Yesterday marked the start of International Anti-Street Harassment Week (which I’m posting about today as I can’t quite get my head around weeks starting on a Sunday!). The aim of the week is to raise awareness about gender-based street harassment and send out the clear message that it’s not OK. The Meet Us On The Streets website has details of events going on all round the world.
Back in 2008 I wrote a quick post in response to a Comment is Free piece where commenters were asserting that street harassment hardly ever happens and is all harmless fun anyway. I asked readers to leave a comment if they’d experienced street harassment, and almost four years and over 400 comments later they’re still coming in. Here are just a few excerpts:
I got threatened with rape on my way home just under a fortnight ago – when I responded angrily the creeps followed me down the road (“It was just a joke – there’s no call for that type of language!”) until I mimed dialling 999.
My worst experience most recently was walking home from work on a Saturday night and two lads passing me in the street. At exactly the moment we crossed paths one stuck his hand out and groped my breast.
The most unique incident is probably when two of my friends and I were propositioned by a man when we were coming home from the supermarket. He wanted to have a multi-ethnic foursome.
When I was fourteen or fifteen, I used to get harassed by a man on my way to school every morning. He was a car-park attendant and I had to walk through the (usually deserted) car park to get to school, and every time he saw me he’d wolf whistle or ask for my name or make lewd comments.
Men have often kicked, grabbed or forcefully pushed me (even at the top of stair cases) when I’m out in my wheelchair. It’s scary.
The response to my post came as no surprise to many readers, but I think it’s an important collection of experiences because so many people – mostly men – simply don’t understand that street harassment is a problem. As one male commenter put it:
As a guy, this is truly horrible reading. I don’t recall witnessing any harassment, but I guess it’s because as a man it isn’t (luckily for me) something that effects me directly and as stated above, it’s a much rarer occurrence when other men are present.
It’s clearly common, but why isn’t street harassment just harmless fun, complimentary even?
Quite simply, because it prevents us from using public space freely, by which I mean free from intrusion, judgement, fear, intimidation and assault.
Yes, some women may be quite chuffed to be told by a random stranger that they look sexy, but seeing as these women don’t tend to carry a big sign saying “compliments welcome”, Mr Random Stranger can’t tell how a given woman is going to feel about his supposed compliment. If he really is so fond of women, he would do better to keep his approval to himself.
Because what Mr Random Stranger needs to realise is that many women have experienced so-called compliments quickly descending into nastiness when they don’t respond in the desired way, and so “compliments” often carry threatening undertones. Same goes for wolf whistles. How are we supposed to know that “Give us a smile, love” won’t turn into “Moody fucking bitch” or that “What’s your name, darling?” won’t turn into sexual assault? I know I don’t, because both these things have happened to me. And even if we haven’t experienced things taking a turn for the worse, why should we have our private space invaded by complete strangers, our bodies judged by men we have no interest in, our attention demanded for no good reason when we’re busy with our own affairs?
Street harassment affects women so deeply that we change our routes to school and work, avoid using public transport at night, stop going out running, feel anxious every time we walk past a group of men, and walk with our heads down and eyes averted instead of enjoying the space around us, to list just a few of the self-imposed limitations mentioned by commenters on my blog post. We’re hurt and angered by our experiences of street harassment hours, days and even years after they occur. I can’t count the number of times my day has turned sour because some wanker decided to harass me on my way home and I couldn’t think of a decent response or was too afraid to call him out. I hate how powerless that makes me feel.
So for International Anti-Street Harassment Week, I’d quite simply like men on the street to stop. Stop with the wolf whistles, the beeping horns, the demands for attention, the sexual comments, the stares, the touching, the groping, the jokes at our expense. And for the men who don’t do those things, recognise that we can’t differentiate you from the rest of them. Move out the way, don’t block the pavement when you’re in a group, cross the road if you find yourself walking close behind a woman at night. Learn how to be an ally. Street harassment has to end.