Street Harassment: Another Misdirected Cause?

A multitude of people saw the YouTube video, or read the story in the news, about the actress who took part in a planned, secretly filmed ten-hour walk through Manhattan that—as expected—resulted in a substantial number of comments, catcalls, winks and what not from men she passed. The filming was arranged by an organization that devotes itself to ending what it calls “street harassment” in cities throughout the world.

There seem to be two major anti-street harassment organizations and when perusing their websites one is immediately struck by the vagueness of their definition of the term. It is very much like the more general category of which it is a sub-set, sexual harassment—and also like child abuse and neglect. The meanings are so broad that they encompass all sorts of things. Like with the supposed epidemic of child abuse, some are calling for laws to put a stop to street harassment without being clear about what it is. The result with child abuse is that upwards of 80 percent of reports are false or unfounded, parents are investigated for innocent childrearing practices that some anonymous caller doesn’t like, and we have a totalitarian-like child protective system (CPS) that in theory monitors every family in the country.

We have witnessed claims of many “epidemics” and “crises” in the last few decades, almost none of which, when examined with some care, truly meet the bill. Child abuse, elder abuse, bullying, campus rape, police brutality (while police misconduct is a subject of concern, an epidemic of brutality is another thing), and sexual harassment itself are just some. What follows is a usual pattern. Interest groups with an agenda spotlight the “crisis” and play it up. If it seems to fit the secular leftist paradigm the media picks up on it. Then, often legislators—usually because no organized opposition has congealed and the public is either inattentive or agreeable because it vaguely sounds good—enact a new law (the solution is always a law). The law then has reverberating unforeseen consequences and creates a whole host of new problems.

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The same thing appears to be in the offing with street harassment, and in some places local ordinances are being proposed to combat it. Some articles have appeared approvingly noting how a century and more ago some communities imposed criminal penalties for similar behavior. One wonders if the authors would similarly support the criminal laws then in place about contraception, abortion, fornication, sodomy, and pornography. It doesn’t occur to them that all these problems are cut from the same cloth: the disregarding of sound sexual morality. The leftist activist crowd is increasingly calling for laws criminally punishing speech just because it offends some group of people. The implications are huge: such a standard would shred constitutional protections of free speech.

The anti-street harassment people seem to lump a whole range of comments and behaviors together without making any distinctions at all. So, sexual and sexually suggestive comments to women passing by and stalking behavior—in the video one man silently, eerily comes up and walks next to the actress for five minutes before finally leaving—are lumped together with saying “hello” or “good morning.” This is consistent with the anti-campus rape activists who have expanded the definition of what was once forcible sexual assault to include even “verbal rape,” whatever that is. It’s also, of course, what has been seen for forty years with child abuse and the CPS since the enactment of the federal Mondale Act. Would the anti-street harassment activists be satisfied only when everyone walks along looking down at the ground the whole time, avoiding even eye contact that could be construed as harassing? Or would they then somehow also view that as demeaning to women?

The activists say that someone violates “private space” not just by touching or getting too close to someone, but by any kind of unwanted verbal communication as well. Does that mean that a young man doing nothing more than asking a young woman for a date that she doesn’t want to go on is a form of harassment? Are attempts at friendliness to be automatically viewed with suspicion? Instead of fostering more respect for women, this is likely to put more barriers between the sexes and further damage the possibilities of wholesome male-female relationships. More generally, it seems to be a recipe for social isolation. Should we be surprised that we hear expressions nowadays like people “bowling alone”?

Some of this also reeks of an anti-male perspective. The feminist orientation of these organizations is apparent from their websites. So is their ready embrace of the homosexualist movement. They lament not just the street harassment of women, but also of LGBT persons. (They don’t explain, however, how someone these people pass by on a sidewalk would know about their same-sex attraction, unless it’s because they give an opening or display “in your face” affectations.) Nowhere on the websites is there mention of the need to restore sound, traditional sexual morality or the norms of gentlemanliness. They point a finger exclusively at the males all of whose actions in the video, as mentioned, are equally condemned. They give women advice about what they should do to resist street harassment but, not surprisingly, say nothing about dressing modestly, which is something that serious Christian parents emphasize to their daughters from prepubescence. Immodest dress hardly excuses stalking and sexual assault. Still, it is only in a fantasy world where there is no understanding about the realities of human nature that one can believe that a looseness of sexual norms and an inattention to modesty and chastity have nothing to do with them.

The contemporary feminist movement is partly responsible for the coarseness in male-female relations that we now witness. From its beginning in the 1960s, it wholeheartedly embraced the sexual revolution. In its single-minded obsession with sexual egalitarianism, it doesn’t seem to have considered that an ethic of sexual libertinism might lead to women becoming victims. Instead of motivating men to the sexual virtue that in earlier times was especially associated with women, feminism “liberated” women to be lustful and opened the door to their being even further objectified.

The upshot of some commentators to the video was that the harassment was especially outrageous since the actress was dressed appropriately. When my wife viewed still shots from the video she disagreed and noted the form-fitting clothes, including jeans, the actress was wearing. Let’s remember that tight jeans were sometimes called the emblem of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Maybe the actress was impervious to the problems of her dress like so many young women are today, or perhaps it seemed tame to her compared to some of the female apparel in the acting profession.

One of the first criticisms the video received was that it overwhelmingly seems to depict minority group men engaging in the street harassment. The maker of the video scurried to say that since he had to edit most of the ten hours down to a couple minutes it only appeared that way, that really there were a lot of harassing Caucasian men too. He explained, however, that what they said was “in passing” or “off-camera.” That is unconvincing, especially when a lot of the comments made in the video generally were “in passing.” Is it possible that, like so many things concerning minorities, nobody wants to look seriously at problems within those communities that give rise to a flood of social maladies, including perhaps this one?

A genuine epidemic within the minority communities in question is family breakdown and absent fathers. The result is, obviously, that the strong, solid male examples—who are crucial in shaping virtuous gentlemanliness and good citizenship in the next generation of males—are simply not there. Is it just possible that there might be more street harassment, however defined, by males in these minority groups for the very reasons that the amount of crime and incarceration and gang activity is disproportionate among them? Might the basic problem be poor formation—in both morals and manners—due to poor family background and insufficient religious training?

Actually, as far as the innocent comments were concerned, might they just have been a gesture of verbal friendliness to women passing by that is typical of some men in those minority communities?

The long and short of this is that street harassment—properly defined and understood— is certainly a problem, especially in urban settings. One can’t trust activists and advocacy groups to define it and lead the charge against it, however. As in so many other areas, they lack balance, good judgment, and basic fairness—and are ideologically driven. We have laws on the books already for assault, sexual assault, and stalking and maybe enhanced police presence is needed in some areas. We don’t need and shouldn’t tolerate additional criminal laws that punish comments no matter how insulting or offensive. A renewal of morals and manners is what is needed—the very solution the secular left with all their causes doesn’t want to hear.

Editor’s note: The image above is a scene from “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) staring Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, and Vic Morrow.


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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