Eleanor Doward

Street Harassment – A Trivial Issue?

I’m a big fan of ‘Scouse Bird Problems’, which is a blog by a bona fide Liverpool gal with advice about everything from vodka to hair curlers, for those who don’t know. It’s funny and most of the time, it’s dead on; her article about the six stages of a hangover, including the ‘four star hangover’ in which you look like you’ve ‘put your makeup on whilst vigorously twerking’ is almost too accurate. That said, I was a bit disappointed with an article she recently wrote called ‘Modern Day Feminism vs Everday Sexism’. Almost all girls have different takes on feminism; it means different things to different people and this is one of the things that makes it so interesting. Getting to hear other people’s views on issues and finding out you take a completely different tack is inevitable for a person interested in feminism and it’s not always a bad thing. However, attacking or trivialising other people’s views instead of engaging with them and then calmly arguing your point just isn’t helpful. SBP’s article trivialises Every Sexism and it trivialises the views of a whole lot of girls who find street harassment, not complimentary, but insulting and upsetting. SBP asks us to stop overreacting to hecklers and ‘take the compliment in the spirit in which it was intended’, but is it always that simple?

I’m sure a huge amount of men that heckle women do so because they feel that they are being complimentary and appreciative. There is nothing wrong with a woman enjoying being wolf-whistled or beeped if it makes her feel good and no one has any right to tell her that she is being a ‘bad feminist’ or letting herself down. The majority of the onslaught of criticism that SPB received for her article is equally as unhelpful as her initial points. Telling her that she is a disgrace to women is an inane and, frankly, pretty rude comment to make. The issue with her article is that, in my eyes, most of the time heckling isn’t about complimenting an attractive woman at all. It is an assertion of power intended to put you in your place, a place that women for centuries, in its varying forms, have struggled to free themselves from; a place in which they are seen but unheard. Again and again, many people fail to see that legislative equality does not induce true equality. Women have the vote, but this legislation does not entail instant equality; in many aspects of society, women continue to face subjugation and objectification. The fact that we do not possess full equality is a fact. In my experience, heckling, particularly the especially crude and insulting kind, reminds me that no, I’m not a nineteen year old girl walking home from the library and planning a quick trip to Tesco, I’m actually just an object to be looked at and judged, to be commented on freely and inconsiderately by others. I feel like most of the people that heckle me don’t care how I feel about it. They don’t care if it makes me feel good, or bad, because my feelings do not matter in this instance. I am there for their viewing pleasure and their comments are not intended for me. Their comments let me know that they have the power because they are the subjects, I am the object.

Anti- Street Harassment Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Anti- Street Harassment Poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Not all women see it this way and that is absolutely fine. Feminism is different for everyone and attacking someone if some of their beliefs differ from yours isn’t at all conducive to the cause. Yet at the same time, it is wrong to trivialise another woman’s point of view. If you don’t happen to find street harassment offensive, if perhaps you are indifferent to it or if you enjoy it, that is perfectly fine, but it is not okay to trivialise another woman’s experience of or view on street harassment. I personally find it upsetting and unsettling. There’s no point in telling me that I’m wrong to think like that or that I’m being silly and need to ‘pick my battles’; that is simply the way that I feel. Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes, when it’s a good day and my hair is done and I’m feeling sassy, I don’t mind the odd beep. But if I’ve had a horrible day, for instance, and I’m walking home feeling tired and upset, having someone lean out of their car and shout ‘nice tits’ is the thing that pushes me over the edge from gloomy to weepy. ‘Everyday Sexism’ reminds me that I’m not alone in these experiences; it provides an outlet where before, there was a distinct absence of one. More than that; it draws attention to how deeply ingrained and normal sexism is in our day to day lives. Issues with sexism are not restrained to a political or educational discourse to which many of us feel that we cannot contribute, they are a real part of all our lives.

