The problem of street harassment has gotten a surge of attention in recent months, in both online and mainstream media. But unlike with issues such as abortion and equal pay, about which conservatives tend to reflexively oppose women’s rights, there is no single right-wing view on the subject of street harassment—a fact that has grown more evident in conservatives’ response to a viral video showcasing how much verbal harassment one woman faced in a single day.
In the past, conservative politicians and media pundits have tended to argue that women need to be under the control of men at all times, for the women’s own protection. They chastise women for traveling solo, living alone, going out after dark, and having sex on their own terms, on the grounds that such behavior is “dangerous.” Some even insist that women should return to marrying young in order to protect them from the supposed hazards of existing autonomously later in life. There’s clearly an ulterior motive here—preserving male power at women’s expense—but the idea that the world is a risky place for women actually fits really well with traditional, more religious conservatism. In other words, conservatives would have no cause to disbelieve women when they discussed street harassment, because it supported their notion that the outside world is too treacherous for women to move about independently.
There’s been a surge in recent months, however, of some mainstream conservatives coming at the problem of street harassment from a different angle: trying to minimize and excuse it altogether. They argue that women who object to being harangued in public all day are just oversensitive babies. It’s a bro-ish kind of sexism that’s always been around—every woman has likely had an experience of men dismissing sexual harassment as no big deal. But of late, the fringe “men’s rights” movement has organized this kind of gutter sexism into something like a coherent ideology, in which they imagine women not as delicate flowers who need protection, but as a hostile, subversive group of people who make up their own oppression to get special political favors. And now there’s some more mainstream conservatives testing that “men’s rights” flavor of sexism out, to see whether it might get the kind of traction that more traditional sexism has.
And street harassment really seems to be a major test case. Last week, a video of a woman walking around New York City for ten hours, in which she gets harassed more than 100 times, went viral. The idea for the project was a good one, but as Hanna Rosin of Slate persuasively argued, the execution created a racist narrative. Out of the many men shown in the video cat-calling, only one was white, which left a distinct impression that street harassment has a racial dynamic that it doesn’t have in real life. On Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds a mainstream conservative who writes for USA Today, twisted Rosin’s argument to imply that women who resist street harassment are doing so from a bigoted perspective.
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“THAT CATCALLING VIDEO: It’s a racist production about white women not wanting attention from black and Latino men,” he wrote, linking Rosin. It was an irredeemable distortion of Rosin’s perspective. In no way, shape, or form did Rosin suggest that the harassers were just nice guys offering pleasant attention that a woman of color would be open to. On the contrary, Rosin cited the wonderful work of Jessica Williams on The Daily Show as an example of someone who made a similar point about street harassment while also being very clear that it negatively affects women of all races and is being perpetuated by men of all races. Rosin’s point was crystal clear: Street harassment is deplorable behavior, but one must not leave white men out of the equation when you’re criticizing it.
But Reynolds’s distortion was there to serve a larger purpose. He suggested that had the men in the video been of “higher status,” such as President Obama or George Clooney, “there’d be much less female outrage.” This seeks to excuse street harassment as harmless, even charming behavior—and to paint the victims as uptight narcissists for not dropping what we’re doing to give men the attention they demand whenever they demand it.
Fox News, too, has leaned particularly hard on the defense of street harassment. The Five on Fox News did a segment on the video largely devoted to making excuses for cat-callers. Eric Bolling claimed it was all “complimentary.” Greg Gutfeld pitied the harassers, painting them as out-of-touch Romeos who just need some love. Bob Beckel actually cat-called the subject herself, saying, “Damn, baby, you’re a piece of woman.” Because he was overtly doing this to put the subject in her place, this truly undercut the panelists’ point that harassment is a compliment. Instead, as most women know, it’s a dominance game meant to make women feel bad or scared.
This was hardly the only time, though, that a Fox News host not only defended street harassment, but demanded praise and attention for his own skill at participating it. Back in August, as a guest host on Outnumbered, Arthur Aidala showed off his “slow clap” that he uses to harass women on the street. In response, panelist Kimberly Guilfoyle said, “let men be men.” (Never mind that most men don’t street harass.)
Overall, there’s still a little uneasiness about the subject—the female hosts tend to express mixed feelings instead of actual praise for the behavior—but an MRA-style pro-harassment argument is clearly being beta-tested here.
But will conservative audiences really go along with it? That remains to be seen. Melissa Clouthier, a buddy of Glenn Reynolds, offered a limp defense of cat-calling on Twitter:
Am I the only one who thinks that catcalling is no big deal?
— Melissa Clouthier (@MelissaTweets) October 30, 2014
The responses she got—from other conservative women—were, in fact, largely negative:
@MelissaTweets Since I don’t get catcalled, I wouldn’t know. But I can see why some women might consider it initimidating.
— Dread Morrissey (@EdMorrissey) October 30, 2014
— Robin Kovalevich (@Robin621k) October 30, 2014
— Mary Dudasik (@MaryDudasik1) October 30, 2014
At this point, writing off street harassment as “no big deal” seems like just a bridge too far, particularly seeing as how the “toughen up, ladies” argument really undermines traditional arguments in favor of limiting women’s freedom for their own protection.
For his part, Rush Limbaugh recently tried to thread that needle, trying an argument that allows the reflexive attacks on feminism without actually endorsing street harassment outright. In it, he blamed feminism for street harassment, saying that since feminists first identified this as a problem in the ’60s (in reality, it was well before that) and it hasn’t been licked yet, it’s because feminists are failures. Of course, by the same token, Rush Limbaugh is a failure, because he’s been doing his thing since the ’80s and hasn’t managed to stomp out liberalism. But if logic isn’t his strong suit, we sure can’t ask him for some consistency.
It will be interesting to see where this all goes. Conservatives are already unhappy with the “war on women” meme, arguing that their attacks on women are about things other than misogyny, like “life” or “religious freedom.” In that atmosphere, aggressively defending the act of bothering women on the street simply because you feel entitled to their attention is basically inviting people to say that no, conservatives are simply sexist. But the desire to fight back against feminism in all its forms is in the mix too. Time will tell which urge wins out.