Monday, November 16, 2009

Street Harassment

Today I was reading an article in the nytimes style section about how people are retaliating against rude people in public places by being equally rude back. For example, when someone is talking loudly on their cellphone, others publicly shame them by commenting on the details of their personal call. I started reading the article because I often feel the urge to be rude to these people and basically the gist of the story was: Two rudes don't make a right. So instead of feeling bad for not standing up to people, at least I can find comfort in the fact that I was polite. The essence of the advice was that the best way to fight poor behavior was to exemplify good behavior, which ties in well with how I think Christians should live. Yadda Yadda. It's a good piece if you want to read it, but not the point of this post

The subject of this post, which is about sexual harassment, was actually brought to my attention when I followed a small link in the above article to a blog in NYC called HollaBack NYC. Basically women post stories about times they have been sexually harassed in public on the streets of NYC. It's suppose to be empowering, I think. There's also a HollaBack PNW, but all the posts are old. Personally I think this is a great idea and I really wish that the HollaBack PNW site was still up and running, because I would post some of my stories.

And here's the thing that got me thinking. Almost every woman I know who lives in the city has stories like those on the blog. Stories of men offering them unsolicited attention of a sexually degrading nature. For example, about a month ago I was walking down a busy street near my house with a community college on one side and small groceries, shops, and coffeehouses on the other. Lots of people walk here. There are a couple buslines and a train line 5 blocks away. It was Sunday. I was with my husband and we were walking to get coffee. A man was with his friend walking in the opposite direction. As we passed, one of these men stopped my husband and said to him "Excuse me, I was wondering if I could offer her some candy" referring to me.

At first I was surprised at a stranger talking to us and then about 5 seconds after he and his friend left, I realized he was referring to sex when he said "candy." To say this pissed me off is an understatement. I think both my husband and I were initially confused when the man approached us, but by the time we reached the end of the block I was determined to turn around and confront the guy. However my husband, with the cooler head, advised against escalating a situation with a stranger who could have a gun.

But what I find so sad about this situation is how very common it is, as evidenced by the HollaBack blogs. Almost every woman I know has been followed by a strange man, been whistled at or had offensive sexual remarks yelled at her. And I want to be clear that I, in no way, dressed in a sexually provocative manner. I was wearing jeans, a jacket and a t-shirt when the above incident happened.

Well the little detour to the HollaBack site then led me to Wikipedia's page on Sexual Harassment, which currently has a warning saying that the contents don't represent a worldwide view on the subject. This led me to the talk page, where, to my chagrin, I discovered that some people actually think sexual harassment in the workplace is "protected speech" on free speech grounds. I want to be clear however that my chagrin was not so much about sexual harassment being a protected private speech, but that it be protected free speech at all!

Now don't get me wrong, I LOVE the first amendment. But I have to say I really wish sexual harassment wasn't allowed to happen. And this puts me in a moral conundrum. Basically I have to ask myself if some instances of free speech in public should be limited? For example, hate speech?

I have felt for many years that protecting public free speech was of paramount importance, regardless of whether I find the speech morally reprehensible. In the past I have feared limiting speech based on what the majority finds offensive because that opens the door to MY speech being limited because someone could find it offensive. On the issue of verbal harassment though, I honestly do want this type of public speech limited.

Perhaps it is because I have experienced public sexual harassment and not public hate speech that I am more quick to limit sexual harassment. But then again perhaps public hate speech should be limited as well. All in all, it's a very interesting topic. And one I will be mulling over for some time.

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