I recently asked a question on facebook that incited way more responses than I’d expected:
Have you ever experienced street harassment? How did it make you feel?
Many friends and family members commented (and some messaged me privately), telling me their stories. Harassment made them feel a wide range of emotions – ranging from being annoyed and angry to fearful and violated. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“I’ve been touched, photographed, called at, talked at by strangers, and had someone expose themselves to me. Fear is definitely a major response for me. And anger – that someone thinks this is appropriate behaviour. I’m also genuinely perplexed as to what response they expect from me.” (Beth)
“Just general catcalls, like ‘hey where ya going?’ ‘You’re hot,’ etc. and then if you don’t respond you get called a b****. Charming. For me I was on my bike and it was a group of guys I assume were walking back from a bar. I could easily bike away but I still felt unsafe…” (Terri)
“Used to happen all the time while walking (any time of day) in the city…there’s no real response that I ever tried that really worked well to stop it at the time…it made me aware of who was around me all the time. Feeling somewhat on the defensive, I’d often cross the street or avoid a group of guys. If it was dark and someone made me nervous, I’d grab my keys and keep one pointing out. I wonder if many guys ever had to think like that just walking to the store or home from work.” (Meaghan)
My personal experience with street harassment started when I was about 11 years old. I was walking with my dad on a crowded street one evening, and a man spat into my ear. The creepy crawly feeling I had then was similar to the feeling I had just a few years ago when I noticed a group of men in the Czech Republic videotaping me on an escalator.
“I’ve had lasagna thrown at me from a passing truck window – too stunned to recall what the guy yelled at me as he did it. Completely humiliating. I went to work, cleaned up, and was distracted entire day by what about me could have caused him to do that. After time I realized was nothing I did (what a jerk!) but I was constantly looking everywhere nervously for a while whenever walking down the street. I guess I’m glad at least didn’t hear what he said.” (Amber)
“I don’t get cat called…I get “fattie….whale….pig….lay off on the cheeseburgers….” (Andrea)
“Happened to me moments ago! I was walking out of the store after scooping some wine and a guy walking in the parking lot said something to the effect of how I look good without some weak boyfriend around. I typically shrug comments off and keep walking but considering it was a dark parking lot and raining quite a bit, I walked a little faster!” (Lauren)
“Like the other ladies I too am aware of who’s around me most of the time and have carried keys for self-defence. I feel pretty objectified when it happens. I dream of just walking over and kicking them in the nuts, although that probably wouldn’t solve much.” (LeeAnna)
Based on the responses I received, catcalling doesn’t bother all women, though the vast majority felt uncomfortable or threatened by it. Some specifically said that it was a trigger for them, sparking awful memories from the past. For trafficking survivors, harassment can cause flashbacks. And of course, the comments range in content, some sparking more fear than others.
“The worst experience I had was in London, England last fall coming back from a night service at church, and an old guy who sounded Jamaican said something to the effect of ‘I want to ride you, English girl, I want to ride you like a horse.’ It was awful…From a car, I’ve been called a fag for wearing pink crocs, I was called a slut when I was wearing rubber boots, a winter coat, sweater and jeans. Anything that gets yelled from a car is frustrating because I can’t see them coming but they can see me from a ways off and are gone before I can do anything.” (Stephanie)
“I ride transit alone quite often, and I can tell you that this happens to me all the time. Men have proceeded to stare at me at a close range for over 20 minutes, initiated overly sexual conversations with me, followed me through public despite my attempts to avoid conversation and lose them. Men have asked me where I live and asked me to come over to their apartments to have sex with them. I’ve seen men hanging out of the windows of the car to holler at me, only to yell back ‘you’re a b*****’ when I didn’t respond how they wanted.
It all creeps me out and contributes to me generally feeling unsafe in a public space with men present. It’s disturbing how often I look behind myself to make sure the men who were leering at me aren’t following me home…I’m usually on edge for the rest of the day. I’m angry, and I want to take revenge, but there is literally nothing I can do, and the unfulfilment is terrible.” (Heather)
“In university I went to a club with some girl friends. I was in a serious relationship at the time and so was just enjoying having fun with the girls. One guy wanted me to come home with him and I obviously kept saying no, so as I was leaving he got angry and shouted at me ‘You stupid b****! I’ll split your c*** in two!'” (Bethany)
“A friend and I were shopping in an outdoor shopping centre in Delhi, when we noticed a guy eyeing us and showing up wherever we were. As this continued, we became somewhat wary and decided to turn some corners and get away from him to see if he was actually following us or if it was coincidence. After weaving through shops it became evident that he was indeed following us. We made eye contact many times, however he kept a bit of distance.
We continued to try and get away from him, until we went around a corner and down an alley where he too showed up. We then decided to get in the first cab we saw to go home. I remember watching his face as we drove away. Being in a foreign country made me feel uneasy as I knew where little help was to be found and there was a huge language barrier. Furthermore, in that instance my vulnerability of being a woman was very apparent. I do not know what that man wanted, however as he was bigger than me, who knows what might have happened.” (Allison)
One of the inevitable results of experiencing street harassment is that it strips everyone of what makes them human. I personally like to make eye contact, smile, and say hello to people on the street as I pass by – just common, friendly courtesy. But any attention given by me can sometimes result in unwanted comments, forcing me to suppress my desire for simple expressions of kindness.
Ultimately, there is a helplessness that most women feel when it comes to an appropriate response.
