Ever tensed up when forced to walk past stationary traffic? Cringed when a stranger, out of nowhere, instructs you to smile? Choked down your anger as a passer-by whispers obscenities? Changed your route to work to avoid harassment hot-spots? As these stories show, you’re not alone.
Statistically, men are more likely to be physically attacked on the streets, yet it’s women who are made to feel frightened about being out alone. The level of media attention given to rape by strangers (when in fact most rapists are known to the victim), is partly to blame. So too is the level of verbal harassment received by women when they dare to leave the house alone.
Ask any woman and she’ll have a hundred stories of harassment by strangers that happened to herself, to her friend; last month, last week, yesterday. Street harassment of women happens every day, turning what should be public neutral spaces into areas we travel through as quickly as possible, head down, avoiding eye contact, pretending we didn’t hear it even though they know damn well we have.
This isn’t to suggest all women are all petrified victims of this form of harassment; of course not. But being verbally harassed on the steet by men from puberty onwards is bound to leave its mark on the subconscious of all but the most strong willed. So if, like me, you get a sinking feeling on a beautiful sunny day because the traffic slows to a standstill, it’s not your fault; it’s a normal human reaction to your past experiences. If you find yourself tensing up and hurrying your step when you pass a group of men lounging by the side of the street, it’s completely understandable.
Yet the point is not how women react but why we have to put up with this in the first place. What century are we living in when a woman walking in a public place is seen as a fair target for abuse purely because she is female? We all know it never happens to us when we’re walking with a man; because that would be trespassing on another guy’s property. Wouldn’t it?
When the harassment is combined with racism or homophobia, or other forms of discrimination, it becomes even worse.
Men get harassed too; but not on such a scale or on such a regular basis (and most importantly in this context, when it does happen, it is usually by other men). Indeed, most men cannot begin to comprehend the scale at which this happens. That’s why we should tell other people of our experiences, and why sharing our stories is important, if only as a cathartic process.
Anti Street Harassment UK, inspired by the work of the U.S. Street Harassment Project, collects stories of street harassment from women. A small selection is reproduced below, and Lindsay, one of the group’s founders, explains why the stories are important.
If you want to know how best to deal with street harassment, check out the website, or get hold of a copy of the truly excellent “Back Off! How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers” by Martha J. Langelan.
If you take only one thing from reading these stories, remember: you’re not alone, and it’s not your fault. It’s not you. IT’S NOT YOU.
And we all know exactly how you feel.
Lindsay, Anti Street Harassment UK
After looking at The Street Harassment Project’s webite [the original street harassment project from the U.S.] I thought the most powerful part was the giant archive of stories that have been contributed by women all over the US and beyond. I knew when I was setting the site up for the UK, having a place for women to share stories and concerns was really important. Because not everyone is in a place where they can be involved in a campaigning group for whatever reason, the story archive has become a place where women come back to post their latest incidents of harassment or just read other women’s stories. As soon as warm weather hits, the site is also hit with story after story of women being harassed and how they have responded to their harassers. The great thing also is that when the group is not particularly active, the website is still constantly being updated with these stories. It manages to keep the momentum of the movement to challenge street harassment going.
I’ve been moderating the website for almost two years now but I never fail to feel touched when a contributer starts her story with something about how happy she is to have found the site or how she finally feels vindicated in being so angry about street harassment. (This actually happens all the time). There have been quite a few stories sent by young women and teenagers and their stories read as if they were written by someone who is in the middle developing political consciousness. This is always really exciting to hear, especially in a moment that people are constantly, and very wrongly, calling post-feminist. I received an email through the site from a young woman doing an A-level journalism course who wanted to write a story about street harassment. I gave her some information but I made her promise to keep writing stories about it when she gets published.
I think that the act of sharing these personal stories, whether with full names or anonymously is a political act. It is turning a situation that was anywhere from annoying to humiliating to infuriating into a completely new scenario where the contributer can comfortably humiliate or voice disgust about her harasser in an environment where others will understand her frustration. This is an example of what people involved in left-wing politics strive to achieve by using the internet for organising and/or sharing tactics across boundaries.
The story archive has become more populist than the site of an established organisation, a place of active democracy where women are their own best-placed experts who analyse an experience and understand how to move on and react the next time it happens.