Scouse Bird Problems claims that, when faced with a heckler, girls should ‘laugh it off’ or if they’re really offended, ‘tell him straight’ that they have a problem. It’s great that this woman is clearly strong, brave and secure enough in herself to be able to laugh unsavoury comments off or rebuff them. But I have a few problems with this advice. Half the time, it’s a lot more difficult to ‘tell him straight’ than she makes it out to be. One of the scariest encounters I have had with street harassment is one which sticks out in my mind as an example of the idea that, upon plenty of occasions, this kind of heckling is not intended as a compliment to you, but as a show of power and form of objectification. Here’s the story; my friend and I were wandering to Tesco one night in October. Walking at night is never particularly nice and I always feel slightly on edge. But we were getting on with it, minding our business and chatting, before a group of blokes leaned out of their car and started shouting an imaginative range of things at us such as ‘nice tits’ and the particularly cute ‘let me fuck you, sluts’. Nice. Well, my friend and I were pissed. We’d had it just about up to here with blokes feeling that they could freely comment on our bodies (whether positively or negatively) and constantly sexualise us. We told them to leave us alone. They continued to shout. Getting angrier, we told them to eff off. They stopped the car. Suddenly, their shouting got nastier. A couple of them got out of the car. ‘How dare you talk to us like that, stupid whores’. Honestly believing that these men were going to make us get into their car and actually fearing for our lives, my friend and I quickly crossed the road and put our heads down. They continued to jeer at us. Suddenly, heckling had quickly transgressed to a very real rape threat as they aggressively pursued us. Eventually, they got bored with our silence, got into the car and began to drive away. But not before one of them had stuck his head out of the window and spat on me.

So you can see where my problem with this advice lies. We stood up to these men because their comments, whether they intended them as compliments or not, annoyed us. But by telling them to stop, it seems like we crossed some kind of invisible line. We, the objects, were not meant to speak up. It was not our place to do so. They had to regain the power somehow and seemingly pursuing us until we were basically crying out of fear was a good way of doing this. After that encounter, I didn’t feel strong or brave. I definitely didn’t feel complimented or good about myself. I felt disgusted, vulnerable and helpless. And I would certainly have an issue with anybody who tried to trivialise my feeling that way.

I’m not implying that all hecklers are potential rapists. I am implying though, how in many cases street harassment can quickly escalate to a real threat. And even that aside, I feel like I should be able to walk to Tesco without being called a ‘dirty slut’ or having my breasts commented on. I don’t find that particularly complimentary and I’m not prepared to laugh it off. These hecklers don’t know if their comments will make you feel uncomfortable, they don’t know if you are insecure about the things they choose to comment on, they don’t know if you’re feeling particularly upset or vulnerable at that moment, and most often, they categorically don’t care. In objectifying you to no more than your ‘nice tits’, your feelings do not come into account, your humanity doesn’t come into account.

There are different levels of street harassment, from a quick beep and a whistle to the kind of terrifying encounter I described before. But the nature of the harassment is irrelevant; it is wrong to claim an encounter is trivial if it makes a woman feel targeted, threatened or uncomfortable. Brushing a situation off by saying ‘pfft, that’s not harassment, just laugh it off and get over it’ or ‘that’s not harassment, it’s not like he’s trying to rape you’ is quintessentially unhelpful and unproductive advice. For me, street harassment reminds me that I live in a society in which the objectification of women is so ingrained, the large majority of us rarely notice it staring right at us. It has very little to do with beauty or with a notion that women are the more ‘beautiful sex’; it is to do with power. Trivialising this point of view and calling it an overreaction is unhelpful. There were people back in the day who trivialised women’s fight for the vote. In the end, it just slowed progress down. Listening to other people’s points of view about street harassment, trying to understand how it makes them feel and discussing your own views after that? That’s the way forward.

You can read ‘Scouse Bird Problems’’ original article here. http://scousebirdproblems.com/modern-feminism-vs-everyday-sexism/

One thought on “Street Harassment – A Trivial Issue?

  1. Pingback: Sunday feminist roundup (23rd February 2014)

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