Policing women through violence [Women and Violence, Part 7]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

In an article titled “‘Femininity’ and women’s silence in response to sexual harassment and coercion,” Kathleen V. Cairns describes how harassment of women functions as a method of social control over women’s behavior:

[O]vert practices include the public, ritual shaming of women in the form of catcalls, lewd remarks and so on which serves to demonstrate the fact that ‘any man or group of men feels entitled not only to pass judgement on any woman walking along minding her own business, but also to announce it to her‘ [Kotzin 1993: 167] […]

In patriarchy, women are taught to accept that their femaleness, their simple presence, are responsible for men’s behavior towards them […] It becomes women’s responsibility to police themselves, to keep their dress, comportment and presence within approved limits to avoid ‘provoking’ harassment. (96-7).

This dynamic – of men acting with impunity to judge women, and women shouldering the blame for men’s actions towards them – can be applied to other forms of gender violence as well. What it comes down to is the way that negative reactions from men – or even the anticipation of those reactions – function to police women in everything from their appearance to their behavior.

Men policing women

Let’s start with the practice Cairns herself describes, of public sexual harassment. I know few, if any, women who have not experienced this in some form or another. Often this takes the form of men talking at women about their appearance or sexual appeal. This is distinguishable from actual flirting, because flirting is supposed to be a mutually consensual act, whereas harassment is just about a man making sure a woman knows his opinion of her, without caring about her participation in the interaction. (Anyone who’s been both harassed and flirted with/complimented can tell you the difference.) Harassment can also be quieter – lewd or invasive staring, muttered comments, or actual touching.

This practice polices women by imposing men’s opinions onto women about their physical attractiveness – whether the women are heterosexual or not, in a relationship and not looking for outside opinions, or just not in the mood. It reinforces the idea that the male gaze is upon a woman, that her appearance is not just for herself or a chosen few, but open to consumption and judgment by any man who sees her. Even if the judgment is ‘positive’ (“nice ass” as opposed to “ugly bitch”), it reinforces the authority of random men to inflict that judgment.

On the other hand, harassment can also be about punishment. Consider the recent study by University of Toronto professor Jennifer Berdahl, which found that, “The more women deviated from traditional gender roles – by occupying a ‘man’s’ job or having a ‘masculine’ personality – the more they were targeted.”

Women can be punished for things besides being ‘unfeminine,’ of course – as tekanji points out, men harass women for speaking up about gender issues, or just for being female. The ultimate result is the silencing or suppression of women, because we get afraid, frustrated, or just plain angry.

Violent policing

We can also look at tekanji’s examples and see how harassment quickly transforms from ‘only’ insults into actual threats of violence. These threats are almost uniformly sexual in nature, expressing that sexual assault will be used to punish deviant women, or even improve them (by causing a woman to ‘lighten up,’ etc.). How many of us (particularly feminists) have experienced or witnessed similar threats, about how we ‘need to get fucked’ in order to ‘get some sense’ or ‘learn our place’?

Of course these threats are verbal, and the one’s in tekanji’s post were communicated online. These men are not immediately and physically threatening women, and it would be safe to say that few of them actually want to rape the targets of their harassment (though I don’t trust any of them to be intelligent or worthwhile allies against sexual violence). One might be tempted to just blow this off as empty words, online aggression that doesn’t mean anything. Many people do blow it off.

But what does it mean when some men’s anger against women is expressed through threats of sexual violence, even in non-sexual contexts? And rape is a gendered form of violence, undoubtedly – women are the vast majority of victims, men are the vast majority of perpetrators, and when men are victims of rape by other men, there is the threat of the male victim being made ‘gay’ or ‘like a woman.’ All of this makes rape threats a gender-specific way of terrorizing women, above and beyond general physical threats against men or mixed-gender groups.

The effect of this type of threat is to police women’s behavior. Online, it can mean silencing a blogger, defaming her name for potential schools or employers, or driving her from a forum, community, or other space. Threats can teach women not to air certain opinions; or to do so only in private, regulated spaces; or to hide their gender identity; or to avoid sites that otherwise interest her; or to play along like ‘one of the guys’ in order to fit in.

Offline, the threat is more immediately physical, and the policing far, far more extensive. It determines who we talk to in public, the way we talk, the way we dress, the places we go, the times we go out, the amount of alcohol we drink, the people we associate with, the way we arrange our transportation … I’m sure you can think of more.

I am afraid to go out by myself at night. I don’t like being afraid, but I am. And the fear doesn’t really come from the threat of being assaulted – statistically, of course, I am far more likely to be sexually or physically assaulted by the men who are my friends and acquaintances than by a stranger jumping me in the dark.

See, I’m afraid because I have regularly been harassed when I’m walking by myself at night. It’s when I’m walking from my house to the bus stop. It’s not that late, just sometime in the evening after it’s gotten dark. I’m not dressed ‘provocatively’ (because we all know that’s an excuse, right?). But I get screamed at, by groups of guys from the safety of their own cars – loud, incoherent noises, meant to scare me or get some other reaction.

This doesn’t happen in the daytime. This doesn’t happen when I’m walking with my boyfriend. (He, by the way, walks by himself plenty of nights, and doesn’t seem to have this problem.) Sure, I’ve been harassed in broad daylight, but that’s been guys yelling in a sexual way, meant to offend (or perhaps ‘compliment’) me. This? The aggressive screaming? This is meant to police me. To let me know that I’m somewhere that I don’t belong, doing something that I shouldn’t be doing, and to let me know that these guys have the right to punish me for it by bullying me.

