Wednesday, 12 August 2009

hands up if you've suffered street harassment

Hands up if you’ve been harassed in the street!

I wanted to invite people to discuss their experiences of street harassment. This is something that affects every woman I know, and yet when it is discussed on such sites as CIF and the ilk, its existence is staunchly denied by male commenters who say they have never harassed a woman on the street. Well, I’ve never murdered anyone but I won’t deny it happens. If every woman I have EVER met has been harassed on the street or in a public place, from yelling on the pavement or out a car window, to people not getting the hint in a club, something tells me that it is a problem.
A lot of the time discussion on this gets the response from men that they have been harassed by women when they walk down the street or are in a bar. This is true, and I imagine it is annoying. But I think the clear difference between this and the kind of street harassment I personally have experienced, is that I don’t think men are scared when women harass them. Pissed off, annoyed and embarrassed maybe, but not scared. Please do correct me if I am wrong, as I say this is just my assumption. I don’t want to belittle men’s experience of street harassment from women, I just make the point that firstly it is less common and secondly it has less impact to frighten or threaten.

I want to share with you two episodes of street harassment that I have experienced. I have had way more harassment than this in my life but these two were the most intensely frightening and threatening.

The first one happened on the number 38 bus at around 10am on a Saturday morning in 2005. I was hungover and on my way to Victoria to get a bus to Bristol. There was no one else on the top deck except me and the man who took the seat in front of me.
I was yawning and the man turned around and asked me if I was tired or hungry. I smiled stiffly, in the way Londoners do when spoken to on public transport, and said both. He laughed, and tried to talk to me for a bit, and because my need to be polite overcomes the need I have to stolidly ignore everyone on buses when I am hungover, I talked back to him. I don’t really remember what we talked about. Then, without warning, he lunged at me and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away, so he only managed to kiss my shoulder, and I said NO as firmly as I could. He just smiled, and shrugged, and got off at the next stop.
I remember feeling frightened, but more than that I felt absolutely furious. How dare he try to do that to me? What gave him the right to try to kiss me, when all I wanted to do was take the bus to Victoria without being bothered by anyone? I was so angry, and I was shaken. It was so annoying, it made me so mad that he had thought it was ok to do that. And I was frightened, because what if he hadn’t smiled and shrugged? What if he had got angry? We were alone on the top deck, and I was amazed at how feeble and weak I had felt when I said no and pushed him. I became so frightened that if things had got worse, I wouldn’t be able to defend myself, precisely because I was afraid.

I was so angry.

The second incident happened two months ago, when it was hot. I was wearing a short playsuit. I was leaving the job centre after signing on. The job centre is opposite a strip club. It was 11am, bright sunny day, and a group of men were sitting outside the strip club. 5 or 6 of them, in their 30s. As I walked past I put my glasses in my bag and went to get my sunglasses out, when one of them shouted “oy you dropped something”. I turned around thinking something had dropped out my bag and they said “you dropped your knickers”. I turned right round and kept walking, when they started chanting “bitch bitch bitch bitch” after me. I started crying.
Never have I heard someone put so much hate in the word bitch. I thought they wanted to kill me, their voices were so full of anger and malevolence and hate. Sheer hate. And this is important – even though technically I knew I was safe, I felt so frightened. I felt like they could hurt me.
When I stopped being frightened I got mad. I got so angry. I wanted to walk back over there and kick in their smug self satisfied faces. I wanted to pull their arms around their backs and make them apologise. I wished I knew martial arts so I could show them what should happen to them for treating women with such hatred, with such disrespect. I’m not a violent person but I wanted to make these men frightened like they had made me frightened.

What I want to know is why do these people think it is ok to chant bitch as I walk past? Why do people think it is ok to tell me I have nice tits and they’d like to fuck me? Why is it ok that once when a group of men started harassing me, they saw my boyfriend next to me and then apologised to him? Why is it ok to tell me that my outfit is nice and sexy – I don’t give a flying fuck if you think that or not! Why are women walking down the street public property, to be commented on, evaluated, commanded and told what to do? How is this still happening? How is this still considered ok?

If you have experienced street harassment it would be great if you could share it on my blog. I think one of the best ways to try to stop street harassment, learn skills on how to answer back and how to deal with it is to tell stories of what has happened to us, and how we felt. We need to make street harassment recognised as an issue, as a problem, and not just an insignificant moan. One way to do this is to show people how much it affects people and how many people it really does effect. And how, most of all it isn’t a compliment. It’s harassment. Pure and simple.


Naomi Mc said...

I was actually thinking of keeping some kind of log of every time I was harassed in the street. Maybe by using a hash tag on twitter - to demonstrate this exact point. I thought of this after two incidents which happened within the same week.

Firstly, I got my arse pinched while walking along the street by a 10-YEAR-OLD BOY. They're starting young it seems.

Then, some tosser shouted out a reference to anal sex as I was walking along Upper Street in Islington in the evening while it was still light.

Now most of the time I walk along with my iPod in so thought that I probably get this all the time and don't realise it.

