On ‘street harassment’: What about the men?

Alok Vaid-Menon demonstrates exactly why feminists should not center men’s voices in our conversations about sexual harassment.

Alok Vaid-Menon, a “non-binary transfeminine poet,” is asking important questions about sexual harassment: namely, “What about me”? In an interview with German queer magazine, Siegessäule, Vaid-Menon was asked about the erasure of “trans and gender non-conforming individuals” from the feminist conversation around street harassment. He responded:

“The erasure of gender non-conformity from the street harassment dialogue doesn’t just hurt gender non-conforming people, it hurts everyone! What I need cis feminists to understand is that centering gender non-conforming people isn’t just about solidarity; it’s about challenging patriarchy more precisely and effectively.”

While not stated outright, what this really suggests is that feminists need to do a better job of centering men in conversations about sexual harassment and male violence. Feminists already center women in these conversations — “gender non-conforming” or not — so the only people being left out are men. And for good reason!

Women’s experiences of street harassment are rooted in ownership: that is to say, men are socialized to believe that women are things that exist for their consumption. But as so many men do, Vaid-Menon conflates “desire” with objectification and dominance. He explains:

“I am rarely, if ever, complimented by men on the street. I am spat on, laughed at, pushed and shoved, thrown trash at, et cetera. We can’t just talk about desire, we have to talk about disgust. Why should we have to be beautiful in order to be safe?”

While indeed males face bullying and violence at the hands of other men, equating this to “street harassment” (which really means sexual harassment, and is not at all gender neutral) and demanding women center those experiences in their feminism is a mistake. And to confuse that harassment with attraction is just plain dangerous.

Patriarchal culture has long defended everything from catcalling to sexual assault as some kind of compliment. Women are, we are told, so attractive, so beautiful, so desirable, that men simply can’t help but to harass, stalk, grope, and rape us. Women who complain about street harassment are often told they should “take it as a compliment.” Women who aren’t perceived as conventionally attractive are often accused of lying when they speak out about harassment or sexual assault. After Andrea Dworkin spoke out about her rape, she was not believed, primarily because she was not viewed as being attractive enough to be rapeable. The widespread misunderstanding that men sexually abuse women and girls because of “desire” erases the primary reason men perpetrate violence against women: dominance. Not “love,” not “lust” — dominance, power, and control.

In 2014, trans-identified writer Paris Lees proclaimed “I love wolf whistles and cat calls,” explaining, “I find a catcall rather appreciative.” It makes sense, if you think about it, that someone who grew up male would consider being “treated like a piece of meat” a compliment. This is exactly what men and boys are taught, after all. And considering how interconnected femininity is with objectification, it wouldn’t be an enormous stretch to wonder if Lees connects objectification with successful womanhood — “passing,” as it is sometimes called. If “passing” is the one and only goal, then yes, I suppose being objectified by men would constitute some warped kind of “compliment.”

By contrast, Vaid-Menon is most-likely harassed because he is of colour and a gender non-conforming male. That is to say, if he is being targeted on the street, he is not being objectified, but is rather being bullied by racist, homophobic men. But he doesn’t say this. Instead, he argues that he is harassed because “femininity is always made into a spectacle for public consumption and entertainment, offline and online.” This statement, again, implies that women are abused by men because they are “feminine,” rather than because they are female. But women who are not “feminine” are no less susceptible to rape, nor does being “beautiful,” as Vaid-Menon seems to simultaneously believe, somehow, keep women safe. (If he thinks appearing “beautiful” keeps women safe, he really need to start paying closer attention to what women are saying, and stop demanding we start listening to him instead.)

These kinds of comments are exactly why men’s voices cannot be centered in feminist conversations about street harassment: they don’t get it. While yes, gender non-conforming men should speak out against the harassment and abuse other men pile on to them, demanding feminists listen to and center their voices in the women’s movement means perpetuating male-centered notions about sexism. Indeed, the fact we are discussing “street harassment” as though it is gender neutral, rather than specifically misogynist — specifically a means for men to remind women they are vulnerable, rapeable, and to-be-looked at — speaks to this.

It’s difficult even to accept Vaid-Menon’s claims of harassment, as he continually claims women are responsible for it, refusing to name men as perpetrators at all, and because he conflates his experiences with the harassment women face at the hands of men. He is either misdirecting blame intentionally, in order to protect men, or he doesn’t understand what “harassment” is.

In 2015, in an interview with StyleLikeU, he complained that “an older white lady” demanded to know what he was doing in the women’s washroom. That he uses the “white woman” trope as a means to dismiss and vilify women who might question his presence in women’s spaces is revealing: Vaid-Menon doesn’t actually believe women are an oppressed class of people and he doesn’t believe men make all women feel unsafe. He is only concerned about his comfort. In other words, his male privilege and entitlement is showing, big time. (As is his allegiance to other men.) He adds, “I think when women see me, they’re trying to protect this category that they belong to.” Well yeah, what does he think feminism is about, anyway? (Hint: It’s him. He thinks it’s about him.)

That Vaid-Menon clearly believes a woman who questions his presence in a woman-only space equates to harassment destroys any credibility he may have had on this topic. Women question his presence, not because he is “feminine,” “femme,” or “gender non-conforming,” they question his presence because he is male, and because males are a threat to women. (Yes, even the ones in lipstick and traditionally female clothing.) That he blames women for “street harassment” and compares the legitimate questions a woman might have for a man in her space to the daily sexual harassment and abuse women experience from men, in both private and public spaces, is exactly why feminists should not center his voice in their movement. He doesn’t understand the way women fear men. He doesn’t understand how male power works. He doesn’t understand that women-only space exists for a reason. He demands solidarity from women despite demonstrating complete and total solidarity with other men, by protecting them from accountability. And for those reasons, he needs to respect that women are going to continue to have these conversations without him.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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