Street Harassment: Is "Turning the Tables" Really the Answer?

Photo by Mo Riza under Creative Commons license

Friends emailed me the link, allies posted and praised it on Twitter, and my Facebook newsfeed was overtaken by it. Just before this year’s international anti-street harassment week came to a close, the Guardian online posted a video, ‘Get your arse out, mate’: we turn the tables on everyday sexism”, where Leah Green, the Guardian journalist responsible for the video, gave men a taste of their own catcalling medicine. Like Green, I also loathe street harassment and recognize that increasing men’s understanding of the invasion, fear, and harm it causes is no easy task. I also agree that we need to drum up creative ways to get men to grasp that street harassment is not a trivial issue, let alone complimentary. But her video—currently boasting “a million hits and nearly three thousand comments”—is not the way to go about it. Such numbers might lead one to conclude that the video did its job: raise awareness and engage men in the conversation. Right? Not so fast. The only problem (well, not the only one) is that some commenters rightly argue that “turning the tables” is in no way comparable to the harassment women face daily.

Let’s start with the obvious: an isolated event is in no way equivalent to the typical experience of girls and women. Although much more research on the prevalence of street harassment is required, existing academic studies from around the globe, including countries such as Canada, France, Yemen, and Japan, indicate at least 70% of women have experienced street harassment, usually on a regular basis throughout their entire lives.

Inti Maria Tidball-Binz, founder of the Buenos Aires chapter of Hollaback! an international anti-street harassment movement, states that videos such as Green’s “demeans the experience of women because catcalling is violent in an aggregated way, not as a one off—in the sense that it begins at a very young age…and drop by drop that continued verbal and real or threatened physical violence continues to define how the world sees us, how we navigate public space, how we experience ourselves and our bodies.” Such ongoing harassment commonly causes girls and women to alter their manner of dress, avoid exercising outdoors, and change the routes they take while on foot.

Beyond acknowledging that one event does not make for a lifetime, flipping the script also fails to take into account the “context of gender role construction which naturalizes behaviors such as catcalling.” Tidball-Binz describes that historically “women were relegated to the private sphere and considered ‘sluts’ when they left the house, part of public property, whereas men have always been free to take ownership of public space, including the women’s bodies who dared to roam it.” Aside from these two crucial points, what I find most distressing is...

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