Tag Archives: Gender Based Violence

Street Harassment: My Story

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.

My experiences

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.

If you have a story about street harassment you would like to share, comment below, or send it to Hollaback or Stop Street Harassment.

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Filed under Gender Based Violence, Human Rights

Gender based (state) violence: why the sexual infiltration of social movements is a violation of human rights

The police tactics right from the beginning of the student movement have been abominable.  They’ve kettled us, charged us with horses and beaten protesters with batons.   Police have patrolled university campuses.  They’ve infringed our civil liberties through only allowing protestors to leave a kettle by taking their photo.  They’ve infiltrated our lines of communication.  And they’ve consistently made out like we’re the out-of-control, violent ones.

But the revelations about police infiltrations of Climate Camp are taking the infringement of rights to new and profoundly disturbing levels.  According to a Guardian interview with a former undercover agent, police officers were ‘cleared’ to have sex with activists.  This is wrong.  This is very, very wrong.  Why?

1. Consent and rape law

Sex without consent is rape.  The definition of consent in UK law is “if she agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice”.  The victim must have had the freedom and capacity to make the choice of whether she wanted to have sex with the man in question.  If the perpetrator is knowingly concealing their identity they are withholding relevant information from the woman, thereby reducing her capacity to make an informed and free choice.

The women and men who had sex with undercover officers may well have consented at the time.  But they consented on the basis that the person they were having sex with was a fellow activist – someone they thought they knew and could trust.  The police officers were lying about their identity; the activists didn’t know they were having sex with police officers.

‘Rape by deception’ or ‘rape by fraud’ is outlawed in several states in the USA.  “The rationale is that the identity of the victim’s sexual partner is part of the act to which the victim consents” (Christopher and Christopher, 2007).

The traditional paradigm for deciding whether fraud vitiates consent, constituting rape, is the distinction between “fraud in the factum” and “fraud in the inducement”.  Fraud in the factum means that the victim consents to the act X, but the perpetrator in claiming to do X, does Y instead.  For example, if a doctor penetrates a woman’s vagina with his penis, claiming it is a medical instrument, it is fraud in the factum.

Fraud in the inducement means where the victim is fraudulently induced into the act X, and the perpetrator does X.  For example, if a doctor claims that having sex with the victim is of medical benefit.

Fraud in the factum legally constitutes rape in many US states.  Fraud in the inducement does not.  However, modern rape law is changing because there is an emerging consensus within US legal theory that this distinction is arbitrary.  Its influence is dissipating and some legal jurisdictions refuse to acknowledge it, arguing that all types of fraud used to obtain sex are illegal.  The feminist lawyer, Susan Estrich, has influentially argued that the same restrictions that apply to fraud to obtain money should also apply in rape law.  Also, the recognition that rape constitutes an infringement of sexual autonomy, rather than constituting a crime of violence, supports this shift in the definition of consent.

As far as I am aware, rape by fraud is not an offence in UK law.  Although deception of a person with a mental disorder to procure sex is a criminal offence and can result in life imprisonment.

There are strong reasons in favour of criminalizing rape by fraud.  Even if you don’t agree with the criminalization of this act, it’s hard to argue that it is not immoral.  And even if you don’t agree that it was immoral, there are other factors at play in this specific case.

2. Human Rights

The primary role of the state is to protect its citizens.  However, states can and have used the power entrusted in them against their own citizens.  Human rights are restrictions on the state to protect individuals against unjustified interference by the state, or to enable citizens to make claims on the state to fulfil their basic needs.  They are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is binding in international law.

The police force is an instrument of state power used to coerce citizens to protect other citizens.  Police officers are agents of the state.  As such, they have violated the following human rights:

Article 3.Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

‘Security of person’ meaning not to be physically violated by state agents.

Article 5.No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Using people for sex to gather information is cruel, inhuman and degrading.

Article 18.Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Members of left-wing and environmental movements have been denied their freedom of thought and conscience, to the extent that police think they can physically exploit them to garner information.

Article 19.Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

We all have the right ‘to hold opinions without interference.’  The police infringed this right by interfering sexually and emotionally with activists.

Article 20.(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

People at Climate Camp had the right to assemble peacefully.  The police violated this right by covertly infiltrating the movement.

Article 28.Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

The UK government is not providing a social order where our human rights can be fully realized if state agents are secretly infiltrating protest groups and having sex with people to get information.

