Today is the first annual anti-street harassment day. The organisers are calling on women to share their stories of street harassment to break the silence surrounding the subject. So today, I will share mine (with a bit of theory thrown in!).
Street harassment doesn’t have an official definition. Stop Street Harassment describe it thus:
“Gender-based street harassment is inappropriate, rude, scary, and insulting speech and behavior from men directed at unknown women (cis and transwomen) in public places, simply because they are female. In countries like India and Bangladesh, it’s termed “eve teasing,” and in countries like Egypt, it’s called “public sexual harassment.”
It includes: whistling, leering, kissing noises, sexist comments, sexual comments, vulgar gestures, stalking, sexual touching, masturbating and flashing, assault.”
I would guess that every woman in the world has a story to tell about street harassment, and yet we rarely talk about it, almost never report it; some assume it’s sort of a compliment and yet feel uneasy or even sullied by it, and some women even think it’s their own fault. Here I want to offer some theory about it, and then report my own experiences.
Gender inequality and street harassment
Street harassment may seem innocuous. When a guy shouts “nice tits” at you, or says something seemingly complementary like “hey beautiful”, what’s the big deal?
It’s a big deal because it’s all about power. Street harassment says, “I am more powerful than you because I can say anything I want to you and you just have to take it.” Men constantly reassert their power over women by harassing them on the streets.
The anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu called this form of power “symbolic violence.” Symbolic violence represents the habitual, everyday practices that the dominant use to assert their power over the dominated. The practices become so normalized as to seem inevitable, even natural. Street harassment is a form of symbolic violence committed against women; it keeps us in our (inferior) place.
Another theoretical issue is the role of women in the public sphere. I have written here before about how men historically have been associated with the public sphere and women with the private. The emergence of women into the public sphere is threatening to norms of masculinity; shouting us down is one way to crowd us out.
Public spaces can become dangerous, no-go areas for women, especially at night. The threat of rape and harassment prevents women from venturing out – the outside world is a male-zone. The message is the public space remains male; women should stick to the home.
Finally, street harassment forms part of the pervasive problem of the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies. Men ogle women’s bodies in porn, lads mags, adverts, pop videos, TV programmes and film on a daily basis. They are at liberty to say whatever, or behave however, they like to these alienated images in the privacy of their own home. And after years of exposure to this shit, they seem to forget that the women they view outside are in fact human beings who cannot be spoken to like that. Women become sexual objects for men’s consumption; not individuals with feelings, lives, hopes and ambitions in their own right.
Street harassment is a global phenomenon. The image of the naked female body is ubiquitous in Western cultures but this is not necessarily the case worldwide. In Arab countries women are covered from head to toe, so as not to entice men who are supposedly unable to control themselves. What is consistent across many cultures, however, is that men dictate the state of dress assigned to women’s bodies. So why shouldn’t they comment on it? Every minor deviance from the norm is their concern, or anything they like is worthy of their approval.
The worst experience of street harassment I had was in Manchester, where I went to university. I was waiting for a bus one night outside Platt Fields. It was about 11pm in January and very dark.
I was sitting at the bus stop and a man came round from behind the shelter. He whispered “Pssst…” at me, then walked across the road, stood on top of a wall and started to masturbate. I was terrified and just kept looking down the road for a bus, or a taxi, or even just a car to come. But there was nothing. He kept staring at me. He ejaculated on a shrub, then walked off.
Finally a bus came. I went home and was really shaken up, so my flatmates asked me what was wrong. I told them about it, but none of us really knew what to do. I didn’t want to tell the police, because I didn’t think they would do anything.
However, a couple of months later there was a headline plastered across the student newspaper – “Fallowfield Rapist”. The man described fitted the description of the man I had encountered, and he had raped several students in the area. I decided to tell the police.
It took the police about two months to take my statement, and when they did it was not a pleasant experience. The interrogation (by a female police officer) lasted 1 hour 40 minutes, in which I was asked “Are you sure you saw his penis?” “Could you have made a mistake?” What were you doing there at that time of night?” etc.
Other experiences in Manchester included walking through the city centre at night, a man walked past, leaned in and said “do you want stretching apart love?” One night, I was walking home from a gig with a friend down Platt Lane. A man followed us, hood up, wearing a mask, and shining a lazer light in our path until we reached our house, when he shined it all over the door.
In London, I was walking home about 11.30pm one night. My street is poorly lit and this has concerned me ever since I moved in. A man approached me. I didn’t want to judge so I stopped to see what he wanted. He rubbed his penis against my leg and said, “What’s your name princess, will you come home with me?” I said no and walked away.
I told my local MP, Lynne Featherstone, about the incident. She said she would deal with the poor lighting in the area. This was a year and a half ago. She hasn’t.
I used to work on Seven Sisters Road: a street notorious for its incessant street harassment. It felt like I could have walked down the road wearing a bin liner and someone would still call me “sexy”. Wood Green is another hot spot of male commentary on women. I now just try to avoid it.
You see… the personal is political!
What can we do about it?
Hollaback calls on women to shout back at these idiots. But I know from experience that this can be scary. I’m 5 foot 2 and petite. I might match any man in an argument, but in terms of physical strength I’ve got nothing. Retaliating in daylight when there are lots of people around is one thing; but at night when you’re alone on a dark street, I prefer to clutch my rape alarm and walk away as quickly as possible.
Another tactic could be to fight for legislation. There would obviously be a lot of resistance to this – “freedom of speech” will get rolled out endlessly. But I’m also not sure it would be terribly effective. Street harassment isn’t really something the law can deal with; it’s a problem of attitudes, mindsets, habit and power.
The real way to overcome street harassment is to achieve equal respect for women. If the men that engaged in street harassment truly respected women, they wouldn’t shout lewd things at us in the street or behave inappropriately. If these men saw us as equals who have every right to be in the public sphere, not as dehumanized objects that they are free to comment on in whatever innocuous/sexual/obscene way takes their fancy, we would no longer have to suffer this daily reminder of masculine dominance.
The first step is exposing the problem; we have to show that it’s not natural, and we have to talk about it with women and men. That responsibility falls on everyone.