Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

Street Smut: Gender, Media, and the Legal Power Dynamics of Street Harassment, or "Hey Sexy" and Other Verbal Ejaculations

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

Street Smut: Gender, Media, and the Legal Power Dynamics of Street Harassment, or "Hey Sexy" and Other Verbal Ejaculations

Article excerpt

I stepped on the bus cheerily anticipating the experiences of the day, unaware of the encounter that was about to take place. The bus driver spoke, "Hey cutie." I explained to him that I was not his "curie" and did not desire his unsolicited comments. He snatched my MTA pass, and taunted, "Now, you have to say 'please' to get it back. "I made several attempts to grab the card but could not. Feeling as if I had no other options, I was forced to do as he said. He gave me back my card and grabbed my backside as I walked towards the back of the bus. No one on the bus said a word. (1)

Recently I found myself in midtown and decided to take a walk through Bryant Park.... [Within moments, one man] invited me to take my clothes off and ... another ... wanted to know why I wash't smiling.... [There] were perhaps fifty men, strolling, ambling, striding along eating hot dogs, sitting on benches and reading the paper or trading illegal substances as though they had all the time in the world--and three women, all walking quickly and grimly, as I was now doing, as though late for an appointment with the dentist. (2)

I am walking home, and a slightly drunk and slightly disheveled man is following me, saying, "Mamma, oh mamma, baby please, I wanna fuck you, I give good tongue, oh sweetheart, please...." My body is no longer mine. On the street my body is theirs. I can define myself all I want, but in their eyes I am a body on the street, two tits and no head and a big ass. My body becomes a cunt, and although I'm not physically raped, psychically I am, and I ache from it. (3)

Unfortunately, these women's experiences are not rare. Indeed, such astonishing encounters occur in the daily lives of women throughout the world. (4) Rarely is it the case that a woman in a public space is not confronted with unsolicited comments and gestures of a sexual tone by men unknown to her. Yet, it is precisely the ubiquity of this phenomenon that distills its perceived effects on women and on society as a whole. Most men view the occurrence as harmless and even desired by women, while most women resign themselves to the inevitability of the acts and the absence of a vehicle to remedy such harm. Notwithstanding these somewhat discouraging facts, there is hope for a remedy to this problem. Those who fight against the sexual harassment of women in public places may find encouragement in the advancements made towards the recognition and redress of other harms that largely affect women, such as sexual harassment in the workplace.

The notion of sexual harassment in the workplace was unknown fifty years ago, but is now recognized as a valid harm to women and to society. Great strides have been made in this arena, and women now have legally cognizable claims under Title VII and state non-discrimination laws. Further, this type of sexual harassment is socially condemned; it is no longer "what bosses do," but carries with it a condemnation that reflects the changing ethical judgments of society. Thus, progress has been made, and this advancement helps to fortify the convictions of those who currently fight against the harassment of women in public places and other forms of sexual harassment that are not yet recognized as real injuries to women.

Yet, even the illustration of sexual harassment in the workplace underscores the limitation of discourse about sexual harassment. In the majority's collective consciousness, the term sexual harassment connotes sexual harassment in the workplace; often the add-on, "in the workplace," is unnecessary. Certainly, sexual harassment is not unique to employment contexts, yet the conversation largely has been limited to this arena. It is time to begin to expand and develop this discourse in order to obtain remedy for other types of sexual harassment.

Critical discourse concerning sexual harassment in public places began approximately a decade ago. The scholarship that arose at that time explored the harms of such harassment on women and society, existing legal remedies, and formulations for a more effective legal redress. …

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