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.

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