Connecting Street Harassment and Popular Culture

In the last week I have been honked at while driving by a man making gestures at me, screamed at while running by young men leaning out of their car, and had my butt roughly grabbed by a man at a bar.

Sounds like a pretty exciting week right?

Let me start with being very clear: I am completely and utterly sick of this.

According to the organization Hollaback!:

Internationally, studies show that between 70-99% of women experience street harassment at some point during their lives. Comments from “You’d look good on me” to groping, flashing and assault are a daily, global reality for women and LGBTQ individuals, but street harassment is rarely reported, and culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay. The long-term impacts include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a reduced sense of safety that can limit earnings, decrease mobility, and interrupt their ability to fully engage with civic life

I should be able to walk down the street without being whistled at. Any person perceived as female should not have to face this kind of discrimination. I am sick of dealing with this “price” of being a woman.

As artist Nikki Schiro states, “too many men feel entitled and unashamed to hurl dehumanizing, objectifying, disrespectful, vile and ultimately vicious words at women who were doing nothing more than minding their own business”.

For me, the honking and yelling from cars is easier to ignore. However, the incident in the bar, of the man breaking my personal space and grabbing me from behind, I could not ignore. After I went back to my table of friends and explained what had happened I saw the man about to walk past us. So of course, I did what anybody would do: I freaked out. Editing out a few choice words I more or less told him not to touch me or my friends ever again. After looking at me with utter disbelief he walked away and I never saw him again that night.

As I reflected on this incident in the following days I could not help but think of the why. Why do so many men find that giving this type of attention is appropriate? Why did that man appear to be in shock over what I consider a valid response? To even begin answering that question we have to identify why this discrimination has sustained itself over time.

Now there are about a million and one reasons why street harassment occurs. Structural discrimination against women runs rampant through numerous institutions (think schools, think the legal system, think the family).

But one arena that I want to talk about today is often surprising to people who either are not interested in the topic or have not sat through half a dozen Women’s Studies classes. That arena is popular culture. I hope to give you a very basic analysis of these two intersecting scenes to spark conversation and change.

Let’s start with some examples from advertising:

Example A:


The classic Dolce and Gabbana ad showing a woman being held down by one man as three others stand around and watch.

Example B:

A decal designed by Hornet Signs to look like a woman tied and bound by rope.

Example C:

Lyrics to the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, including lines such as, “I know you want it” and “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”.

Now what does all of this have in common?

If you answered misogynistic, normalizing sexism, making violence against women seem standard, and just down right depressing then ding ding ding you win. These are a few of many examples of how women are represented in the media as objects. Commodities that can be bought and sold. Objects that can literally be tied up and thrown in the back of a truck.

Now here comes the connection between my experience and these popular culture references. There is no doubt in my mind that the man who so nonchalantly touched me in the bar thought what he was doing was inherently wrong. He probably thought that he was being playful, flirty even. And how would he not with these images being thrown at him on a daily basis. The woman in the advertisement for Dolce and Gabbana seems to be enjoying herself. She is wearing that sexy look on her face that tells the world she is in this position without struggle. The women in the “Blurred Lines” video happily run around as Thicke reminds them that he knows they all want him. Without recognizing the influence media has on each and everyone of us we ignore the reasons that help explain why men continue to grab women at bars. That man felt entitled to touch my body, clearly not experiencing much opposition in the past. And even when confronted with opposition media tells us that women who say no are really saying yes.

How do we change it?

First, I want to identify that I come from places of privilege. The advantages I have been afforded in life have given me license to stand up for myself in certain situations that would not be possible for people with different intersecting positions.

That being said I want you to fight. And when I say you I mean anyone. Women experiencing harassment should speak up when possible. Let people know that this is not acceptable. If you are in a position where you are unable to speak up, take to the Internet. Share your story, shame your harasser, write a blog post. Men who have harassed or witness their friends harassing women: stop. Understand the ways in which society allows you to believe women “want” this type of attention. And while I do not wish to speak for all people who identify as female I can say that I do not want this. And when I say no or stop I am not playing hard to get.



One comment

  1. I love this post! The connection you drew between sexual harassment and pop culture is undeniable, but it’s something that the vast majority of people don’t think about. And I think that “entitled” is the perfect word to describe the way these men feel when they are groping a woman’s body or shouting at her on the street. They feel entitled, that it is their right. Because the media and society has taught them that it is. I hope that we can all follow your call to action by not standing by and allowing this to continue. We all need to speak up when we see things that are wrong — it’s the only way to make change.

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