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street harassmentA multitude of people saw the YouTube video, or read the story in the news, about the actress who took part in a planned, secretly filmed ten-hour walk through Manhattan that—as expected—resulted in a substantial number of comments, catcalls, winks and what not from men she passed. The filming was arranged by an organization that devotes itself to ending what it calls “street harassment” in cities throughout the world.

There seems to be two major anti-street harassment organizations and when perusing their websites one is immediately struck by the vagueness of their definition of the term. It is very much like the more general category of which it is a sub-set, sexual harassment—and also like child abuse and neglect. The meanings are so broad that they encompass all sorts of things. Like with the supposed epidemic of child abuse, some are calling for laws to put a stop to street harassment without being clear about what it is. The result with child abuse is that upwards of 80 percent of reports are false or unfounded, parents are investigated for innocent childrearing practices that some anonymous caller does not like, and we have a totalitarian-like child protective system (CPS) that in theory monitors every family in the country.

We have witnessed claims of many “epidemics” and “crises” in the last few decades, almost none of which, when examined with some care, truly meet the bill. Child abuse, elder abuse, bullying, campus rape, police brutality (while police misconduct is a subject of concern, an epidemic of brutality is another thing), and sexual harassment itself are just some. What follows is a usual pattern. Interest groups with an agenda spotlight the “crisis” and play it up. If it seems to fit the secular leftist paradigm the media picks up on it. Then, often legislators—usually because no organized opposition has congealed and the public is either inattentive or agreeable because it vaguely sounds good—enact a new law (the solution is always a law). The law then has reverberating unforeseen consequences and creates a whole host of new problems.

The same thing appears to be in the offing with street harassment, and in some places local ordinances are being proposed to combat it. Some articles have appeared approvingly noting how a century and more ago some communities imposed criminal penalties for similar behavior. One wonders if the authors would similarly support the criminal laws then in place about contraception, abortion, fornication, sodomy, and pornography. It does not occur to them that all these problems are cut from the same cloth: the disregarding of sound sexual morality. The leftist activist crowd is increasingly calling for laws criminally punishing speech just because it offends some group of people. The implications are huge: such a standard would shred constitutional protections of free speech.

The anti-street harassment people seem to lump a whole range of comments and behaviors together without making any distinctions at all. So, sexual and sexually suggestive comments to women passing by and stalking behavior—in the video one man silently, eerily comes up and walks next to the actress for five minutes before finally leaving—are lumped together with saying “hello” or “good morning.” This is consistent with the anti-campus rape activists who have expanded the definition of what was once forcible sexual assault to include even “verbal rape,” whatever that is. It is also, of course, what has been seen for forty years with child abuse and the CPS since the enactment of the federal Mondale Act. Would the anti-street harassment activists be satisfied only when everyone walks along looking down at the ground the whole time, avoiding even eye contact that could be construed as harassing? Or would they then somehow also view that as demeaning to women?

The activists say that someone violates “private space” not just by touching or getting too close to someone, but by any kind of unwanted verbal communication as well. Does that mean that a young man doing nothing more than asking a young woman for a date that she does not want to go on is a form of harassment? Are attempts at friendliness to be automatically viewed with suspicion? Instead of fostering more respect for women, this is likely to put more barriers between the sexes and further damage the possibilities of wholesome male-female relationships. More generally, it seems to be a recipe for social isolation. Should we be surprised that we hear expressions nowadays like people “bowling alone?”

Some of this also reeks of an anti-male perspective. The feminist orientation of these organizations is apparent from their websites. So is their ready embrace of the homosexualist movement. They lament not just the street harassment of women, but also of LGBT persons. (They do not explain, however, how someone these people pass by on a sidewalk would know about their same-sex attraction, unless it is because they give an opening or display “in your face” affectations.) Nowhere on the websites is there mention of the need to restore sound, traditional sexual morality or the norms of gentlemanliness. They point a finger exclusively at the males all of whose actions in the video, as mentioned, are equally condemned. They give women advice about what they should do to resist street harassment but, not surprisingly, say nothing about dressing modestly, which is something that serious Christian parents emphasize to their daughters from prepubescence. Immodest dress hardly excuses stalking and sexual assault. Still, it is only in a fantasy world where there is no understanding about the realities of human nature that one can believe that a looseness of sexual norms and an inattention to modesty and chastity have nothing to do with them.

The contemporary feminist movement is partly responsible for the coarseness in male-female relations that we now witness. From its beginning in the 1960s, it wholeheartedly embraced the sexual revolution. In its single-minded obsession with sexual egalitarianism, it does not seem to have considered that an ethic of sexual libertinism might lead to women becoming victims. Instead of motivating men to the sexual virtue that in earlier times was especially associated with women, feminism “liberated” women to be lustful and opened the door to their being even further objectified.

The upshot of some commentators to the video was that the harassment was especially outrageous since the actress was dressed appropriately. When my wife viewed still shots from the video she disagreed and noted the form-fitting clothes, including jeans, the actress was wearing. Let us remember that tight jeans were sometimes called the emblem of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Maybe the actress was impervious to the problems of her dress like so many young women are today, or perhaps it seemed tame to her compared to some of the female apparel in the acting profession.

One of the first criticisms the video received was that it overwhelmingly seems to depict minority group men engaging in the street harassment. The maker of the video scurried to say that since he had to edit most of the ten hours down to a couple minutes it only appeared that way, that really there were a lot of harassing Caucasian men too. He explained, however, that what they said was “in passing” or “off-camera.” That is unconvincing, especially when a lot of the comments made in the video generally were “in passing.” Is it possible that, like so many things concerning minorities, nobody wants to look seriously at problems within those communities that give rise to a flood of social maladies, including perhaps this one?

