Joe Samalin, New York City, NY, USA, SSH Blog Correspondent
(Content Notice for sexist language used in street harassment)
I have worked in their neighborhood for almost two years now and still don’t understand them. Their culture, dress, and mannerisms are so different from my own I’m uncomfortable around them. When I leave work to grab lunch they are often outside, too.
Young, white men in power suits, hair slicked back, smoking cigars. I don’t know if they are traders, bankers, or hedge fund managers, but the first time I noticed them it was like scene out of ‘Wall Street’ (which makes sense since I work around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange).
I first really noticed them about a year ago. A young woman left their side of the street and walked towards me as I crossed past her to go buy some peanut M&M’s. As she crossed the street their loud, sexually graphic comments about what they would like to do to her followed her as she walked on. The comments weren’t necessarily for the woman’s benefit – they were for each other and any other men around.
This is one truth of street harassment – it’s often done to “prove” our masculinity publicly – to ourselves and to other men (and women).
I don’t harass women in public or anywhere else. Most of the men that I know don’t either. As a straight, white, cisgender male I also have the privilege of not being harassed regularly in public. No brutality of a stop-and-frisk, no homophobic or transphobic bullying and violence. None of the pervasive and daily harassment of women and girls in public spaces touches me. In fact, I have never been harassed in public as far as I can remember. And I know writing that sentence is a slap in the face to the many women, folks of color, and LGBTQI friends and family I am blessed to have in my life.
However while I choose not to commit street harassment and am not harassed myself, I have been involved in street harassment a lot. Men harassing women in public seek me out in the moment to join in with them as they ogle, motion to, or catcall women. Or to defend them and have their back the (rare) times when they get called out by the women they target.
It’s (almost) unbelievable. Strangers (men) assume I will have their backs and support their violent (yes, violent) behavior towards women and girls in public. They expect me at least to turn a blind eye, and at best to stand right by their side.
Because most men ignore it. We excuse it, minimize it, and defend it. With a miniscule amount of effort we could acknowledge the reality of street harassment around us. From Wall Street to any street, street harassment is everywhere. And every one of us who chooses to ignore it or stays silent is complicit in it.
If I don’t speak up and out against street harassment my silence gives men who do it tacit approval to keep on keeping on. I give them my voice and allow them to speak for me.
I recently asked a few guy friends of mine if they knew any ‘hotspots’ of street harassment, areas where it happens not once, but was unrelenting.
Albery Abreu, a friend from the Bronx who has been addressing men’s violence against women since he was in high school told me about neighborhood parks. “Throughout the years I’ve witnessed an absurd amount of street harassment occurring when women/girls walk down the block where the basketball courts are. Boys stand behind the gate and whistle/holler/bark/shout/etc. at girls walking past. Some even leave the courts to run up to women to get their attention. I recall my sister telling me that she dreaded (and avoided as much as possible) walking on the same blocks as the baseball fields and basketball courts, even if there are only a few men and boys playing there.”
Dan Wald, a former board member of Students Active For Ending Rape is finishing up a degree in public health at an Ivy League school and told me “Our school has a break between the main campus and the medical campus, where there are some stores and people hang out. I remember last fall [a female friend] texting me that they wished I was with them” as they walked between campuses.
Gene A. Johnson, Jr. a professional mediator and facilitator of educational classes on masculinity blew my mind with this 4Square screen capture. Gene did not even need to leave his house to find street harassment.
These guys and others helped me better see how much energy we as men put into the lies of ‘it doesn’t happen (that often)’, ‘it doesn’t happen in this neighborhood’, ‘it’s not that serious’, etc.
Street harassment of women and girls happens everywhere men are present. Not because we all do it, but because we aren’t doing enough to challenge it.
Back to Wall Street. That day those men harassed the young woman, I turned around and hollered at them to cut it out. Their reaction? Straight confusion. They did not seem to understand the situation, couldn’t grasp the concept that I – one of them – was calling them out. They assumed I was an ally. And when we as men stay silent in the face of street harassment, that silence sends the message that we are allies of those who commit it.
Copyright: Joseph Samalin. All rights reserved. Reprints or reposts with the permission of the author and Stop Street Harassment.
Joe Samalin has been addressing gender-based violence for over 15 years, including as the Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator for Men Can Stop Rape. He is currently the Outreach and Training Manager for the Disaster Distress Helpline and is examining among other things gender-based violence in the aftermath of disasters. Follow him on Twitter, @joesamalin.
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