Street harassment, masculinity, and impressing other dudes

Ed. note: This is a guest post from Mychal Denzel Smith. He is a writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate whose work on politics, social justice, mental health, and black male identity has appeared in outlets such as The Nation, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Gawker, Salon, The Root, and more.

“Ay yo, get that bitch in front of you son, she mad wavy!”

I’m still not exactly sure what “mad wavy” means, but even without that knowledge I knew what was happening. This was a couple of years ago and I was with a group of friends in the Adams Morgan section of D.C. The sidewalks were filled with people, with the gender breakdown largely consisting of men sitting/standing in clumps near building walls and women walking past them. The men watched the women, whistled, “pssst”d, yelled out “hey red dress!” or whatever other obvious trait they noticed, grabbed arms and asses, and after after all their valiant attempts at getting attention failed, were left to rehash the details with their boys. And the women walked on, afraid, disgusted, and quickly.

By now we know this as street harassment. but for the men involved this constituted the entirety of their social activity on a Friday night. This isn’t the only way that street harassment happens, but that night it did give me more insight as to why it happens.

Of course, it’s in part about some men feeling entitled to women’s bodies, ignoring autonomy because in their minds women exist solely to appease their sexual whims. It’s also about reinforcing power dynamics. They are sending a message to the women they harass that they are property and they need to know their place in our social hierarchy. But they’re also trying to impress other dudes. 

That’s true of most performances of masculinity. Men are trying to protect themselves from ridicule at the hands of other men. I think of Kendrick Lamar’s “The Art of Peer Pressure” where he says “look at me… I got the blunt in my mouth/usually I’m drug free/but shit, I’m with the homies.” This behavior doesn’t come naturally, but so as not to look like anything less than a man in front of the homies, he does it anyway.

The same principle is at work with street harassment. Very few of these men are actually under the impression that they’ll get to have sex with the random women they assault on the street. But what would their boys say if they just let a woman walk by without even trying? You can imagine the range of sexist and homophobic slurs that would fly. So they holler, they grab, they make primitive noises, and they ultimately fail. They’re likely to catch some heat for failing, too, so to disabuse themselves of any lost respect among their peers, they reestablish power/dominance by hurling insults and epithets. They can go back to the homies with confidence even after having come up short on the real prize.

That’s what’s truly important to these men, and it’s also the reason street harassment isn’t limited to just cisgender hetero women. Gay men, lesbians, and trans people all catch it because to deride any of these identities is to affirm your status as a “real man.” There are a bunch of men making a sizable portion of the population feel unsafe in the streets and other public places in order to prove themselves to a bunch of other insecure men and be rewarded with…some dap? I honestly don’t know.

Street harassment has to end because everyone deserves to feel safe and have their humanity respected. For that to happen, one thing that also has to end is men making a mockery of other men who don’t meet their criteria for masculinity. Because even if there were some benefit to perfectly performing our rigid and destructive ideal masculinity, if someone else isn’t living up to that how exactly does it hurt you?

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • justice day

    You need to research how the US military trains the men to treat women. They actually chant songs about them when doing exercises. These guys get out in society and never change, they think its funny.

  • Sam

    I don’t doubt that homosocial pressures play a role in encouraging questionable behaviour among some men. I also agree that street harrassment is easily discernible from flirting. I do, however, find monocausal arguments highly problematic, and the “homosociality” argument advanced by many male feminist activists is such an argument. Again, homosocial pressures exist, but to say that “impressing other men” is the only thing that makes men behave one way or another is as bizarre as claiming that women’s desires are all men ever care for. It’s never as simple as that, and I think making claims about the impact of homosociality would be much more credible when it acknowledged that a lot of this behaviour is *also* driven by subjectively valid ideas about what makes masculinity attractive. Homosociality never works in complete isolation, it’s not *only* men who decide what masculinity is. Not acknowledging that makes the point much weaker than it could be.

    • Sam L-L

      I’m confused; Mr. Smith explicitly and repeatedly wrote that there are multiple causes behind street harassment and never advanced the claim that there is only one causal factor at work here. Furthermore, I don’t think he is making any claims here at all about “who decide[s] what masculinity is”.

      I think maybe you are arguing with someone else who is not actually present.

      Mr. Smith’s writing and reasoning here strikes me as cogent, accurate, and well thought out.

      • Sam

        @Sam L-L,

        I’m sorry, but all his arguments make the point that women (female behaviour) have *nothing* to do with all this, at all. The three arguments he gives for the existence of street harassment are:

        “men feeling entitled to women’s bodies, ignoring autonomy because in their minds women exist solely to appease their sexual whims.”

        aka: it’s about what men think about women,

        “reinforcing power dynamics. … message to the women … that they are property and they need to know their place in our social hierarchy.”

        aka: it’s about what men think about women,

        “they’re also trying to impress other dudes.”

        aka: it’s about what men think about men and what they think about women.

        And: it’s not only about harrassment:

        That’s true of most performances of masculinity. Men are trying to protect themselves from ridicule at the hands of other men.

        aka: masculinity is [for safety:"mostly"] something men define for other men.

        At no point does he consider the possibility that masculinity is also a reaction, if at times a problematic reaction, to female behaviour, female desires. In his argument, as in the world he describes, male gender norms apparently aren’t influenced by female behaviour.

        Just to be sure, I’m not saying a victim of street harrassment cause the harrasssment. I’m saying that the norms of masculinity that are causing this kind of behavior are *in part* influenced by the way men *perceive* what women like in men. Yes, the specific behaviour is likely homosocially caused, but the reason behind these superficially unattractive performances is very likely at least partly to appear strong, independent, and confident, and successful in the relevant social hierarchy, and that is *partly* because these are criteria women tend to find attractive in men.

        So again, a recognition of the influence women have on definitions of masculinity would make arguments about homosociality on that definition much more credible, in my opinion.

        • Sam L-L

          In my personal experience, “who built the patriarchy” is a wildly unproductive line of intellectual inquiry. I think it’s more fruitful for us to focus on how to disassemble it.