Why It’s Bad When It’s “Not That Bad”

Why It’s Bad When It’s “Not That Bad”

Molly Brookfield

When then-Senator Al Franken was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women this past November, I braced myself for the backlash. I grew up in Minnesota, so my social media threads were filled with Franken-loving Minnesotans begging him not to resign and castigating his accusers for blowing their experiences out of proportion. One friend of a friend claimed these women were undermining the #MeToo movement by conflating “touching someone’s bottom” with sexual assault. Beyond my Facebook feed, op-ed writers like Daphne Merkin worried that “there is a disturbing lack of clarity about the terms being thrown around and a lack of distinction regarding what the spectrum of objectionable behavior really is.”

These debates reveal a confusion over what “counts” as sexual assault or harassment and who gets to decide. If Franken’s actions were not “serious” enough, then how do we determine what actions are serious?

Alas, there is no mathematical equation that will unequivocally prove the seriousness of an accusation of sexual harassment. There is no formula that will determine when to label a sexual overture harassment and when to label it harmless flirtation. Instead of trying to come up with a system to determine what actions count as “legitimate” sexual predation (five points for a sexual joke, ten points for a clumsy grope, one hundred for rape?) it is far more productive to begin to grapple with the reality that none of these actions exist in a vacuum.

Seemingly smaller, “quieter” indignities — like a quick grope during a photo op — derive their power from the threat and the reality of “louder, criminal forms” of harassment, like Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual coercion.1 One has to be understood in the context of the other.

Sen. Al Franken at USC Casden Insitute Lecture. (Neon Tommy/Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0)

I have found it helpful to think about this problem through the history of one of the most naturalized and trivialized forms of sexual harassment: street harassment. According to the anti-street harassment activist organization Hollaback!, street harassment is “sexual, gender-based, and bias-motivated harassment that takes place in public spaces like the street, the supermarket, and the social media we use every day. At its core is a power dynamic that constantly reminds historically subordinated groups of our vulnerability to assault in public spaces.”

Some commentators have begun to think about where street harassment fits in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. While hosting the 90th Academy Awards in February, Jimmy Kimmel joked, “If we can work together to stop sexual harassment in the workplace … women will only have to deal with harassment all the time at every other place they go.” It’s funny because it’s true. The organizations Stop Street Harassment, Raliance, and the Center on Gender Equity and Health at UC San Diego released the results of a study in February that interviewed women across the country about their experiences of sexual harassment. According to this study, 81% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment, and the number one place where women experienced sexual harassment was not the workplace but public spaces. The history of this prevalent and persistent form of sexual harassment helps us understand why “lesser” or more “typical” forms of harassment are as worthy of our attention as the more “serious” stuff.

Street Insults and Ogling Mashers

There was a time when street harassment was taken seriously in the United States. In the mid-1800s, newspapers reported that men were bothering women in public places with “street insults.” These insults could be as simple as greeting a woman with a “Good evening,” or offering to walk her to her door if she was out alone after dark.2 This conduct might appear benign at first, but it presumed a familiarity that was not supposed to exist between strangers, especially between men and women who did not know each other.

At the turn of the twentieth century, women began to campaign against “mashers” and “male flirts,” men who accosted women in city streets. While “mashing,” like street insults, involved all sorts of annoying and threatening behaviors, commentary on the phenomenon often latched on to looking, ogling, or leering as the most bothersome behavior. Women described the feeling of being watched everywhere they went, and how passing a row of men on the street felt like “running the gauntlet.”3

In Detroit, the local paper denounced mashers who loitered on the post office steps because they made it hard for women to mail their letters in peace. “Every woman who passes through this throng of idlers,” bemoaned the Detroit Free Press, “is subjected to scrutinizing attention.”4

When Bessie Hollister was murdered on the streets of Chicago in 1916, local papers called for a stronger police response to street harassment. (“Chicago’s Foremost Duty”, Chicago Record-Herald, Jan 16, 1916. Credit to Emily Remus, Consumers’ Metropolis: How Monied Women Purchased Pleasure and Power in the New Downtown, forthcoming from Harvard University Press.)

In what became known as the “mashing crusades,” city councils across the country passed anti-street harassment ordinances. Many explicitly targeted “ogling” as a punishable offense. In Houston, the city council even passed an ordinance that forbade men from making “goo-goo eyes” at any woman traveling on city streets. This was a time when behaviors like catcalls, whistling, and leering were considered offenses serious enough to warrant a fine or a few days in the local jail.

From Catcalling to Sexual Assault

Street insults and ogling mashers may, at first glance, look like pretty innocuous things to get up in arms about. But the women who endured these behaviors repeatedly complained that unwanted attention from men made them uncomfortable and scared to go out in public. And they were given plenty of reasons to be afraid. Women who went out alone in the nineteenth century were often assumed to be prostitutes or at least sexually available.

A street insult was insulting because, to put it bluntly, it meant a man had treated a “respectable” woman — which in most cases meant a white, middle-class woman — like she was a prostitute. Sensational news stories and fictional melodramas about city life fed these assumptions and often depicted lecherous men accosting, seducing, and eventually ruining “innocent” young women.

