By now, everyone with an internet connection is aware of the appalling video depicting a woman being harrassed on the street over 100 times in a single day. What’s striking to me is the reaction on the part of men who presumably would never participate in such overt harrassment. On the one hand, we get the by now familiar #NotAllMen approach, with one unfortunate tweep asking why no one notices the many men who didn’t harrass the poor woman. On the other hand, though, there are a variety of approaches to minimizing the harrassment — basically claiming that everyone is blowing it out of proportion and the woman should simply shrug it off.
Again, I’m willing to stipulate that all the men I’m describing would never actually harrass women on the street. Further, it’s clear that many men are absolutely desperate to believe that systemic patriarchy is actually just a matter of individual behavior on the part of men who they are not. We can see this in the claims that Islamic society as such is irredeemably sexist (whereas in the West, it’s purely a matter of individuals) or in the stereotype that only ethnic minorities or working-class people (i.e., not the enlightened) participate in such harrassment.
Why this investment in explaining it away, then? Why not simply scapegoat the harrassers? I think here we’re dealing with an unconscious acknowledgment that they are complicit with the structure that enables street harrassment. Even if they aren’t going to engage in such crass behavior, all these men are clearly going to be doing things that are along the same basic continuum. “Checking out” women, commenting on their appearance in conversation — are these not basically subtler versions of what the street harrasser does? Simply dismissing street harrassment as completely unacceptable opens up a potential slippery slope!
Even more, every heterosexual man benefits from a situation in which every woman is constantly reminded that she is regarded as a sexual object. There is considerable ambient pressure for women to adapt their appearance to male expectations, which results in a better aesthetic experience for men. Women even internalize these pressures, dressing in broadly man-pleasing ways “for themselves,” because it makes them feel more confident or put together — and if that doesn’t work, the fashion industry is happy to nudge women in that direction insofar as women’s clothing is by default more form-fitting and revealing than the equivalent garment for a man.
Everything conspires to push women toward making themselves visually pleasing for men, and the street harrasser is only the most visible symptom of this general trend. There is certainly something regrettable and uncouth about their behavior, but at the end of the day, they’re on “our” side. We may not agree with their tactics, but we share the same principles — and so we can opportunistically denounce them (in order to make our objectification techniques seem more acceptable by contrast) or explain them away (in order to naturalize the order of which they represent the outer fringe). In the last analysis, though, the street heckler is covered by the equivalent of a “no enemy on the left” principle. After all, without those brave men out there on the front lines every day, women might forget they exist to be ogled by men!