Why do these men think its OK to invade your space like this? Whether physically or verbally. What do they get out of it? Do they think it will result in a sexual liaison or do they just get off on making women uncomfortable?

Seriously, I am interested to know what goes through their head.

sianandcrookedrib said...

hi naomi
thanks for sharing this. that's insane that you got pinched by a child? was he with his parents?
agreed, what i would like to know is what goes through people's minds when they yell at you on the street? is it a power thing? is it sexual? is it a desperate come on or just an assertion of presence?

Carmen D'Cruz said...

Argh, too many to mention:
Sunday just gone, about 7.30pm I was walking to meet my clarinet teacher in Croydon and someone shouted "Get 'em out" as I walked past him
I have a blog entry detailing something particularly nasty that happened to me whilst clubbing.
I have been raped twice, the last time by my most recent boyfriend, who thought it would be a good idea to hi-5 me to stop me crying (to my everlasting shame, I stayed with the c@nt for a further 4 months).
I went clubbing in Ealing about 3 years ago and a group of men surrounded the group of women I was with and pinched all our arses, they were promptly evacuated from the venue but it was still horrible.
When I was about 19 I was walking to meet my mum in Croydon. There's an underpass that goes through Old Town, which is the fastest way into the town centre and a man walking in the opposite direction groped my right breast and said "nice tits love". I was so scared, and I haven't walked through that underpass since.

I think Naomi's idea of keeping a log is a great idea. Were you in Islington when the 10 year old pinched your bum? Was he on a bike? Because the same thing happened to me on Astey's Row (a back street just off Upper Street).

I used to think it was harsh to just castrate men who behave in such a way, but it's happened to me so often that public, physical humiliation would be a fantastic form of punishment. Perhaps lead them naked around Croydon town centre on all fours? Barbaric and inhumane treatment, definitely, but I am sick of my body being treated as if it doesn't belong to me!

Great post :-)

Carmen x

Rachael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachael said...

Edited out the typo :)

When walking through Stokes Croft at 3am (I know, what a fantastic idea)

I walked past this guy who told me he wanted to go down on me. Okay he didn't use that terminology, but you can imagine. I told him where to go, so he demanded I suck his cock.

And there's the Irish guy who was so incredulous I wouldn't give him my number that he first told me it was because I was English, and then decided I must be a lesbian.
Not so much harassment, but rather unpleasant, especially when he started following me.

Carmen D'Cruz said...

Hello, I'm not sure if you have pingbacks but I wrote a little blog piece on this :-) x

Naomi Mc said...

The 10 year old was with a group of other ten year olds (presume that was their age, they were small). And yes it was in Islington too but they weren't on bikes.

@Rachael: that's part of the problem - it really shouldn't matter that it was 3am but this is the kind of excuse given for women having their space in the world defined by male violence. You are physically constrained by where you *should* go because you have to presuppose that there are men out there ready to pounce. I can understand non-violent men feeling put out by being grouped together with those who assault women, but they have to understand how monotonously regularly this happens and how if women do get raped people blame them for flirting/drinking/walking in bad areas at night etc etc etc.

It's depressing.

Rachael said...


Reminds me of the Rape Apologist's bingo image on a feminist facebook group.

I bet this link won't work:

But yeah, I hate that it's natural for me to be defensive or have to explain myself becuse I was walking somewhere after midnight.

sianandcrookedrib said...

rachael and naomi - definitely.

i really really resent the fact that women live in an atmosphere of violence and fear, which means that if yuo walk on your own at 3am "it's your fault for being harassed because you out yourself at risk".

it's just nonsense isn't it! especially when you consider it doesn't make a blind bit of difference where you are, who your with and what time it is, you get harassment any time. what you meant to do - never go out?

thank you for sharing your experiences on this, and your honesty. the more we break down silences on subjects like this, the more we can remove the myths.

SacreBleu said...


Thanks for this post. It horrifies me to think how much this goes on - I consider myself to probably be less of a target for this kind of stuff as I dress fairly 'masculine' - yet I still have plenty of experience of men shouting / commenting. I think I do partly dress like this for this reason - I hate the feeling of vulnerability if I ever do wear skimpy clothes / heels.

I felt most intimidated one night a couple years ago when I was walking home from the pub. A group of young drunken men passed me, and the guy closest to me reached out and touched my breast. It happened quickly, I didn't know what to do. The worst part was his smug expression as he and his mates laughed as they walked dare they? I felt scared, they felt triumphant. Sickening entitlement.

As a previous poster said, I generally always have my iPod clamped into my ears now, so have no idea whether it happens or not...and the rest of the time I'm generally walking with my boyfriend - so of course wouldn't happen then - guys who do this would never dare to disrespect another guy this way...!

sianandcrookedrib said...

sacre bleu - definitely, i hate that powerlessness you can feel.
once i was walking ahead of my boyfriend when these guys came up to me and started being lairy, then they saw my boyfriend and apologised to him! i was furious - as if i belonged to him and they had offended him by harassing "his property". rage!