I’ve been interested in finding out more about this Hollaback! movement, linked below. To sum up, Hollaback! is about talking back to people who harass, bully, or objectify others in public based on their group status, such as gender, sexual orientation, body size, race, mental capabilities, religion, or others.
This is what Linda Christensen talks about in Teaching for Joy and Justice: the idea of consciously choosing what part you play in an exchange between those of unequal power – I’m probably messing up her terminology here, but the basic break down is that everyone present is either the one in power (the bully, for lack of a better term), the target, or an ally of either the former or the latter. Not speaking up makes someone an ally of the bully, so Hollaback! is about allying with the target. Standing up to the bully, or directing the bully away, or supporting the target, are all ways to be an ally of the target, not the bully.
So, what does that have to do with rape culture? Bullies on the street are mean, but they’re not raping anybody. However, this behavior reflects and reinforces an attitude that contributes to lax, permissive, or excusing attitudes toward rape or other sexual assault.
I’m focusing on gender here, but Hollaback! has lots to say on all kinds of people who face street harassment, so do explore the site.
Calling out to a woman from a car, whistling at her, or making lewd gestures, whether to compliment or to insult her looks, is harassment. While I can’t speak for everyone, I can safely say that many women find this behavior threatening, rather than complimentary or flattering. These words and actions frame her as a sexual object and nothing more. The stranger doesn’t know anything about her other than what her body looks like, so speaking, calling, or otherwise acknowledging her solely on those terms makes her a sexual object.
While we often don’t consider this behavior to be “as bad as” rape, it’s functioning in the same way – this behavior treats a woman’s body as public property that is available for sexual pleasuring and gratification. While that gratification may be imaginary, a fantasy, in the case of the street harasser, the attitude behind the behavior lends itself toward escalation from fantasy to fulfillment.
Do I think that most, or even many, street harassers are rapists? Of course not. But the keys to remember are that 1. a woman being treated in such a manner can’t be sure if or when the verbal harassment could become physical, and 2. this is an attitude that contributes to making rape more acceptable. This behavior reinforces and relies on the idea that it is socially acceptable to treat public female bodies as sources of sexual gratification, whether they are willing or not.
No street harasser asks a woman if she’s ok with being cat-called or propositioned. She has no chance to give consent – it just happens, without her agreement, and puts her in a place where she doesn’t know what else may happen without her consent. This is particularly true when we keep in mind that, as other bloggers have written here, rape culture teaches us that men cannot control their sexual urges, which is a lesson that adds to women’s fear of rape, particularly toward men who pay them unwanted sexual attention of any kind.
So please, check out the Hollaback! movement. It’s not enough to simply avoid harassing others on the street – we need to learn to be allies of those who are the targets of it and, if we ourselves become a target, ways in which we can stand up for ourselves or seek help from others.