rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Michael Laxer's blog

Michael Laxer's picture
Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2010 and is on the executive of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario.

Sexual harassment on the street: Taking misogynist hate speech seriously

| June 24, 2013
Sexual harassment on the street: Taking misogynist hate speech seriously

Please support our coverage of democratic movements and become a supporting member of rabble.ca.

As a society we need to start discussing and confronting one of the last broadly practiced, widely condoned, accepted and excused forms of public hate speech and shaming in Canada. The regular and chronic abuse and violation of women by men through street sexual harassment and intimidation.

Just in the last few days I have personally seen and heard of several explicit examples of male street harassment of women in my own immediate neighbourhood. In one case, as I was taking my kids home on the streetcar I saw a car with two men in their early twenties slow down to yell degrading comments at a young woman of no older than sixteen.

I was also told of two men yelling negatively across the street at a woman, just outside where I work, laughing that she was so "fat" that they were "F****** amazed you can even pull your pants on B****", and then joking and being rude when a woman called them out on it.

Then, just a couple of days ago, a woman who is a close friend of mine, walking in the rain, was accosted by men on the covered patio of a local bar as she passed by, one of whom leered that he liked his "women wet".

This was in a single week. In a small neighbourhood. That one person has witnessed or been made aware of.

I have, sadly, heard of and seen examples of this my entire life, as have we all. I have, however, not ever had to suffer this terrible form of degradation, belittlement and sexual abuse for the simple reason that I am a man. No man has ever had to endure this in any meaningful sense. But it is a daily, regular, ugly, appalling, inherently violent and disgraceful abuse, visited by men upon women. And it is an abuse and degradation that has to end.

It is, as we all know, incredibly pervasive and, if not embraced, it is excused in ways that equivalently demeaning and dehumanizing speech towards other communities would not be.

As the Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter put it "Virtually every woman has experienced street harassment - whistles, sexual remarks, or touching by strangers in public places."

The Sarnia Sexual Assault Centre notes:

Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, sexual harassment includes: repeated sexual remarks that are demeaning or physical contact that is degrading; sexual advances or invitations made by a person who is in a position to grant or deny a benefit to another; and threats or reprisals against the person who rejected the sexual advance. Almost exclusively, it is men who sexually harass women.

As with many other seeming male entitlements, like pornography and prostitution, street harassment is often defended or excused with tired and sad refrains.

The most common is the truly intellectually empty and boring line that "this is just the way it is" and that it is "normal", a line that has been used by every single member of or supporter of institutions of oppressions since history began. It is the argument of a person playing the intentional imbecile seeking to justify their own actions or inaction. Either way it is pathetic. Nothing is the "way it is". People make what "is" and can change or excuse it.

Occasionally, as illustrated by the celebration of being a pathetic dirty old man penned by Ian Brown, it is argued that the objectification and harassment is actually good for women, because, you realize, obviously this is what women really want. An old man getting off on their good looks. Male attention is what defines them according to men.

What is more common, frankly, is that men simply do not care. The men who make these comments, who treat sixteen year old young women as sex objects, who humiliate women they perceive as "fat", who feel an entitlement  to impose their sexual desires and inadequacy publicly on women, do not care, at all, what the women think. It is not about women, it is about their sense that as men they have the right to inflict themselves and their opinions upon women, whether women want to hear these opinions or not.

It is about their notion that they, as men, can do and say anything they want about women.

And they know full well that in the vast majority of cases that women are not interested in hearing it. They know women will feel intimidated and embarrassed by it. That women will be upset or scared by it. That women have to live their entire lives confronted by unwanted male "opinions".

When women reject the "advances" or "compliments" of assailants like this, are they met with apologies and an attempt to try to understand why the behaviour was wrong? We all, even the stupidest males among us, know that this is not the case. Women are almost always met with anger, hostility and violence. As if what was wrong was that that they did not want to accept the "advances". As if this is somehow a sign that they are a prude or "anti-sex", terms regularly trotted out by men to attempt to downplay very real anger and concerns expressed by women and to deny their legitimacy.

Because sexuality should, it seems, be defined by saying that we should all accept what the lowest common denominator male says it is. However pathetically expressed or practiced. Somehow, this aids the cause of "freedom".

I suppose it does aid the freedom of the male penis. Other than that, I see it as a narrative of oppression, little different from all the other lies about "freedom" force fed to its alleged beneficiaries.

We live in a time of broad online and public hate campaigns against women. From Anita Sarkisian, to women standing up against the misogynist pig Tyler the Creator, to women calling out sexism in "comedy", to women trying to establish a high school feminist group.

And we have the continued hate speech women are confronted with daily on the streets. Young women. Girls. All women. When will this end?

When will we acknowledge the reality that this speech is no different than racist or homophobic speech? That it is just as personally demeaning and harmful to women, all of whom have to endure it, and that it is unacceptable in every case and in every circumstance, as is all other hate speech.

More than ever it is time for men to stand up and say that these narratives are wrong and that they show a total disregard for women's dignity. That this ongoing vocal misogyny is unacceptable. That this disgraceful and daily objectification of women is what it is...an insult to and violation of the basic rights of women.

Public, vocal, sexual degradation of women and girls is a form of hate speech. And it needs to be opposed as such. 

Image: stopstreetharassment.com

embedded_video