Street Harassment. It’s something just about every girl learns she has to deal with as a consequence of leaving the house – and I say ‘girl’ rather than ‘woman’ in this instance, because for most it is something that starts at the offset of puberty and continues on into their adult lives, relentlessly, continuously, annoyingly and wrongly. You would think an obvious indication of being a child might put a lot of men off this sort of behaviour, but nope, I remember experiencing it wearing school uniform on my way back from year 7 classes, and whilst being escorted by my parents on holidays … and I am far from the only one. This is an endemic problem that shows no signs of dying any time soon.
Whilst your body is going through enormous changes as it becomes that of a woman, the first message you receive about it comes through a barrage of car horns, whistles and disparaging comments. The message in question is that you are being watched all the time, scrutinised and judged for how you look. You learn that how you look is the most important thing about you, and as a child you don’t tend to question the authority of the adults telling you this all too often.
While I appreciate there are huge numbers of men who sympathize and think those who engage in street harassment are deplorable, I remember one exchange with a male friend where I complained about the intimidation and belittlement I felt when putting up with this kind of attention. The response I got was something along the lines of “Well, at least they’re saying nice things.” No no no.
Compliments are nice things, told with nice motives, but that is not what is happening when you are heckled on the street. It is about intimidation – making the heckler feel powerful, and the hecklee feel powerless. It is a form of communication done almost exclusively by men to women to say “I approve of how you look.” It is saying “I have a right to register my approval or disapproval of how you look because here you are, in a public space, being a woman.”
Guess what buddy? You do not have that right. By simply existing in public and going about my business, I am not inviting that kind of attention. I am not under a fucking spotlight on a stage doing the can-can. I am doing… well probably the same sorts of things you’re doing. Buying milk, going to work, running errands. Hey, we women aren’t so different from you after all! Who’d have thunk it?
Street harassment can make you feel completely helpless. Reacting to someone who is clearly not shy of aggressive behaviour is a scary thing to do. You don’t know if they are going to react with violence, or with more degrading words, or with laughter and mockery or not at all. Even if you ignore them, they may call on after you, telling you that you’re a bitch, or frigid, or a slut… such is the logic of these creeps.
Hollaback! is a fantastic grassroots organisation which aims to end street harassment around the world – “to better understand street harassment, to ignite public conversations, and to develop innovative strategies to ensure equal access to public spaces.” They recognise it is a daily problem, not just for women but for LGBTUA+ individuals, and that it is rarely reported and indeed it is culturally accepted. Hollaback! encourages you to share your story, to break the silence and change the way society thinks about street harassment.
It is not something anyone should have to accept passively, but hopefully if parents and educators start to teach our sons that whistling is for dogs rather than people, it is something we will have the power to change.