This policing works. I find ways to avoid walking alone at night, even when I want to go out – even though I know this isn’t right, and that I’m as entitled to be out there as any man, I can’t always convince myself to take the risk. I hate it, but I obey, because I don’t want the harassment. I’ve learned my lesson.

Women self-policing

Women police themselves in plenty of different ways. Not all of them are like my example above, where I was aware of the power dynamic. We internalize patriarchal disapproval or punishment in a myriad of ways, to the point where they become indistinguishable from our own reactions to ourselves.

Consider these excerpts Tomi-Ann Roberts and Jennifer Y. Gettman’s study, “Mere Exposure: Gender Differences in the Negative Effects of Priming a State of Self-Objectification,” which explores self-policing in the context of body image:

Although only a minority of women in the United States are actually overweight […] the majority report feeling fat and express this as a personal failure, which has been shown to lead to feelings of shame [Crandall, 1994]. Feminist theorists have described this as a cycle where the dominant culture constructs the ideal body and encourages women to monitor their own bodies as objects, and, as a result, women feel shame when they do not live up to these standards [McKinley, 1998].


Disgust can play a positive role in the development of a civilized society by internalizing norms for cleanliness, restraint, and reserve [Miller, 1997]. Unfortunately, it can also become a negative reaction to violations of these predetermined social standards. Insofar as many women experience a discrepancy between their actual body size and their ideal body size [Fallon & Rozin, 1985], women may become disgusted with their own bodies because they have violated a social standard by being unattractive or overweight, and hence “gross.” […] Indeed, it may be argued that the higher standards of cleanliness, hairlessness, odorlessness, and beauty held for women in our culture are a reflection of the greater burden placed upon women to “civilize” their bodies lest they be seen as “disgusting” by others [Roberts, Goldenberg, Power, & Pyszcynski, 2002]. (18-9)

It is also worth noting that the authors cite a study in which both men and women try on swimwear, and women “reported feeling more disgust, distaste, and revulsion than did men, who, in contrast, reported more lighthearted self-conscious feelings of awkwardness, silliness, and foolishness” (19).

Of course, there is always the possibility that women’s opinions of their own bodies are based on their own individual preferences. But why the strikingly gendered difference, between who feels “silly” and who feels “revulsion” about themselves? Why do women’s preferences about their bodies tie in so neatly to sexism, by keeping them spending their time, energy, and money on practices that make them smaller instead of larger and stronger?

And what is the role of male policing in all of this? How many of us have had husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, and friends imply to us, tell us, tease us, or threaten us about our appearance? weight? body hair? dress?

How much do negative reactions from men influence our behavior? And how much do we blame ourselves for limiting our actions, rather than those who impose those limitations upon us?

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4 thoughts on “Policing women through violence [Women and Violence, Part 7]

  1. Sure, I’ve been harassed in broad daylight, but that’s been guys yelling in a sexual way, meant to offend (or perhaps ‘compliment’) me.

    I don’t think there’s much difference between daytime and nighttime harassment. I’ve been harassed during the day in various states of disarray and dishevelment, and many women I know say the same. I think all street harassment is at root about claiming public space as male space, and training women to feel that if they dare to present themselves in public, they should be prepared to be punished for it by becoming an object for male consumption.

  2. I’ve found that reading feminist blogs and books have exposed me to lots of posts like this, Dora & readers, and that seeing over and over again the question of for whom a woman is dressed or walking when she’s dressed or walking a certain way for someone besides herself has helped me the most.

    Ever since I read that (yeah, it does help that I have have adrenaline-state training (IMPACT) under my belt…), I’ve been able to tap into how I feel when I’ve dressed up intending for swing dancers to size up how I look, for a date with a loved one where I fully permit him to size up how I look, for a date with a liked one where I fully permit him to size up how I look, etc.

    I’ve been able to tap into that sense when I hear or see someone for whom I did not choose my clothes or walk and feel a peaceful sense of…irrelevance.

    Yeah, irrelevance. I get this feeling when I catch them that feels like when someone comes up shouting, “Aliiiiicccccce!” and I have to explain, “I’m sorry…I’m not Alice.”

    I’ve been able to, thanks to reading feminist descriptions of the problem with random male judgment-and-speaking-it, find a way to not feel “policed” by it.

    Of course, as I said, this probably has 1) a lot to do with having had a hell of a lot of practice at doing so in a class where we were trained to handle and simulated such harassment (I even have the video for reminders of my classmates and me in similar situations!) 2) a lot to do with never having been physically assaulted on account of being perceived as a member of a “weaker” social group.

    Nevertheless, hopefully people who aren’t in my lucky situation can still start with my tactic and develop one that works for them.

  3. dresseuse: You raise a good point. Though I have experienced a difference in harassment I’ve faced at night versus during the day, that’s certainly not the case for every woman. And yeah, ‘claiming public space’ is what it’s all about. :/

    Katie: It looks like your comment posted anyway? I like the tip you give. You’re right, and some of your specific circumstances affect how useful it is for you; but this battle is won piece by piece, rather than with a single perfect strategy.

Comments are closed.