Is A Serenade Street Harassment?


Not so long ago I came across a blog post, written by an author who identified herself only as “Cappy”. She spun a tale of love and heartbreak in the span of a couple paragraphs, about a how a boy she didn’t know serenaded her in her university’s common area against her wishes. It’s potentially great comic fodder — or not. The story started with laughter, mine not hers, but ended with a grimace, for both of us. All this made me wonder: Is serenading an antiquated courtship ritual irrelevant for the modern world? Is it anti-feminist? Can it be seen in the context of harassment?

The serenade is the stuff of Hollywood B-movies. A young man’s aspirations to star in a romantic comedy of his own devising swiftly go astray after he alienates his unsuspecting co-star. In one sense it sounds like a mildly humorous storyline meant for direct-to-TV, but on the other hand it gives us a space to think about the long history of the serenade and how affection, lust and social conceptions surrounding women and sex manifest themselves as we enter modern adulthood.

Traditionally a serenade is a musical performance made in someone’s honor, but not just any someone—a lover. Typically performed in the evening, possibly through a window, it was an expressive gesture of feeling to a willing and expectant recipient. Historically, serenades have never been a socially acceptable method of self-introduction; rather they were an act reserved for people who’d been properly socially introduced. In its traditional form I think the serenade is neither irrelevant nor anti-feminist, it was simply a method of self-expression rooted in its time. Oh, but how things can change.

People who set out to serenade in this modern context that blogger Cappy experienced—confronting or cornering unknown women in public with love songs and unwelcome physical contact—are participating in the same type of problematic male-female social dynamic that is behind catcalling and street harassment. Catcalling, which has existed across the swath of our contemporary history (see example A, example B, and example C), remains a huge and pressing concern. Street harassment of any form is gendered and sexualized verbal or physical violence that severely limits the ability of people (including women, LGBT individuals, and transgender individuals) to exist in a public space with a true sense of security and safety. According to Stop Street Harassment between 65% and 99% of women (and 90% of gay men) reported experiencing street harassment, depending on locale and the type of harassment, with catcalling being the most prevalent form experienced…



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