The streets belong to everyone

As a man, I haven’t been labeled a slut for having or enjoying sex.

As a man, I don’t have to worry about being viewed as sexually available based on my attire.

As a man, I’ve never had my masculinity called into question because I’m child-free.

As a man, I’ve never had to worry that I wouldn’t be promoted at a job due to my sex.

I haven’t had to deal with any of the above because I was born into a group for whom society has granted unearned benefits. To put it bluntly, there is a lot that I and other male-identified* people don’t have to deal with because we identify as men. That is the essence of Male Privilege. Many people-usually men, but sometimes women-have a difficult time understanding what Male Privilege is. Some folks think the term means that men haven’t faced difficulties in life. Others think the phrase is an insult meant to shame men for being men.

Neither is true.

Telling someone they have Male Privilege is not an insult and the use of the term does not mean that men live luxurious lives free from difficulties and obstacles**. It is an observation. An observation about the overall imbalance of power along sex or gender lines in society. That imbalance of power heavily favors men and disadvantages women, as the social phenomenon of street harassment illustrates.

The non-profit organization Stop Street Harassment (SSH) notes that at present, there is no standardized definition of street harassment. As of March 2015, their working definition is:

Gender-based street harassment is unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.

Street harassment includes unwanted whistling, leering, sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after they’ve said no, sexual names, comments and demands, following, flashing, public masturbation, groping, sexual assault, and rape.

Street harassment directed at people who identify as women perfectly illustrates how men benefit from Male Privilege***. Street harassment is not something men have to deal with because they are men, whereas it is something people who identify as women have to deal with. On an everyday basis. Many people dismiss street harassment, claiming it’s not a big problem. These people are wrong. It’s a problem because women have spoken up and said it’s a problem-one they are tired of having to endure. Those who identify as women have shared their stories. They’ve expressed their disgust, revulsion, and horror at the harassment they face simply for having the audacity to exist in public.

Street harassment is a display of power by men. It is one way that men attempt to maintain their social dominance over women. At the core of street harassment is the idea that men are deserving of the time and attention of women. Male entitlement, in other words. This entitlement leads men to think that they deserve a response from women when they comment on their appearance in public, or that women are obligated to stop and chat with them, or that they [men] have the right to sexually assault women.

Unfortunately, for all that women do not owe men their time, attention, or affection, street harassment is an ongoing problem-one not limited by geographic boundaries. In Mexico, for instance, street harassment is a massive problem. Last year, the online multi-media company Fusion partnered with artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh on a project to amplify the voices of women in Mexico City fighting against street harassment.

Fazlalizadeh is the creator of the street art project Stop Telling Women To Smile, which addresses gender based street harassment. Her street art project consists of a series of portraits of women whom the artist has spoken with about their experiences with street harassment.

Together with Fusion editor Anna Holmes, Fazlalizadeh interviewed many of the women who are fighting against a culture that turns a blind eye to harassment and violence against women:

Fazlalizadeh and Fusion editor Anna Holmes settled on Mexico City because they wanted to amplify the voices of Mexican women who are challenging the ways in which their communities turn a blind eye to harassment and violence against women. “I wanted to find out, what do women in Mexico City go through?” says the NYC-based Fazlalizadeh. “What are their experiences? What are their stories? How’s what they experience different from what I experience? How can I reflect those differences in these pieces?”

Street harassment, also known as “acoso en las calles,” is an enormous problem in Mexico City and the country as a whole, where rates of sexual violence against women are some of the highest in the world. In Mexico, as elsewhere, says Laura Martinez, director of the Association for the Integral Development of Raped Persons, female bodies are seen as objects, as “something a man can have access to, even if the woman doesn’t want”; a United Nations report in 2010 ranked Mexico number one globally in sexual violence against women, estimating that 44% of females have suffered some sort of sexual violence, from groping to rape. The situation is so bad that Mexico City offers female-only cars on the city’s subways and, in 2008, introduced female-only buses, painted the color pink.

The title of this interactive comes from commentary by Gabriela Duhart Herrera, Director of Atrévete DF, the Mexico City chapter of Hollaback!, an organization founded in 2005 to protest the verbal and sexual abuse of women in public spaces. The interactive tells both the story of Tatyana’s trip and the experiences of the dozens of Mexico City women – students, mothers, politicians, even a police officer – who shared their stories with her. There are also a number of male perspectives on display. (“Here, all the men do it,” said one young man about street harassment.)

Projects like this aim to raise public awareness about the problem of street harassment. No one who identifies as a woman should be forced to endure taunts, leering, stalking, harassment, whistles, slurs, or any other form of street harassment. Male-identified individuals must come to recognize that they do not own public spaces and are not entitled to attention from women, nor their time or affections. Those who identify as girls or women have the same right to participate in public life as men–without being made to endure street harassment. Sadly, many otherwise empathetic and compassionate men are ignorant of street harassment. I know I used to be. Like other men, I was blinded-by my privilege. Yes, thanks to Male Privilege, I’ve never had to worry about being harassed on the street because of my sex. Since I never had to worry about street harassment, I never had to acknowledge it was a problem. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind, so to speak. But once I had the wool pulled away from my eyes-once I acknowledged that I do have Male Privilege-I saw the crap women put up with. I realized I could no longer close my eyes to injustices like street harassment (nor would I even if I could). All people who identify as women are human beings, deserving of the same rights and freedoms as male-identified people. Hopefully more men will come to realize their privilege and work with social justice advocates to help build a better-a world with no male privilege, no street harassment, and no male entitlement. I’m not naive enough to think that’s going to happen in my lifetime or, really, anytime in the next few hundred years, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. What kind of Humanist would I be if I didn’t do my part in the fight to make the world a better place?  A better world-I think that’s a goal well worth fighting for, no matter how long it takes. Don’t you?

*My use of phrases like ‘male-identified’ or ‘people who identify as women’ (and the various permutations throughout this post) stems from a desire to ensure my language is inclusive of trans people.

**Indeed, men can and do face obstacles in life. For instance, bisexual men, atheist men, or African-American men are socially disadvantaged. This is where an understanding of the concept of intersectionality is helpful. Bisexual men are underprivileged because the balance of power in society favors heterosexual men. Similarly, atheist men or African-American men lack the unearned benefits society grants men who are religious or part of the dominant racial/ethnic group of a given country (in the U.S. white people are the dominant racial group). The disadvantages faced by men as a result of being bisexual, atheist, or African-American is due to their membership in those groups. It is not a result of them being men.

***It is important to remember that discussions of Male Privilege are not about individuals, but male-identified persons as a group. While some individuals who identify as men may experience street harassment because of their actual or perceived sex or gender, on the whole men are not the victims of gender-based street harassment.

The streets belong to everyone