In an extreme example, the murder of a young woman in Chicago in 1916 was reported as an example of how quickly street harassment could lead to physical violence. When Richard Ivins murdered Bessie Hollister on a Chicago street, he was depicted as a meandering stranger who took the opportunity to proposition an unescorted woman and then murdered her when she resisted his advances.5

Men at a streetcar garage ogle a well-dressed woman as she passes on the street. Newspaper illustrations often depicted the offensive conduct women endured in public spaces. (“Car-Barn Beaux,” New York Evening World, July 13, 1912.)

Reports linked Hollister’s murder with street harassment and called on law enforcement to “arrest ‘mashers’ and young men loitering at street corners” so that Chicago women could feel safe going out again. These stories reinforced the idea that a single interaction with a stranger could be the catalyst that ended in a life of destitution, or worse, death. Women were encouraged to avoid an improper glance or an unwanted sexual remark for fear it could quickly escalate to something much worse.6

Similar rhetoric is still used today when women are given (totally not paranoid at all!) tips on avoiding “predators” like looking under your car before you approach it or dialing 911 into your cell phone if you have to walk alone at night. This advice, however well-meaning, puts women on guard at all times, feeds the sense that there could be a rapist around every corner, and can make every unwanted interaction with a male stranger feel like the potential first moments of a violent crime.

Sociologist Liz Kelly has described this slippery mental slope: the way that sexual harassment can be experienced simultaneously as the sexual remark, the leer, the grope itself but also the threat of something far worse. “It is important to remember,” she writes of what she calls “typical” harassment, “that although further violence may not be intended women cannot know this until after the event.”7

A lascivious leer may not devolve into physical violence, but cultural messages about the “dangerous city” or the prevalence of stranger rape, coupled with personal experiences of “lesser” forms of harassment leading to more threatening or violent conduct, can contribute to a feeling that typical behaviors always have the potential to escalate into something far worse.

Trivializing Harassment

When we trivialize or depict certain kinds of harassment as “not that bad” because they aren’t rape or physical assault, we miss the ways that even typical or “lesser” forms of harassment contribute to a woman’s diminished sense of safety and value in our society.

The history of street harassment shows where this kind of trivialization can lead. In the decades following the mashing crusades, women won the right to vote, entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and exercised more and more personal and sexual autonomy in their private lives. The evidence was seemingly all around that men and women were reaching a state of equality.

Given all these changes in gender roles, it started to seem pretty trivial and ridiculous to demand an end to something like catcalling or ogling. After all, if women were now as strong, intelligent, and independent as men, surely women were also capable of handling something as harmless as a comment from a stranger on the street. Women who complained about harassment in the 1950s and 1960s risked being labeled humorless prudes who wanted to take all the fun out of flirting. Sound familiar?

Rather than drawing lines in the sand to determine what counts as serious harassment and what doesn’t, we should be talking about how different kinds of harassment rely on each other for their power. In her piece on the #MeToo backlash, Jia Tolentino argued, “The extremes of male sexual misconduct typically serve to make lesser acts—such as secretly removing a condom…—seem, in the grand scheme of things, really not that bad.” I would argue that the realities of street harassment show us the reverse can also be true: that “lesser acts” derive their power to harm and demean from the “extremes of male sexual misconduct.” Until we can have a frank and open discussion about the feedback loops that make catcalls and sexual assault part of the same misogynistic culture, we risk losing sight of the most common and insidious forms of harassment that women endure not just in the workplace but “all the time at every other place they go.”


  1. See Fiona Vera-Gray, Men’s Intrusion, Women’s Embodiment: A Critical Analysis of Street Harassment (New York: Routledge, 2017), 22. Return to text.
  2. “An Ingenious Method of Obtaining an Introduction,” Wisconsin Democrat, June 9, 1849; “Served Out,” Norfolk Advertiser, December 15, 1838. Return to text.
  3. This phrase was used multiple times in reporting on mashing. See J. N. Hyde, “Running the Gauntlet.—A Scene in Front of a Popular Hotel in New York City at Five O’Clock P. M.,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 16, 1874; W.E. Waller, letter to the editor, Trenton State Gazette, October 20, 1874; Nixola Greeley-Smith, “New York Mashers, Their Insulting Tricks And the Different Brands of the Pests,” Day Book, July 13, 1912; “Mashers Lining Monroe Avenue Annoy Women Without Escorts When Police Relax Espionage,” Detroit Free Press, July 5, 1914; Rose Cecil O’Neill, “Could Man Stand Comment Which Assails Woman?,” Day Book, September 8, 1916. Return to text.
  4. “‘Mashers’ on the Postoffice Steps Annoy Women Nightly,” Detroit Free Press, August 7, 1910. Return to text.
  5. “Youth Strangles Society Woman to Death with Wire,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 1906. Return to text.
  6. Emily Remus, “Retail Capitalists and the Politics of Mobility in the Modern Consumer City,” paper presented at The Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, June, 2017.; and John F. Kasson, Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (New York: Hill & Wang, 1990), 128. Return to text.
  7. Liz Kelly, Surviving Sexual Violence (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 100. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Man watching woman cross the road. (Courtesy Flickr)

Molly Brookfield is Assistant Professor of History and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. Her research focuses on women's experiences of urban space and histories of sexual violence in the United States.