*Trigger warning: reference to street harassment, assault*
Wherever she goes, however she looks, whoever she is, when a women is being harassed by a man, the fault is the man’s. Never the woman. Victims should not feel bad about themselves. It is the male habit of seeing women as sex objects, which must be broken instead. This can only happen by deconstructing misogynistic attitudes, and through discussion and education. Street harassment is a daily fact but, like all human phenomena, it can be changed.
One story, among many others
I learnt about sexual harassment at an early age, perhaps 11 or 12 years old. It was not a choice I made. As soon as my body started to change, strangers made sexist remarks and harassed me down the street, on public transport, at the swimming pool, in the library or other public places. When I was a teenager, it wasn’t unusual for strangers to call me ‘slut’, ‘bitch’, or ‘baby’, when I was walking down the street. Why? Sometimes it was because I had ignored a group of men, other times because I had been walking alone at night. Or maybe because I had happened to wear a dress. I have been whistled, and honked at. I have been physically assaulted. Because of these experiences, I wasn’t able to build my own identity. I became an angry and anxious young woman, who believed a lot of wrong things about herself.
My body felt disconnected from my mind. How could I learn to love my body? It was constantly seen as a piece of meat. I was seen as a sexual object. Of course, my family and friends helped me to get over these bad experiences, but it is also through the image provided by the society that human beings build their identity. It may take years to unlearn what you have been taught to feel sorry and guilty for. It takes years to rebuild an identity of one’s own. Sometimes several decades, sometimes more. But I shouldn’t be telling you this story. I should not be writing about women who have been harassed in public spaces, but street harassment is a daily reality.
Street harassment: the lack of visibility
Street harassment is an under-researched topic. Apart from the testimonies of victims, it is difficult to obtain quantitative information about the phenomenon. Many harassed people feel reluctant to present a complaint. They may fear not to be taken seriously by the police, or that the police will engage in victim-blaming by asking them embarrassing questions. Among the filed complaints, very few result in sentences. Furthermore, street harassment is not even considered a criminal offence in most world countries, which explains the lack of statistics. However, the online platform Stop Street harassment collects data provided by studies in different countries, demonstrating that between 70 and 90 percent of women have faced street harassment in their lives.
One of the main difficulties also lies in finding an appropriate, standardised definition of street harassment. However, this is a necessary step in order to provide an adequate legislative framework. Street harassment may takes many different forms, such as verbal abuse, whistling, leering, persistent request, sexual assault, sexual comments, groping etc. According to Stop Street Harassment, these can be summarised as « unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation ». This definition provides an inclusive understanding on the phenomenon.
Street harassment does not only concern men molesting women. It also includes all episodes of discrimination and harassment directed against minorities or those perceived as non-conforming to established norms (for example, LGBQT-identifying individuals).
Don’t tell me to take it as a compliment
“You should take it as a compliment”, “you should consider yourself lucky that men take an interest in you”, “you are young, this is normal”. No, it is not. It isn’t normal that women should not feel safe in the streets. It is not normal that they have to rethink their route for fear of being molested. It is not normal to be approached without consent. I am not happy, or proud, when a stranger compliments me on my body. They dehumanised the human being I am. It’s a statement of power and control. A compliment doesn’t make you feel scared, or anxious. A compliment doesn’t make you set up strategies to avoid a group of men. A compliment doesn’t make you walking with keys between your knuckles just to feel safe. A compliment doesn’t push you to avoid certain places at a certain time.
Consequences of street harassment could be a disaster for the victim and her self-esteem. Fear. Anxiety. Feeling powerless. Frustration. Anger. Inward-looking-attitudes. Apathy. Shock. Each victim copes with the trauma of the harassment in different ways. Society doesn’t recognise, as it should, the huge impact that street harassment can produce on victims’ lives. Even worse, society often tends to encourage these behaviours by promoting a misogynistic language, objectifying women’s bodies, and blaming the victims of harassment. Such an attitude is extremely dangerous, as it marginalises those who are harassed and makes harder for them to report about their cases.
Putting an end to street harassment
There are different ways to respond to harassment and change these entrenched attitudes. We all can play our part to help ending street harassment.
-Educate yourself by learning what street harassment is and why it shouldn’t be ignored. The Internet provides a great deal of information about street harassment. By educating yourself, you can empower and educate others.
-Take control by learning how to respond: if you feel safe enough, you can respond directly to harassers. There are some basic rules to follow in order to keep yourself safe, such as being firm, not engaging in further conversation, making a statement (“what you said/did is not OK”), or give a specific command (“stop harassing me”).
-Help victims by learning how to intervene: keeping yourself safe is essential, but there are many creative ways to intervene to help others. These include speaking to the target and pretending you’re a friend of her, or just asking her for directions or the time. You do not always need to intervene directly: one of the safest way to intervene is to call the police.
-Make the problem visible by sharing your experience: talk about street harassment openly with your friends, family, colleagues, children, or neighbours. Share your experience and your views with them. A lot of men don’t seem to understand what’s the matter with street harassment just because they don’t have the same experience due to their position of privilege.
-Take action and get involved: there are a lot of opportunities to take action against street harassment, such as contributing a blog post like this one (!), participating in anti-harassment groups and campaigns, helping victims etc.
And, above all, don’t forget: no matter how you respond, it’s the harasser who should feel ashamed. Not you.
Oriane comes from France and is studying applied political science in a French-German Program. After living for 3 years in Germany, she now lives in Ireland. Wherever she is, Oriane is involved in women’s organizations and takes part in concrete action. Street Harassment and Women in Leadership are her favourite issues.
(Photo source, hhttps://pixabay.com/fr/rue-jeune-fille-toronto-jeune-1026246/)