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by Jaclyn Friedman

Thanks to Hollaback, this video of a woman confronting a subway flasher has spread like, well, a virus across the interwebs over the past three days. As well it should: it’s thrilling viewing, verging into the land of fantasy-fullfillment for many of us who’ve been sexually harassed in public. Most people seem to be throwing themselves eagerly into this brave woman’s shoes, and experiencing the rush of power that she must have felt when she flipped the script on the cretin. And that’s awesome. But I do want to take a serious moment to talk about WHY it’s awesome, what that script is, and why there’s so much power and release to be found in flipping it.

The answer is short but hardly sweet: shame. That’s really what this video is all about: reversing our expectation of who should feel ashamed in this situation. And that’s part of the power of the street harasser — to make us feel vulnerable, ashamed, humiliated, frightened. But it doesn’t have to.

Think about it: who’s doing something shameful here? Um… Dude With His Penis Out In A Subway Car, that’s who. Woman On Her Way Home From Work has done nothing to feel bad about, unless taking the subway home from work while female is an ethics violation. Oh wait, I forgot – taking up public space while female is always an offense punishable by unwanted sexual attention from men. Don’t want that kind of attention? Don’t be female in public. Otherwise, you’re obviously asking for it, lady.

You get what I’m saying here. We’ve spent far too long internalizing that way of thinking — so long that watching a woman reject it is shocking and exhilarating. Why isn’t this the most commonplace response? It’s not like she’s in actual danger — there are a million people around, some of whom even have cameras out. He’s not a threat to her physically in this situation. And yet men behave like this on streets and subways around the world with alarming regularity. Because we let them. Because we forget that they’re the ones acting shamefully, not us.

Imagine a world where this woman’s behavior was expected. Where no one was confused about who should be cowering when a woman is harassed or violated in public. Imagine a world where everyone took as much joy as this woman obviously does in ensuring that justice is done to those who try to make women afraid or ashamed in public. Now start with yourself by identifying and rejecting the shame that’s been put on you for things that other people are doing wrong. Then get out there and hand that shame back where it belongs.

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