Bad Categories Prevent Smart Conversations

Don’t you agree that people who either murder someone or keep library books overdue should be punished?

“Murderers and library book abusers”—that’s an example of a phony category. Other phony categories include “bullies and predators,” “porn and child porn,” and “S/M and violence.”

I’ve spoken and written many times about phony categories and moral panics (e.g., here). It’s a common strategy in public policy discussions—creating a category that lumps two dissimilar things together, and decrying the more serious of the two. We’re all in favor of preventing hangnails and heart attacks, aren’t we? We MUST do something about that!

Because phony categories prevent meaningful analysis and conversation, they undermine democracy. And so the frontline of intelligent, progressive discourse sometimes has to involve the tedious work of looking behind the claims of a study or of statistics, so we can intelligently discuss their real meaning.

For example, you’ve probably seen or heard about the video of 24-year-old Shoshana Roberts walking through New York for 10 hours and getting over 100 unwanted comments.

There’s a lot to critique about it: she’s wearing skin-tight clothes that emphasize her every curve, and the catcalls are almost exclusively from men who seem unemployed, marginalized or even homeless at best. I leave it to the video’s producers to explain why they have a shapely young white woman walking through mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

The producers and many others call Roberts’ experiences in the video “sexual harassment” or “verbal abuse.” Clearly, she didn’t verbally invite a single one of the mens’ comments (although most adults would agree that in any U.S. city, her clothing choice would typically be coded as provocative). And clearly, she didn’t respond to the comments.

That said, there wasn’t a single comment that threatened or insulted her. No one suggested sex, invited sex, or demanded sex. Essentially, these brilliant comments ranged all the way from ‘Wow you look great’ to ‘Wow, I like looking at you.’ Pointless and stupid, an unwanted, frustrating intrusion into her private minute. Multiplied, of course, by 100. Not that she or any other woman generally walks the streets for 10 hours at a time, of course.

Now according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences”—a category that includes harassment on public sidewalks—is the most prevalent form of “sexual violence” for both men and women.

How many problems can you spot in that one sentence? These government statistics assume that:
~ unwanted verbal contact is harassment
~ unwanted verbal contact is a sexual experience
~ a non-contact unwanted experience is sexual violence

This sort of methodology creates rates of sexual violence that are enormous. With such a definition, American streets are dramatically more dangerous than those of Moscow, Cairo, Johannesburg, and drug-warring central Mexico. Which is (fortunately) silly, of course. Would you feel safer in one of those places, or the U.S.? Where would you prefer your daughter or sister?

Defining an unwanted “Lookin’ good!” (even from a scary-looking guy) as harassment trivializes real harassment. Defining catcalls as sexual experiences trivializes sex. Most importantly, defining words as violence trivializes violence.

Anyone—feminist, bureaucrat, politician, journalist—who promotes such nonsense should be held responsible for misleading the public, creating epidemics of sexual violence, and generating fear. Fear that intimidates and disempowers people. Fear that incites people to demand action, even if that action curtails their own and others’ rights.

Remember, the FBI says that today’s rates of sexual violence against both adult women and children are their lowest in over a decade.

It’s important for America to talk about—and reduce—violence, sexual harassment, verbal intimidation, and boorish behavior. It’s also important that we use words that help us understand the world and each other, rather than using categories that prevent communication and create fear.

Fear, is a terrible, terrible experience. But fear doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in danger.

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