Cowardice, courage and street harassment

My endlessly talented friend Jordan recently wrote, at her blog Marginalia, about the experience of being groped by a stranger as she made her way home late one night. In the post, ironically titled “To the Gentleman Who Groped Me in the Subway Stairwell,” Jordan describes what happened.

As I walked up the stairs, you followed very closely behind me —too closely, for two people alone on a staircase. I didn’t notice. You took your cellphone in one hand and pointed it at me (were you taking a picture?), and then slowly began pressing your other hand up into my ass.

As soon as she realized what was happening, Jordan whipped around and gave him a piece of her mind. She yelled at him, and all he could muster was a stuttering “no,” before he ran away. And while I’m sure some women would want to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and such a man, Jordan wants him to stick around – if only to make him squirm. “I wish you had stuck around to see me shuddering in revulsion all the way down the block, and taking deep breaths to try to slow my heartbeat,” she writes. “I wish you had seen me tear up in fury that you robbed me so quickly of upbeat for the first time in weeks. I wish you could see the way I look over my shoulder now.” His actions have real consequences, which he will probably never have to confront. It’s Jordan who is left to deal with them.

What strikes me most when I read something like this, and when I think about street harassment in general, is the spectacular cowardice of the act of harassing or groping a stranger. Sure, you have to be pretty fucking bold to reach out and grab a woman’s ass, and even bolder to take a photo of it. But in my experience – and in Jordan’s, too – the moment a target of harassment fights back, the moment she speaks up and objects to being violated, the perpetrator shrinks away in silence or in shame. He might cover with a cocky retort, but I suspect that even underneath the bravado, he knows what he’s doing is wrong. That might not stop him, of course, but I think most street harassers realize on some level that they’re abusing the privilege granted to most men in our society. Harassment is an act of cowardice: if men like the one who groped Jordan felt that what they were doing was right, they would stick around to justify their actions, instead of turning tail as soon as they were confronted.

Harassing a woman might be cowardly, but dealing with harassment, in a world where it’s an ever-present threat, is an act of courage. As Jordan notes, the constant threat of harassment and other forms of violence “makes us feel like we live in a world in which we cannot be safe, physically or emotionally. It reminds us that we need to be prepared at any time to respond to violation.” And to exist in that kind of a world, to continue moving through public space with confidence and joy, maybe even humming to yourself, the way Jordan was that night, takes real courage.

My friend Jordan has real courage (and loud, powerful voice – no wonder that man ran). And I know that there are readers out there who do, too. The truth is that we live in a culture where women have to steel themselves before they walk out the front door every morning. We live in a culture where simply being a woman in public takes courage, a kind of courage that most men never have to muster. So readers, take courage. And “gentlemen,” for the love of all that is fair and just, stop groping us: your cowardice is showing.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/snatour/ Sam

    I read your article about 8 times and yet I struggled to find a relevant comment to make. I will say however, that I agree that street harassment is cowardice. As a man, I think other men need to 1. stop being morons and harassing women and more importantly ,2. if you witness/ hear about an act of harassment, do something about it and more importantly dont trivialize harassment or brush it off, that makes it seem like it’s ok.

    But, that’s just what I think.

    • kay

      Yes You’re right on with that!
      Please, men, don’t brush off our stories about this. I tell my husband about these things, have for years, but I’ve never gotten a satisfactory reply. Part of that is that it’s hard to respond to something like that. It happened in the past and it’s hard to decide how to respond to someone showing so many emotions. But mostly the response is just nothing, or ‘I’m sure it doesn’t happen that often’ or ‘he’s only talking’. It feels like another harassment.

      So please, if a woman in your life says something, validate the experience. Don’t give useless advice, or tell us it doesn’t matter, or move past it quickly because it makes you uncomfortable. Sympathy is better. Speaking up to other men about it is even better than that. Everyone has to pitch in, and we’ll be grateful for the help.

      • http://feministing.com/members/snatour/ Sam

        I agree 100% Too often I’ve heard “oh it doesn’t happen that often” or “oh its not that bad”. To me even a single occurence is one too many.

        I agree also that its hard to respond to something like that, but I think supoorted the other person and taking they’re feelings seriously is the first step.

        As a university student, this sort of thing happens at bars all the time. But a whole other article could be written about the bar scene…

  • http://feministing.com/members/eadske/ Katherine

    I’m so sorry that happened to your friend.
    I’m so sorry it happens to any woman.

  • http://feministing.com/members/royalgayness/ Gay Ben

    “I think most street harassers realize on some level that they’re abusing the privilege granted to most men in our society.”

    What ‘privilage granted to most men’ are you alluding to? I can’t say I’m aware of it.