A genuine epidemic within the minority communities in question is family breakdown and absent fathers. The result is, obviously, that the strong, solid male examples—who are crucial in shaping virtuous gentlemanliness and good citizenship in the next generation of males—are simply not there. Is it just possible that there might be more street harassment, however defined, by males in these minority groups for the very reasons that the amount of crime and incarceration and gang activity is disproportionate among them? Might the basic problem be poor formation—in both morals and manners—due to poor family background and insufficient religious training?

Actually, as far as the innocent comments were concerned, might they just have been a gesture of verbal friendliness to women passing by that is typical of some men in those minority communities?

The long and short of this is that street harassment—properly defined and understood—is certainly a problem, especially in urban settings. One cannot trust activists and advocacy groups to define it and lead the charge against it, however. As in so many other areas, they lack balance, good judgment, and basic fairness—and are ideologically driven. We have laws on the books already for assault, sexual assault, and stalking and maybe enhanced police presence is needed in some areas. We do not need and should not tolerate additional criminal laws that punish comments no matter how insulting or offensive. A renewal of morals and manners is what is needed—the very solution the secular left with all their causes does not want to hear.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Crisis Magazine

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Published: Dec 19, 2014
Stephen M. Krason
Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville and co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author of several books including The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and most recently an edited volume entitled, Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013).
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5 replies to this post
  1. “The activists say that someone violates “private space” not just by touching or getting too close to someone, but by any kind of unwanted verbal communication as well”

    Oddly enough, the activists never use this definition when considering their activism. I recall some feminists here in Warsaw roaming the metro as us plebians were attempting to get to work, shoving cards in our faces which said “don’t rape me!” or some other foolishness. Naturally, I support freedom of speech, but it is bemusing that accusing strangers of being potential rapists is a-ok, but telling a girl she’s beautiful, or glancing at her when she’s dressed beautifully is “harassment”.

    Also, what about homosexual “harrasment”? No one seems up in arms over that.

    The simple truth is that conventional morality is the best defense against real violence and harrassment of women. Gentlemanliness defines the limits within which men can admire female beauty and strive to claim a girl’s heart. Ladilike behavior on the part of the woman only makes this process easier.

    We have stopped insisting on ladies and gentlemen and thus get deranged and blurred standards of association between the sexes. I do not think the feminists want to fix this.

  2. “We do not need and should not tolerate additional criminal laws that punish comments no matter how insulting or offensive. A renewal of morals and manners is what is needed—the very solution the secular left with all their causes does not want to hear.”

    And that is what it always has boiled down to, as Edmund Burke put it, “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” With the waning of Christian morality in the West and its attendant secularization of society, the left pushes to replace personal responsibility with more laws enforced by the state. The politico-moral perspective (political correctness) with its ever vigilant search for “injustices,” its only recognized sins, “solves” these injustices by political will, creating the litigious environment in which we live.

  3. The thing is – the feminists have adopted the sexual morality of the porno industry, then they complain when people behave like beasts …

  4. “With the waning of Christian morality in the West and its attendant secularization of society, the left pushes to replace personal responsibility with more laws enforced by the state.”

    Have you ever considered that people push for more laws enforced by the state because people have dropped their morality and their sense of personal responsibility? One is left with the radically difficult choice of either re-inspiring morality in a people who don’t want it, or the more realistic option of seeking to legislate.

    • In answer to your question, the Edmund Burke quote pretty fairly states that when a civilization forsakes its moral customs then laws will proliferate to attempt the keeping of law and order. But within the greater context of that quote the implication is certainly that it is not a situation that Burke would have preferred, nor would traditional American conservatives today.

      Further, I fail to see the approach of legislating morality from the top-down as the “more realistic” one when the reality is, as you admit, that the” people” don’t want it. If the “people” don’t want it, you can pass all the laws you wish and the “people” will either ignore them, or seek to change them through the political means at their disposal, including the use of state power, i.e. the Supreme Court. The 1972 elections are an example. In that election year the people of Michigan were the last state to vote no on the question of legalized abortion, but the following summer that vote, and that of the people of any other state prior, was made null and void by five individuals in black robes, a victory for the “people” who did not want the laws that were passed by the people of Michigan and other states. On the other hand, change a person’s mind and you have one less that is in need of yet another law to check their willful breaking of law, positive or natural, the check upon the will coming from within, not from without. Inspiring change is what’s needed, and that against the change the left would wish for.

      Lastly, and on that subject, it is obviously not the laws of a waning traditional morality that are filling the void, but rather what is proliferating in the West today are those laws passed and forced upon the people in the name of equality and tolerance and which come from a feigned position of neutrality, an untenable position. The left is replacing the traditional mores and customs of the West with its own politico-moral perspective using the power of the state. In this milieu, the authority of societal intermediaries not related to the state, such as the family, the church, etc., is negated in favor of centralized political organization, or the state, a situation vehemently sought by those that wish to radically change our culture. It should not be lost on any of us that the endgame behind some of those groups spoken of in the article is just that, a radical change of our culture. It is not unlike in the time of Edmund Burke when he wrote of Voltaire, Rousseau and the rest of their ilk that “…they endeavor to destroy that tribunal of conscience which exists independently of edicts and decrees…Their object is, that their fellow-citizens may be under the dominion of no awe but that of their Committee of Research and of their lanterne….”

      If you would wish to win political elections then to enact the moral laws you might want, the more the better for the left and those that seek to increase state power; and woe unto us all when the political winds change and those on the left yet again have that power, should they ever lose it to begin with.

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