Civilization, Culture … the Finer Things in Life.

So, there’s been a lot of talk on various places about street harassment. I don’t want to get into a debate over what it is and what counts or what doesn’t, because that’s an entirely different kettle of fish entirely. But there’s a new video out that followed a woman around New York for 10 hours and documented some of the cases, showed the most egregious ones, and listed that she had experienced over 100 in those ten hours, wearing a standard T-shirt and jeans. I first saw it here at Pharyngula, and so that’s my reference to it.

Now, what always strikes me about these sorts of discussions is that there are always lots of comments on how bad and ubiquitous this is … and yet, I’ve never seen it. I mean, women complain about not walking a short walk to the grocery store because of the constant comments they receive, and yet as someone who tends to walk everywhere I just haven’t noticed it. The standard response is that as a man it’s never directed at me and so I just don’t notice it … but the obvious counter to that is that it is directed at them and bothers them more, and so they are overestimating or overstating the issue. So it’s probably not a good idea to start debating over whose impressions are right or wrong, and instead start looking at this as if we can establish to some degree of objectivity what’s going on.

Let’s take this video as an objective argument for there being prevalent street harassment. So, from my end — and this might not work to convince anyone else, and accept that — for me to feel confident in my assessment of what I’ve seen I’ll have to look at the examples I’m using and see if in those cases I would have noticed it if it was present. Let’s start with grocery store runs. Regularly I walk downtown, and walk past at least two grocery stores. I have seen women walk on those streets. I have heard no comments, either very early in the morning or later in the afternoon as I come back. Now, it can be objected that I wouldn’t catch them if they weren’t directed at me … but I’m actually very sensitive to noise, and to yelling. In fact, I recently did this walk when there was a marathon-type run happening nearby, and when they cheered for someone I started and noticed. So if people were yelling things, I’d notice. What I wouldn’t notice would be comments directed at them in a normal speaking voice, from up close. So what about those cases?

Well, as it turns out, a while ago when I was taking courses I ended up “following” a reasonably attractive woman for a while. The reason was that her normal walking speed was slightly slower than my normal walking speed, but to get around her and, importantly, to stay ahead of her would have required me to walk a bit faster than my normal walking speed. So I stayed a little bit behind her: far enough away that it would have been clear that we weren’t together, but close enough that I would have heard anything that was said. And I heard not a thing. The person closest to doing anything harassing to her would have been … well, me.

And then there are always comments about what happens on public transportation. I don’t use it a lot, but do take it on occasion, and used to take it a fair bit. For the most part, no one talks to anyone, let alone harasses them. In fact, my most memorable interruption was when I and a suitemate from university were riding somewhere, and he was attacking the monarchy and I was half-heartedly defending it — since I don’t really care either way — an older woman and a young woman both jumped in to defend it. It was actually an interesting discussion, for the mot part.

Anyway, I’m not going to use this to deny the experiences of women who say that they get this constantly. Let’s assume that they are accurately describing their experiences. But let’s also accept that I’m accurately describing mine and my objective assessment that my experiences really are those experiences (just like I concede for them). If both our experiences are accurate … then how can they both be true? Is street harassment prevalent, or almost non-existent? It can’t be both … can it?

Well, perhaps it can. We’re, generally, in different cultures. Different cultures have different standards for a lot of things: personal space, politeness, when you talk to strangers, who you talk to, how you talk to people, and a host of other things. Canadians have a reputation for politeness, so the rude sorts of comments that you see in the video would be culturally frowned on. In fact, usually what strikes me most about the examples of street harassment is not mainly their sexual/sexist content, but how flat-out rude they are. I heard one case — on a blog that I can’t find anymore — where two men near a woman audibly rated whether they’d have sex with her or not. To me, what was clearly not done was doing that in a way where she’d hear that, even if I have no real problem with either men or women rating the attractiveness of a MotAS that way (although I, personally, find it a bit crude). That’s just not done. Why in the world were those people acting so rudely?

So while the standard narrative is that this is about ownership of women or putting them down or whatever, I wonder if this isn’t more reflecting a ruder, more aggressive culture … or, at least, a less polite one. Since men are indeed expected to make more approaches, and are indeed encouraged to “make the first move”, men are indeed going to “hit on” women more than the alternative. The ways in which these are done is going to depend on culture. For example, when I took a Russian class in my first year of university, the professor pointed out that Russia was a lot different from here in terms of these sorts of things. Here, in general, people didn’t talk to each other on the bus, but in Russia if a man sat near a woman on the bus striking up a conversation was just expected. However, in Russia, women didn’t smile or say anything to a man on the street, at least unsolicited, or else it was assumed that she was interested in sex. Which is not the case here. So when he came to Canada for the first time, it was around Christmas, and he constantly had women saying “Merry Christmas!” to him. To which one of the young women in the class exclaimed “You must have thought we were all sluts!”. The point of this tale — that at least I and the class found funny — is that how this intricate dance works, and how people interact with each other, is culturally set. And I think at least part of the complaints of “Well, you’re saying that we can’t approach at all” is that the methods do fit in with what the culture at least accepts, and seem to be how this all functions. What are we supposed to do if you just take that away?

So it seems to me that instead of arguing that this stuff reflects inherent sexism — although in some cases it might — or any of that sort of analysis, or arguing that it promotes a culture of misogyny, that things might be further ahead to look at the culture itself, see what kind of culture is there, and either work on a) promoting a more polite culture overall or b) working out alternatives that fit the culture and yet don’t have the nasty consequences. If it is true, as it seems to me, that an overall culture can promote or inhibit this, then perhaps it is best to address the overall culture and not this small part of it. After all, how well do you think “You’re being rude!” will work in a culture where being rude is considered a virtue? And so if you point out that this is effectively rude in that culture … well, do the math.

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