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?