Friday, 24 June 2011

I am a hollaback grrl

So, last night I went for dinner with my team at work. We were in a restaurant on Corn Street, a road that is notoriously horrible on weekends, when very drunk young people get a bit rowdy and everywhere smells a bit pissy and sicky. Two of my male colleagues started telling a story about the time they were walking down a road near Corn Street, and two drunk young women groped them. They talked about this for quite a while. And I thought, how strange. I don’t think I can remember the number of times I’ve been groped, or shouted at, or street harassed as I’ve walked around the two cities I’ve lived in as an adolescent and adult. Of course, I can remember the BIG incidents, the men chanting ‘bitch’ as I walked down the street, and the man who tried to sexually assault me on the bus (unwanted sexual contact). It struck me how for these guys, being street harassed was such a rare occurrence that they could pinpoint this one occasion, and talk about how awful it was (awful in a ‘state of today’s youth’ way rather than awful because they felt violated way). It was a big deal, a conversation point, because it was rare, a one off. This is in no way trying to diminish men’s experiences of women harassing them, it just really struck me that for them this was a unique experience, whereas for me, and every woman I know, street harassment is a constant.

It was therefore almost ironic then that on my way home from the meal, a drunk teenager yelled ‘give me a blowie’ in my face.

It was about 11.15pm. Was wearing knee-length mac, leggings and sandals. Was deciding what to do regarding crossing the road on the Stokes Croft/Ashley Road junction. I could see the group of lads across the road, so was wondering if it was better to stay put and wait for the green man. But I also feel a bit vulnerable when stood still on a road, more vulnerable to street harassment, more vulnerable to being touched, so because the traffic was clear, I just kept moving. I reached the group of men and they shouted at me. I shouted ‘fuck off’ loudly and clearly. They laughed, and mimicked my voice.

Sometimes I understand why people (particularly men) think that street harassment is ‘a compliment if anything’. If someone yells ‘alright gorgeous’ or ‘mmm beautiful’ I can understand why people go ‘but he just thinks you look nice’. They don’t understand that it actually leaves you feeling exposed, objectified, threatened. They don’t understand that you feel like your personal space, your self, has been invaded and violated. They don’t understand that it is an assertion of power (this street is mine and you are an object to be looked at or discarded) rather than a throwaway ‘compliment’.

I do however think a lot of people don’t understand how sexually aggressive street harassment can be. They think it is just a case of ‘alright gorgeous’ and try and diminish the experience as a ‘nice compliment’ because they don’t get or know what actually happens. Having someone shout in your face that you need to give them a blow job is horrible. It leaves you shaking with rage and in many ways with fear. When they explain to you what they want to do to you, or you to them, and you are reminded that your status is object, thing, nothing. Being pushed on a bus as someone tries to kiss you, being pushed against a wall as someone sticks their tongue in your mouth, listening as someone verbally abuses you for not responding to their harassment, listening to someone take the piss out of you when you do, being terrified as you walk away that they will follow you, that they are going to hit you, rape you, for daring to shout back – they don’t know this. They don’t understand.

Gender violence, sexist verbal abuse, gender based assault aren’t hate crimes. So there is very little you can do about it when it happens to you. Apparently in Bristol the authorities are worried that if they classify it as a hate crime, people won’t report it because it’s so common, or, conversely, that they’ll be so overwhelmed with complaints precisely because it is so common that they won’t cope. So women are kind of left hung out to dry on this issue. There’s so little we can legally do. We can’t say that street harassment is legally gender hatred. Because it is gender based hate crime. It just isn’t called that.

But there’s one thing we can do. We can speak out. We can share our stories. Bristol is about to get a Hollaback, giving us space to share our experiences of harassment. Keep speaking out. Don’t let them win.

Anyway, in spirit of feminist rant here's some Le Tigre:

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