Encouraging bystander intervention in street harassment situations. A sociological study of the politicization of gender relations in the public space

Politics on the street corner
By Mischa Dekker

In recent awareness campaigns against street harassment, criticism of bystanders, who are described as passive, has played a central role. We are often presented with the image of an apathetic passer-by who is indifferent to the attack, and the non-intervention of bystanders is frequently exposed as a form of selfishness, or as a fear that they will then become a victim of violence. In France, street harassment as a public problem has been defined principally from the personal experience of the victim and as a form of violence perpetrated against women, leading actors to explain the non-intervention of bystanders as an indifference to sexism. By focusing on the invasive and violent manner in which these behaviors are experienced by victims, the difficulties bystanders experience in identifying a situation as street harassment are overlooked. In this article, I analyze interventions in schools organized by associations seeking to raise awareness about street harassment among high school pupils and to encourage them to intervene if they are a bystander to such a situation. While the speakers initially explain non-intervention as an indifference to sexism and a resistance against defending the autonomy of women and LGBTQI+ people, the reactions of the pupils show that their hesitations are often an expression of their fear that their intervention will be perceived as an illegitimate intrusion into the other’s personal space. This article thus questions the reduction of all resistance to progressive and anti-sexist politics to the expression of conservative and misogynistic beliefs, showing that they can be the result of tensions internal to the politics of protecting individuals’ autonomy. The reflexivity of the activists and the way in which they adapt their approach in reaction to the pupils’ resistance show the difficulties but also the possibilities of promoting solidarity in a society that values individual liberties.

  • public problem
  • street harassment
  • violence against women
  • public space
  • bystanders
  • social movements
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