Nothing is more disappointing and hurtful than realizing people you love, care, and respect for, are actually not the allies you thought they were. Recently, I’ve had several experiences with street harassment and when I shared them with my heterosexual cis male friends, they have responded consistently in ways that not only tolerate street harassment but also contributes to rape culture. Operating under the assumption that these responses were out of ignorance (versus something more serious), I write this open letter to the heterosexual cis male friends out there who would like to support their friends who are harassed.
I’ve lived as a foreigner for a big part of my life. This has meant that street harassment has become so much of my daily routine that I have to remind myself that it is wrong and it’s OK to be angry about it. It ranges from microaggression to very visual, visceral sexual harassment. I’ve been stopped by men because I look familiar to them, to invite me for a stroll in the park, to ask what time it is in China (even though I’m not from China and they didn’t even bother to ask that before asking me for the time), to tell me I’m sexy, and of course, to grab my ass. In my experience, street harassment compounds racialized, sexualized, and misogynistic attacks into one hideous encounter. When complete strangers — usually white, usually old, male strangers — make comments and inquiries about my physical appearance, it is not funny, flattering, or ‘friendly.’
And yet, some responses to my complaints of street harassment include:
‘Most men who street harass don’t mean anything and are not trying to reinforce the patriarchy’
‘Wow he must think you are very attractive’
‘Don’t worry, I would never call you sexy’
And when I told another friend about how I feel like my closest friends are dismissing my feelings of being harassed and are saying I’m taking this too seriously, he said “maybe you are being too serious.” Instead of standing with me as an ally and asking me, “are you OK?” they defended the street harassers rather than validate my lived experience. Instead of being angry or upset that their friend was harassed, they laughed.
I had street harassment mansplained to me, with the harasser’s “best intentions” at the heart of this response rather than my feelings. The conversation became about whether I am worthy of being harassed, which is bizarre. It’s possible that heterosexual cis male privilege made it hard for him to understand and empathize with the fear, insecurity, and discomfort that women face during and after these encounters. But if male allies are interested in being just that — allies (or even just good friends, really…) — it’s going to mean that the conversation is not about you and your limited empathy for street harassment.
To the heterosexual cis males out there, who are interested in disrupting rape culture, standing as an ally, and being, well, a nice dude, here are some things you should avoid when your friend has experienced street harassment:
- Dispute your friend’s claim that they have been harassed, or ever use the phrase “Well, to play Devil’s advocate…”.
- Defend the harasser by saying “they don’t mean anything.”
- Add any sort of view or assessment about the extent to which your friend is “worthy” of harassment, comment on her appearance (i.e., they must think you are very pretty or if you would make the same comments), or laugh about it – because it is not funny.
- Justify your ignorance by saying you get discriminated against all the time too and therefore you don’t notice it.
- State that you’re not responsible for responding to street harassment and rape culture because “not everyone is passionate about gender equality as you are.”
Instead, the things you SHOULD do as an ally are actually really simple!
- Ask your friend if they are OK and what would be helpful from you. Your friend’s safety and feelings are your first priority. (#duh?)
- If you are at the scene, you may feel the urge to confront the harasser, but you should really first check with the person being targeted because not everyone wants confrontation. Remember, this isn’t about YOU.
- Show your support by listening to her as she shares her experience. It is not a rant. It is not a complaint. It is part of the process of dealing with street harassment.
- Call out your friends or people you know if they are showing signs of street harassment. This is doing your small part to combat rape culture. For example, when you are with your friends and you see them invade the space of someone else or catcall someone else, especially a woman, say, “Hey, that’s not cool” and try your best to explain.
So guys, if you care about us and care to be our friend, don’t make this about defending your male privilege and the rights of others to their male gaze. Now, it is up to you to take these words seriously.
**I’d like to thank Elaine Chong, Katie Lau, Kesaya Baba and Rishita Nandigiri for their contributions to this piece.
Editor’s Note: If you’re a victim of street harassment, please consider calling the new National Street Harassment hotline (help available in both English and Spanish).
About the Author: Clara Fok is a proud Hong Konger. Anticipating her retirement from the youth rights movement, she quit her job last year to pursue an MSc Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is currently working on her dissertation, where she is exploring how sexual pleasure can subvert heteronormative sexual hierarchies condoned by international human rights law. Her experience growing up as an immigrant in Canada and the States and being considered an outsider in Hong Kong makes her feel like a foreigner everywhere she goes. Her dreams are to write a book about sex and relationships and have her own sex toy shop, but her avid Netflixing is taking up most of her time at the moment.