Women are angry. Videos are circulating on social media, and late-night TV is running skits about “street harassment”—the whistling, catcalling, and otherwise unprompted propositions men throw at women on the street. I admit it happens. It’s unwelcome. And it can make a woman feel uncomfortable, even threatened.
One group in particular—ihollaback.org, a movement dedicated to stamping out street harassment—created a video of a woman walking through New York for ten hours in which she endures more than 100 instances of “street harassment,” which include everything from whistling to men walking uncomfortably next to her. And their message is clear: street harassment is yet another form of gender-based discrimination and violence that is prevalent in America today and “emerges from a culture of sexism.”
This narrative is not terribly surprising. The refrain these days—from fringe groups like FCKH8 who recently released the video “F-Bombs for Feminism” to more mainstream women’s groups and the White House Council on Women and Girls, who have been promoting the “War on Women” rhetoric—is that life in America is inherently unfair, even hostile, to women.
But the reality is that the problem of “street harassment” is more complicated than just a “culture of sexism,” and it’s one most feminists won’t want to admit.
Don’t Judge All Men By The Jerks
For starters, the guys in these videos, like the one created by ihollaback.org are jerks. They have no manners, no impulse control, and for the most part don’t seem to have much else going on. Their video doesn’t show a woman being harassed as she walks down the halls of a prestigious law firm or through an elegant department store. For the most part these men are sitting on street corners or roaming aimlessly. Certainly some are looking to cause a little trouble.
While the camera doesn’t follow the men after the woman walks away, it’s likely these men act like idiots to men they see at the bar as much as to women passing by. But I don’t think anyone thinks getting in someone’s face, and calling out at someone on the street—man or woman—is acceptable. If my kids did it I’d be appalled and make them apologize, and when a grown man does it, it suggests we really need to promote better social norms of civility.
So what about the gender-aspect of the problem of “street harassment?”
If You Want Sameness, Don’t Expect Chivalry
Well, our brave new world of gender equality—in which we scoff at gender differences and men and women are encouraged to act the same—often proves harmful to women and girls. While the modern feminist movement won women tremendous freedoms educationally, professionally, personally, and sexually, it often leaves women feeling anything but empowered.
The reality is these freedoms have too often come at the expense of all values and traditions. We’ve in effect thrown the helpful social mores out with the old-fashioned bathwater. But it’s the modern feminist movement, which ushered away any hint of traditional chivalry and gendered expectations, that’s in part to blame. Certainly few want to return to an age when gender roles were excessively rigid, but feminists have gone to extremes and encouraged a culture that undermines healthy gender relationships. Men who hold doors are now viewed as part of the patriarchal society. And girls are expected to just “be one of the guys.”
But gender roles helped men and women and in times past allowed the sexes to better navigate the sometimes-rough waters of romance, courtship, marriage, and sex. Feminists view the chivalry and social mores of previous generations as anachronistic. But the reality is these traditional customs of giving up a seat for a woman on a train, or accompanying a woman in public, weren’t all rooted in sexism. They were social structures to help make men more respectful of women and to curb this kind of inappropriate behavior.
It might not have been perfect, but it had a purpose. Today’s dismissal of gender differences instead creates confusion, disappointment, and often more opportunity for harassment.
The conversation about street harassment has revealed once again that feminism has come with a cost, and women are usually the ones who bear the real price. Society has never been perfect, and I’m not advocating for a return to a time when women’s choices were more limited, but in years past men and women both had a better framework to determine what was acceptable behavior and what was not.
Certainly a woman should never be made to feel uncomfortable while just walking to work or picking something up at the store. We all want to encourage a healthier and safer society for both men and women. But, instead of focusing on the faux sexism lurking on every street corner, we’d be better to consider the limitations of modern feminism and ask ourselves how we can better navigate this new world of gender relations.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is the executive director of the Independent Women's Forum.