I remember growing up and learning how to “holler" at girls. I’ll be honest, I’ve never found it particularly natural to stand in a group of other guys and whistle, catcall, or bark compliments to women, but somehow it was supposed to be a rite of passage. In my younger days, I thought of street harassment as bad, but shrugged it off a bit because there were a lot of worse things that I could do toward women and since I didn’t catcall, I wasn't really an offender. However, each day I see greater connections between street harassment and violence against women.
In many of the communities where I've lived and hung out, street harassment is as common as the sounds of Biggie blaring from a car stereo. As I spent more time kicking it with other men and boys, I learned that when an attractive woman approached, I was to scan her body as she walked towards me, look her up and down as she passed me, and swivel my head around to further inspect her buttocks as she passed. I didn’t think much of it because it was what all of my friends did, be they “conscious” or “hood.” We’d wait for her to pass and then begin to discuss her body as if she wasn’t two feet away from us. Despite this, I thought "I don't yell at women, so I'm not doing anything wrong."
I was never one to call out to a woman when they passed, but have been in huddles of men barking women’s skin complexions ("Aye, shawty red!”); their body parts (“Fatty, what’s good?”); and insulting women who did not respond (“F— you! You too stuck up anyway.”) When I was in groups of men that yelled things at women, I usually remained silent or nervously joined in the chorus of laughter of the other fellas. While I didn’t agree with what was yelled, I seldom raised my voice in protest because I didn’t want to be uncool, to be perceived as “less of a man” or challenged on why I found it necessary to defend women. This is what sociologist Michael Kimmel identifies as a deep form of homophobia: the fear that other men would challenge me, question my manhood, or even call me gay. This very fear led me to silently harass women and allow the others to vocally harass. I now realize that my worries of being pushed out my peer group could be tied to multiple forms of violence against women.
Cleveland, Texas was put on the national map in 2011 when an astounding twenty males (13 of which were adults) repeatedly raped an 11-year-old girl. The story made many pose the standard rhetorical question, “How could this happen?” It doesn’t have to be rhetorical; if you ask some of the young men who raped the child, they would tell you it was homophobia. One of the juvenile attackers admitted he was prodded into the assault after others started to call him gay for not participating. In response, he sought to “prove” his masculinity. Surely being called gay is not enough to make someone commit rape, but when we create conditions where young men are constantly fighting other men to prove their manhood, what they will do to get props or accepted can escalate to dangerous levels. Ending gender-based violence is not about telling our sisters and daughters how to protect themselves, it should be about talking to our boys and men about we say to each other, what we allow to be said, and why we don’t stop when someone is being put in harm’s way.
You may not be someone who harasses women who pass on the street, which is good. But to be someone who stops your friends and loved ones from harassing would be even better. Joe Samalin of the group Men Can Stop Rape created a hilarious and empowering video entitled, “Sh*t Men Say to Men Who Say Sh*t to Women on the Street” that gives some ways to interrupt harassment. We often tell our kids, “it takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch” but when it comes to ending street harassment and ending violence against women it could take just one good apple standing up. As men, we can start to curb the unsafe environments we create for women by losing our fear, interrupting street harassment, and engaging our brothers in honest discussion.
Click here to learn more about ways to fight street harassment.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his offical website