picture (upper

The first picture (upper left) is rather incongruous to the others. In the other three, there is clear indication of overt behavior (whistling, calling out, etc.), but the first one appears to be four guys sitting down and looking at people walking by. Maybe they are saying something out loud that is harassing, but that picture cannot show that. In doing so, it paints an extreme view of what street harassment is---even just looking at a person walking by. That particular image does a disservice and can really put people on the defensive by suggesting that the line of what's tolerable is very far away from what they would consider reasonable.

It's similar to a response I've seen when talking with people about inclusive education practices at the university level. I've had professors proclaim that making a class inclusive means they can no longer sketch out diagrams in lectures because students with visual impairments would find them inaccessible. Some take that argument further and point out that speaking aloud is also inaccessible to some students. This leads them to view that inclusion is impossible and feel threatened that everything they are doing is wrong. It's a major hurdle I often have to work through.

And just to be clear, I'm not saying that the other three pictures are poorly chosen. Those are at the point of harassment (although the lower right one does have some other explanations such as waving at a friend in a car in the street). It's only the first picture that bothers me.

katesune

That picture

is the one Mandy refers to in the first few sentences. The men in the photo were not harassing women when it was taken, but it was printed alongside an article about street harassment as if they were. You're right that it's unlike the other pictures, but I think that's the point.

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You are correct

It appears that a combination of some developer add-ons in my browser and the Bitch website do not get along and accidentally covered up part of the first paragraph. Resizing the browser window fixed that. Doh! Time to report some bug conflicts.

excellent point!

I really like how you've further drawn out the implications of that picture, katesune! It's one of the ways it bothered me, too. And it raises all kinds of interesting questions about where the line is, or should be, drawn. Which speaks to the problems of criminalizing street harassment.

Love how the top right and

Love how the top right and bottom left photos sexualise the women in them by turning them into disembodied pairs of legs.

I have been harassed by all different classes of men - I wouldn't say more one than the other. Walking down King's Road, London, in all different areas of Manhattan, by construction workers and by CEOs too.

Staged photo? (And some comments about 'sexualization')

Dear Mandy: I appreciate your pointing out the problems associated with using a photo to illustrate a different "reality" than the photo actually depicts. I'm just wondering if the photo was staged--given the perspective, and the simultaneous reactions of the men in the background (who certainly LOOK like they're harassing the woman in the red dress). It's hard to see the image as anything other than a depiction of harassment. There are multiple shots of what appears to be harassment; I'd argue that that it would be VERY hard to 'capture' this on a consistent basis, on luck alone. Which tends to make me wonder if it was staged.

As for whether images "sexualize" women, I'd argue otherwise. Sexualization doesn't happen in the camera, or in newsprint; it happens in the mind of the viewer. I realize that it's possible for a photographer to INTEND to 'sexualize' an image (and for publications to push for that interpretation), but intention is not the same as imposition. It's not a linear relationship: include legs, exclude face, therefore FORCE the viewer to experience the image as belonging to a SINGULAR category of experience-- as 'sexual.'

If, for example, I'm photographing from a low perspective and a women in a short dress walks by and steps into the frame as I take the photo. Have I sexualized her? Absurd.

The image is not responsible for the interpretation. This is NOT to say I don't see a problem with how women are represented in the media (and in our souls). I DO see sexualization as a problem. I see it not as the fault of IMAGES, but as stemming from an attitude of disrespect toward women and creation itself. I believe it is not WHAT we see that's destroying healthy relationships between men and women; it's HOW we see.

Or so I believe.

Thank you very much for the work you do.

Yours,
Joel

Amen! I love to see anyone

Amen!

I love to see anyone obviate the confines which society is so prone to build about an open-mind, from an open-mind.

Your perspective is priceless.

If everyone had a mind like this, we’d be living in a more just world.