Privacy as a Privilege: An Intersectional Perspective on Street Harassment

Illustration by Jenny Dodge.

To most, the narrative of street harassment is not an unfamiliar one. For those that involve themselves in feminist discourse, it may feel as though in discussing catcalling or other harassment, we’re beating a dead horse just one too many times. The story seems to go the same way each time that we tell it: we are tired of facing physical, sexual, and verbal threats. However, in the case of harassment, it is also important to recognize a disparity in women’s experiences.

Intersectional feminism accounts for the spectrum of experiences for women of differing demographics. For example, the experiences of women differ depending their race, ability, and sexuality, amongst other factors. In the case of street harassment, low-income women endure harassment disproportionately to women of higher income. This demographic of impoverished women contains high numbers of both women of color and transgender women. Consequently, street harassment more severely impacts these women than it does their white or cisgender peers.

The public sphere’s pervasive influence upon low-income women is exemplified in their utilization of public transportation and occupation of either unstable, shared, or dangerous living spaces. These issues all result from a lack of access to resources.

A limited range of employment options, means of transportation, and choice of living situations all exacerbate threats to the privacy and safety of low income women. Strangers with the intent to intimidate or harass women may do so in public settings that these women often find themselves. Consequently, it may be difficult to avoid unwarranted advances. For example, street harassment is frequently perpetrated on public transportation. Even with ample witnesses to these uncomfortable situations, stories of women being leered at, verbally harassed, or even groped keep cropping up.

The fact remains that low-income women have little access to resources that would make their lives safer. A woman of higher income may drive a car to work instead of taking the city bus. This woman doesn’t encounter strangers the way that a woman who takes public transportation does. She can lock the doors of her car if necessary. She can usually drive away as a means of escape. Her car, her income, and her social class all function as her armor. Her privilege affords her privacy.

Conversely, consider a woman of low income. This woman typically rides, say, a city bus to her job. Some of those strangers will feel comfortable violating her privacy, whether by making lewd comments, inappropriate gestures, or even physically encroaching on her space. Even worse, she cannot escape by getting off the bus, as she would then risk being late for her job or encountering a more dangerous situation on the next ride. This woman is subject to the constant anxiety that she may be violated by the next stranger she sees.

Additionally, we simply cannot address the issue of abuse and harassment affecting low-income women without acknowledging the experiences of homeless women. Privacy in homeless women’s lives ranges usually from limited to nonexistent. According to the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women, while sexual assault oftens precedes women becoming homeless, homelessness does increase the likelihood that a woman will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

At the heart of this issue remains the patriarchal norm that women’s bodies are public property, leaving public spaces and private bodies at odds. Until our culture completely uproots this belief, women, especially low-income women, will be subject to the will of strangers.

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