“I steel myself, wear sunglasses, put headphones in so I can pretend I can’t hear things and they can’t see my eyes. I walk fast and intentionally and look like I know where I’m going. I’ve become pretty good at just not reacting or turning my head when I hear something because I just don’t know how to react.” (Stephanie)
“It happens to me on a daily basis…I would say the aftermath is an overwhelming feeling that you will always be degraded in public and the only way to protect yourself is to avoid all type of eye contact, smiling etc…To be honest, the times it hurts the most is when it happens in front of those men who wouldn’t do it themselves, but they stand silent when it happens in front of them like they’re innocent bystanders. As a woman, you aren’t well positioned to speak out against street harassment, if you do, you likely will get it worse. You can’t go to the police or defend yourself in any way.” (Tania)
“When a man exposed himself to me, it made me feel very vulnerable and kind of naive, like why did I cycle home that way? Why did I make eye contact with him? But afterwards when I told my story to others, I was shocked to realize that every woman I spoke to had a story of a man exposing himself, touching them, or following them. And so many of their stories did not happen like mine, at night while alone, but in the middle of the day, in public, often on public transport…When people do talk about it, some say that the actions were just misunderstood, making me feel helpless to address it and that makes me angry.” (Saskia)
The largest international cross-cultural study on sexual harassment, conducted by Cornell University, was just released, and here are some of the results.
There’s no doubt street harassment is pervasive, but why is it so important for us, collectively as a society, to stamp it out?
In her Washington Post article, Soraya Chemaly puts it well:
“While many people, even women, describe street harassment as flattering, it is a negative and costly phenomenon and part of a broader tolerance for a spectrum of gender-based violence…Consciously or not, girls and women fold this information into their lives in an infinite number of ways, two of which are anxiety and hyper vigilance, both of which also take a toll on women’s well being.”
Rimsha Ali Shah, founder of an NGO called No To Harassment, is quoted in the Express Tribune as saying that “in reality, even casual teasing is, at times, the groundwork for potential rape.”
What many women find extremely frustrating is that avoiding harassment disrupts their daily lives. I read one story of a woman who, in an effort to avert harassment, took the long route to work instead of a short cut, adding an extra hour of commute time to her work day.
Street harassment is caused and driven by many factors, and Jay and I talked through some of them earlier this week. We kept coming back to one theme – the desire of men to express power over women. Causing another human being to feel fear, discomfort, or pain through something as simple as a word, a look, or a whistle, can be entirely intoxicating to someone who seeks control or dominance. The fact that the majority of today’s mainstream porn is verbally and physically abusive toward women certainly doesn’t help, but serves as a handbook on how to treat women in real life.
While some assume that harassment only happens if a woman is wearing revealing clothing, this is not true at all. In Iran, women wearing the full body covering still experience harassment, unless they are accompanied by their husband or other male family member. This all points to the fact that at the root of harassment lies a desire for dominance.
So, what can be done about this? Some countries are making catcalling a punishable offence. An Argentine congresswoman has recently introduced a bill that would result in a fine of 7,000 pesos ($776 USD) for sexually or verbally harassing a person. In Belgium, a person can be fined on the spot for catcalling. Enforcement, as usual, is always a challenge, but it’s a unique approach that will be interesting to monitor.
But what can we do on a day-to-day basis?
If you are being harassed
Hollaback, a non-profit dedicated to ending street harassment, emphasizes that safety must come first. This may look different depending on the situation. Sometimes the best course of action is to ignore it and keep moving. If you think it best to confront the harasser directly, it’s recommended that you look them in the eye and firmly let them know it’s not OK (calmly, without verbal attacks or insults). If they try to engage further or make fun of you, don’t continue the conversation. Keep moving.
Don’t Be Silent DC, a street harassment blog, gives some more helpful tips. If someone shouts at you from a car, get the license plate (if you can) and call the authorities. If it’s a business vehicle, call the company and report it (they should be able to figure out who was driving that vehicle in that area at that time). Even if you can’t get the license plate, pretending to write it down can get them from bothering you further.
Another strategy is to rally the neighbourhood together to declare the neighbourhood a “harassment-free/hassle-free zone.” Put signs and flyers up in the area letting everyone know that harassment will not be tolerated. If a man harasses you and there are enough posters up, simply pointing at the sign may scare him off.
If there are men in your neighbourhood that loiter around a corner all the time, invite them to be allies.
“You can say something like, ‘You men are out on the corner all the time. We need your help in making the streets safer for women’… when they see men on the street harassing women, they’ll join in the fight against harassment as opposed to the actual harassment. Getting them to do something positive in the community makes them feel like real men. Just by getting those harassers to ally with you means that the number of harassers on the street will decrease.”
If you see someone else being harassed
Hollaback has the following suggestions for taking action:
Direct Action: As a bystander, you can directly intervene when you see a situation of street harassment by confronting the situation head on. For example, you can ask the harasser to stop bothering the person she/he is targeting.
Distraction: A bystander can take an indirect approach to intervening. For example, if you notice someone being harassed, you can approach her/him to ask for directions or say ‘hello’ as if you know them, thus de-escalating that situation.
Delegation: This is when you seek outside assistance to intervene in the situation. For example, a bystander can seek help or assistance from the police, a public transport worker or another outside party on behalf of the victim/target.
Delay: This is when you wait for the situation to pass and you check in with the person who was targeted to make sure that they are okay. Even if you were unable to intervene at the time, checking in later makes a difference to the person who was harassed.
At the end of the day, this comes down to respecting the dignity and worth of fellow human beings. Women, you are not alone. Let us not become embittered toward men but remember that there are many who love and respect us. Men, we need you to partner with us. Together we can make our communities safer for everyone.