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The truth about street harassment

It seems quite fitting that it’s currently anti-street harassment week, as I’ve been meaning to put together my thoughts on the subject for a while. Firstly I would like to say that I actually don’t suffer street harassment anywhere near as badly as I did when I was younger. When I first moved to London when I was 18, it sometimes felt like I was on the recieving end of whistles, catcalls and shouts on a daily basis.

I don’t think this has anything to do with how attractive I was back then compared to now, or how I dressed. I would put it largely down to the fact that I was much younger and more vulnerable-looking back then – more of an easy victim. I also think harassment is more common in London, as the anonymity of the city makes it easier to get away with. And I think these two factors tell you everything you need to know about the mindset and motivations of men who engage in this type of behaviour.

There are still far too many people who think that street harassment is just a bit of harmless flirting, or that you should feel ‘flattered’ when a guy shouts something disgusting at you in the street. Just recently, The Guardian‘s article on plans to make street harassment a criminal offence was met by a barrage of grumbling comments insisting that this law would somehow make ordinary flirting a crime.

Well, as every woman who has been on the receiving end of such harassment can testify, flattered is definitely not how you feel. Intimidated, scared and humiliated are more accurate descriptions – and the perpretrators know this. Not once has a man who has shouted at me in the street or honked his horn at me ever tried to actually engage me in conversation or ask me out on a date. These guys aren’t after a new girlfriend – they’re simply trying to boost their egos by making themselves feel powerful and dominant. They’re nothing but bullies, picking on and intimidating people weaker and smaller than them – i.e. women – to make themsleves feel better.

But even when people recognise the unpleasant nature of harassment, there still seems to be an attitude that women should ‘just get on with’. It’s like back in school when parents’ and teachers’ advice for dealing with bullies is to ‘just ignore them’. And largely we do just ignore them and walk on by. Sometimes this is because we don’t have the energy to confront them, sometimes because we don’t want them to get the satisfaction of a reaction from us, and sometimes because we’ve previously experienced them turn nasty and aggressive when we turn around and stick up for ourselves.

But that doesn’t help the feelings of fear or humiliation. ‘Just ignoring them’ doesn’t take away the nervousness you feel when you see a group of lads walking towards you, and it doesn’t stop you crossing the road to avoid them just in case. It doesn’t stop you avoiding certain areas or roads at certain times of the day. In short, your freedom of movement and involvement in public space is still curtailed and restricted even if you try to ignore harassment.

And, to be honest, I think the ultimate effects of ignoring street harassment may be even more serious that this. Because I just can’t shake the feeling that, if you let the ‘small’ things such as street harassment breed untouched, it just creates fertile conditions for the bigger stuff to grow.

Just last week a Mumsnet survey revealed that one in 10 women have been raped and 35% have been sexually assaulted. Rape is about power, dominance and the refusal to respect another person’s bodily autonomy – the same things that street harassment is about. If we refuse to challenge these notions – that men need to be powerful and dominant, that male sexuality is all about aggression, and that women’s body’s are public property – when they manifest in lower-level ways, why are we surprised when they then manifest themselves in far more serious ways?

There are a lot of poisitive things women are doing to combat harassment right now. We are sharing our stories, coming up with tactics to deal with it, and campaigning for better laws surrounding it. But I think the problem is that street harassment still boils down to antiquated – yet still heavily engrained – notions that male sexuality is all about power and that to be a ‘real man’ means dominating another person. As long as there are men buying into this degrading and damaging stereotype, then there will still be men who get a kick out of harassing women. To really start fighting male-on-female sexual violence in all its forms, we need to pick apart the cult of masculinity and ensure men reject its clasp themselves.

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