Article 29.(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

The only limitations to our human rights must be determined by law and must be grounded in protecting the rights and freedoms of others – having sex with activists under false pretences is not legal and protects the rights of nobody.

So, the state has violated SEVEN fundamental human rights.  This is illegal.  It is a violation of international law.

3. Motivation

Why would the police violate individuals’ human rights in this way?  What motivated them?  A possible explanation is that they are trying to undermine these movements in the eyes of the general public.  Consider this quote from the article:

“As regards being with women in very, very, very promiscuous groups such as the eco-wing, environmental movement, leftwing, or the Animal Liberation Front – it’s an extremely promiscuous lifestyle and you cannot not be promiscuous in there.”

In any group of people you will get promiscuous, averagely sexually active, non-promiscuous, and abstentious (by choice or by chance) individuals.  To claim that certain social movements (all dissident movements) are extremely promiscuous is absurd.  This is a political move to make us look ‘bad’ in the eyes of the moral majority.

This ridiculous claim also provides the police officers with a ready excuse to have sex with as many activists as possible.  Both for their own pleasure and to get as much information as possible.

4. Sexual exploitation by the state

Sex was seen as entirely instrumental to uncovering information about the movement – “Sex was a tool to help officers blend in, the officer claimed, and was widely used as a technique to glean intelligence.” It was a “tool” for the exploitation of activists to further police ends.  The instrumental use of women’s bodies (sexual exploitation) to gather evidence against them.

Imagine how you would feel if you were used in this way.  Humiliated?  Degraded?  Like you’d let your friends down?  Ashamed?  Sullied?  Used?  Exploited?  Traumatised?  Violated?  Even if you don’t believe this was rape by fraud, this doesn’t sound like a consensual sexual experience to me.  This sounds like exploitation by the entity that is supposed to protect you.

It is up to each of the affected parties to determine how they feel about and define what has happened to them.  From a moral perspective they were induced to have sex by fraud, and from a human rights perspective their rights have been violated by the state.  If they wanted to argue that they have been raped and their human rights violated, I believe they would be perfectly justified in doing so, and they can certainly argue they have been sexually exploited by the state.

5. The Feminist Perspective

Feminists have argued for decades that the state is gendered, and its gender is male.  The state is male because it was created by men, for men, to further men’s interests.  This seems obvious when you consider that women only recently, historically speaking, have been granted the same rights as men – such as the right to vote or own property – or were protected by differentiated legislation that took into account their specific needs – legislation against marital rape, discrimination in the workplace and the equal pay act.  For women’s voices to be heard and our interests taken into account we have had to fight and fight and fight… and the battle continues.

The Guardian article claims that both male and female officers were sanctioned to have sex with activists.  But so far, the only police that have been revealed as being involved have been men and I would hazard a guess that the majority of police officers engaged in this particular activity were men.  I don’t have evidence for this.  I cannot verify it.  But I would be extremely surprised if the majority of these cases didn’t involve male officers (maybe I’ll be proved wrong, we’ll see…)

If it turns out to be the case that this was a majority male activity, from a feminist perspective, it represents the move from the metaphorical violence of the male state against female citizens to the actual physical, sexual violation of women’s bodies to maintain state control and dominance.  Of course, the male state regularly turns a blind eye to gender-based violence – the conviction rate for rapists in the UK is 6%, and police rarely prosecute for ‘domestic’ violence despite the fact 1 in 4 women will experience it in their lifetime.  But state agents violating women’s bodies to glean information in order to better control dissent is an utterly shocking violation of women’s rights. It is the ultimate means of the dominance, pacification, and coercion of women citizens.

For all these reasons, the undercover infiltration of social movements and the sexual abuse of their members is wrong – morally and legally.  The police have raped citizens, violating fundamental human rights.

Some of the women involved are considering legal action.  They hope to prosecute the police officers and their superiors for the criminal offence of misconduct in public office.  The courts will not recognise this as rape.  They will probably not recognise the violations of human rights involved.  They will definitely not link it to wider structures of male domination in society, or recognise the attempt to undermine leftwing movements’ reputations.  But that does not mean all these dimensions of this crime do not exist.  They do.  This should not be going on in a liberal democracy, not in any country.

Links: http://www.rapecrisis.org.uk/index.php

http://www.thehavens.co.uk/

http://www.womensaid.org.uk/

http://www.eaves4women.co.uk/

Protest Mon 24 Jan – http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=140764372651295&index=1

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Filed under Gender Based Violence, Human Rights, Student Protests