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How Flashers and Other Street Harassers Get Their Cues from Conservative Churches and Politicians

Street harassers don't come by their utter disrespect for women's autonomy and humanity by accident.

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Flashers seem to be divided into two groups: those who enjoy scaring their victims and those who cling to the delusional belief that women secretly like it.  In both cases, victims are dehumanized.  The latter group might invoke sympathy, because they’re delusional, but let’s look at what they’re suggesting -- that women behavior doesn’t resemble human behavior.  I don’t imagine any of these men would like it if a man rubbed his penis on them and then suggested he secretly liked it.  They also strain to redefine survival strategies women use -- such as smiling to placate an assailant while you look for a chance to escape -- as evidence the women like it.  But many of them also express frustration and anger that women don’t actually do what they want, which is apparently to like it so much they actually act like they do.

Taking all this into account, I think we have a better idea of what it would take to bring an end to these kinds of assaults.  Fighting back is definitely an important strategy.  It not only raises the price of doing this to women, but it signals to the wishful thinking guys that their fantasies that women like it are not true.  However, we must understand that fighting back might be desired by the open sadists, though obviously it’s a better response than simply being afraid.

What was really interesting to me was how much these men have taken society’s sexism and have amplified it to justify their own desires, however.  The reason they can believe that women are there to be used sexually and mistreated is that society teaches that women don’t have full rights, dignity, or autonomy when it comes to sex.  In a society where people argue with a straight face that a woman gives up her right to say no to child-bearing because she chooses to have sex, it’s not much of a leap for a sexual assailant to believe that a woman gives up her right not to be molested because she leaves the house.  When we live in a society where anti-choicers argue that women must be prevented from having abortions because they don’t really want them, it’s not much of a leap for assailants to believe that the woman who runs away in disgust and fear really wants to have sex with him.

Flashers don’t come by their beliefs -- that women don’t know their own minds, that women don’t have full human rights, that women are “asking for it” by making independent choices -- by accident.  They’re picking up on ideas that are in the larger culture, promoted by authorities like politicians and churches.  If we want to stop sexual harassment for good, then we as a society need to bring a halt to these sexist narratives about women.

Amanda Marcotte co-writes the popular blog Pandagon. She is the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments .

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