Street Harassment: Is “Turning the Tables” Really the Answer?

Photo by Mo Riza
Photo by Mo Riza

By Sharon Haywood, Co-Editor

Friends emailed me the link, allies posted and praised it on Twitter, and my Facebook newsfeed was overtaken by it. Just before this year’s international anti-street harassment week came to a close, the Guardian online posted a video, “‘Get your arse out, mate’: we turn the tables on everyday sexism” where Leah Green, the Guardian journalist responsible for the video, gave men a taste of their own catcalling medicine. Like Green, I also loathe street harassment and recognize that increasing men’s understanding of the invasion, fear, and harm it causes is no easy task. I also agree that we need to drum up creative ways to get men to grasp that street harassment is not a trivial issue, let alone complimentary. But her video—currently boasting “a million hits and nearly three thousand comments”—is not the way to go about it. Such numbers might lead one to conclude that the video did its job: raise awareness and engage men in the conversation. Right? Not so fast. The only problem (well, not the only one) is that some commenters rightly argue that “turning the tables” is in no way comparable to the harassment women face daily.

Let’s start with the obvious: an isolated event is in no way equivalent to the typical experience of girls and women. Although much more research on the prevalence of street harassment is required, existing academic studies from around the globe, including countries such as Canada, France, Yemen, and Japan, indicate at least 70% of women have experienced street harassment, usually on a regular basis throughout their entire lives.

Inti Maria Tidball-Binz, founder of the Buenos Aires chapter of Hollaback! an international anti-street harassment movement, states that videos such as Green’s “demeans the experience of women because catcalling is violent in an aggregated way, not as a one off—in the sense that it begins at a very young age…and drop by drop that continued verbal and real or threatened physical violence continues to define how the world sees us, how we navigate public space, how we experience ourselves and our bodies.” Such ongoing harassment commonly causes girls and women to alter their manner of dress, avoid exercising outdoors, and change the routes they take while on foot.

Beyond acknowledging that one event does not make for a lifetime, flipping the script also fails to take into account the “context of gender role construction which naturalizes behaviors such as catcalling.” Tidball-Binz describes that historically “women were relegated to the private sphere and considered ‘sluts’ when they left the house, part of public property, whereas men have always been free to take ownership of public space, including the women’s bodies who dared to roam it.”

Aside from these two crucial points, what I find most distressing is that Green actually commits street harassment—the very practice this video aims to abolish. In others words, it features real-life men instead of actors. And it’s the not the first of its kind. A 2011 Chilean video currently being circulated in Argentine media features a group of women dressed as construction workers harassing male passers-by with catcalls. In February of this year, a Chilean woman conducted a “social experiment” entitled, “Woman Takes Revenge Against Gropers” in which she pinched men’s backsides to show them that groping women in public is “not funny.” She summarized the experience by saying she was surprised because “many of the men reacted like I was assaulting them.” Why that comes as a shock is beyond me. Sure, pinching is not the same as throwing a punch, but it still is a violation. Does the end justify the means? According to the 7000-plus thumbs-up the video received on YouTube (as compared to the 400 thumbs-down), it seems that committing street harassment is acceptable if done in the spirit of teaching men a lesson.

Perhaps the creators of such videos believe that harassing men is acceptable because they assume men can’t be negatively affected by sexual harassment. What they’ve failed to consider is the possibility that some of these men may already have been victims of sexual-based violence (as children or adults), potentially making them especially emotionally vulnerable to uncomfortable stares, inappropriate comments, and unwanted touching. Although the rates of sexual violence against men are lower than those against women, men can be, and most certainly are, victimized. According to the U.S. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) approximately 10% of victims are male (boys and men). In the U.K., a 2010 British Crime Survey revealed that men were victimized in just over 25% of reported domestic violence incidents, which encompasses emotional, physical, and sexual assault. And then there’s the added stigma that comes with the myth that men can’t or shouldn’t be victims, which commonly justifies turning their experiences into jokes.

A few days after Green’s video went live, she published a response to critics who claimed that, “the film was cruel, and that subjecting innocent men to sexually aggressive comments made me no better than the men who do that, thus completely undermining the feminist message.” Let’s pause for a moment and review the basic definition of feminism (the category in which the Guardian classified this video); Merriam-Webster’s dictionary describes it as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Harassing men as a strategy to prevent women from being harassed certainly doesn’t scream equality. Assuming the role of the aggressor is a clear double standard, communicating that aggression is justified if the intention is pure.

Green asserts in the title of her piece that it’s “only by turning the tables on sexual aggression can we see how bad it is.” The “only” way? Methinks not. Here are a few examples of creative, harm-free, non-hypocritical educational campaigns:

  • HollabackPHILLY’s transit ad campaign “designed to familiarize the public with the term ‘street harassment’…and define it as a solvable problem, as opposed to an inevitable ‘fact of life.’” This campaign gets major bonus points for recognizing that LBGTQ people are common victims of street harassment, and thus should not be excluded from such initiatives.
  • “Dekh Le”, a PSA video created by film students at a Mumbai-based school “holds up a mirror to street harassers.”
  • “Sh*t Men Say to Men Who Say Sh*t to Women on the Street” features men straight-talking men who commit street harassment.
  • “Walking Home”, a powerful experimental film, which won the Speaking Out Award at the 2011 Media That Matters Festival.
One example of HollabackPHILLY's transit ad campaign
One example of HollabackPHILLY’s transit ad campaign

Pointing out the male perspective in interventions doesn’t minimize the real harassment and violence against women that occurs at epidemic levels around the world. Rather, it guards against alienating the very people necessary to create a truly just society. Men can be feminists, some actually are, and many more could be. But when we lash out at (yes, harass) those we wish to educate, we generate defensiveness, a common precursor to division. We can do MUCH better than that.

* * *

Photo by Mo Riza shared under a Creative Commons license via

Related Content:

“Hey Shorty!”: A Tall Lesson on Sexual Harassment 

21st Century Street Harassment: Sneaky Snapshots on Public Transportation 

2 thoughts on “Street Harassment: Is “Turning the Tables” Really the Answer?

  1. I’m guessing the advocates who are gushing over “turning the tables” are perfectly fine with triggering male survivors in the process. I’d call that a compassion fail and not actual advocacy. If you have to hurt innocent people to get your point across, you are not equipped to do the job.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.