Friday, 8 June 2012

My body is not your property - street harassment

Last month (May 2012) a report found that 43% of young women (18-25) in London had experienced street harassment. Whilst many commenters on Comment is Free shook their heads in disbelief at the number being so high, most women and feminists were equally as confused as to why the number was that low. A quick chat to any group of women about street harassment quickly reveals that the number is closer to 100%, rather than just under half. 

Which begged the question – how exactly do we measure or categorise harassment? Is it a grope, is it a shout, is it violent sexual insults, is it flashing or physical and sexual assault, is it being masturbated on? How do we understand harassment and how do we categorise it? Is it being told to smile? Having ‘bitch’ chanted at you? Having a man scream in your face to give him, and I quote, ‘a blowie’?

The answer we came to during a discussion group on sexual harassment last night was simple. We, as women, are the only people who have the right and the knowledge to define what happens to us as harassment. No-one else can tell us what we’ve experienced, how we’ve experienced it, or try to define our experience for us. 

It sounds obvious doesn’t it? Sounds quite simple. But yet…but yet…When you talk about street harassment you are all too often met with a barrage of disbelief from (some) men.  Disbelief that centres on how it can’t happen that often, turning into accusations of sensitivity on your part and then grumbles of ‘it’s a compliment if anything’, that next we women will want to ‘legislate against flirting’. 

And it’s hard, it’s hard when faced with disbelief, with dismissal of acts that might be irritating, might be triggering, might be traumatising, might be violent, might be threatening. It’s hard in the face of this disregard to remember that what is happening to us, on a daily basis, is harassment. That it is a crime. An assertion of power that deliberately seeks to exclude women from public spaces. 

Make no mistake. A deliberate assertion of power to exclude women from public space is exactly what harassment is. Whether it’s a sexist joke at work to remind you that you’re not part of the boys club, to the showing off of pornographic material to intimidate girls in the classroom, to the shouting of sexually violent words to me on the street – the root is the same. It’s the man or men explaining to you, in the most demeaning way possible, that this is their space, and that they have more of a right to be in it than you do. 

Even the seemingly innocuous shout of ‘smile’ (always aggressively, always to put you off smiling!) is an assertion of power. It’s being told that you are not behaving in an acceptable way in the public space, your behaviour is not pleasing and – because we as women are on display, the spectacle to the male spectator – we need to amend our behaviour to be acceptable. We’re public property and we’re not measuring up. So we’d better smile sweetly and demurely like a proper woman should.

But it’s a compliment if anything. Do you want to legislate against flirting? 
I once talked to my brother about street harassment, after he complained about a group of drunken women harassing him in the city centre. He claimed an equivalence in their harassment to the type of sexual harassment I and other women experience. And although I do not want to diminish the male experience, I really doubted that the two are equivalent. Did you, I asked, feel fear when those women shouted rude things at you in the street? Did you feel afraid they would follow you? Did you feel afraid they would assault or rape you? Did you feel scared to answer back, in case it escalated into physical or sexual violence? Did you feel scared to answer back, because to shout back would be to transcend a gender norm that tells women to take it, to keep their mouths shut, to nurture the male ego?

The answers to all those questions were, of course, no. When women shout obscene things at men on the street, it’s no doubt horrible and rude and my brother had every right to be angry about it. But the reason for those shouts? Not the same. Women don’t shout at men to remind men that they have more of a right to public spaces. Women don’t tend to harass men to assert power over them. And, frankly, most of the time it isn’t women harassing men anyway. Further, women don’t leave men shaking in fear after they harass them, they don’t leave men trembling or in tears because, once again, they’ve been called a bitch, or a cunt; because once again they’ve had sexual violence screamed in their faces; because once again they’ve been reminded that their bodies are public property in a public space. 

This is another key element of harassment – the idea that women’s bodies are public property and that men have a right to our bodies. This goes some way to explaining why street harassment often goes unnoticed by men – even the nice ones! In my experience, if a man starts harassing me and then realises I’m with another man, the harassment stops. Sometimes it even leads to an apology…to my boyfriend. When a woman is identifiably with another man, then her body is already identified as the property of that man, and so she won’t be harassed. And therefore the men don’t see it. 

But when we’re on our own? Then we are fair game. Our bodies resume to being public property. And when we discussed this last night, we came to the conclusion that this was one of the reasons why people don’t intervene when a woman or women are being harassed or assaulted. It’s still seen as the domestic, it’s still seen that the man has a right to that woman’s body and a right to shout, to yell…even to physically or sexually assault. To intervene would be breaking the rules that privilege the man’s right to the public space over the woman’s right to bodily autonomy.

It’s horrible. It really is. It’s horrible to feel worried about walking through your own streets, with the knowledge that at any minute someone might decide to harm you, simply because you’re a woman and they’re a man. It’s horrible to have ‘strategies’ to keep ourselves safe from harassment, from judging where to cross the road, to carrying keys in our hands, to talking to Ms Nobody on our mobile phones. It’s horrible to have to judge whether you’re safer on the street where you might get abuse shouted your way, or safer in a cab where the driver might make lewd and sexist comments to intimidate you (this happens. Cab does not equal safety).

And it’s horrible to know all of this, to speak out about all of this, and to still have people not believe you. To still have people diminish or excuse your experience. 

So what can we do? Well, since I started talking to other women about street harassment, I have felt more empowered to fight back. I feel more powerful to turn around and tell them where to go, to give the finger, to demand they fuck off. I feel the force of the sisterhood behind me. But it’s hard. Not only because you feel the very real threat that fighting back could lead to more violence, but because to shout back goes against everything we are told to do as women. To keep quiet. To take it. To not be aggressive or to defend ourselves. But when I do fight back? After the shaking and fear has passed, I do feel better. I do feel better than when I used to duck my chin, and imagine all my powerful and right on comebacks. 

Of course, sometimes it isn’t safe to fight back. We need to trust our instincts on that one. No-one should feel pressured to fight back if they feel it might put them in danger. 

Another important thing is to keep talking about it. To other women, and to men. To name and shame the men who hurt us on Hollaback. To refuse to accept the denials of our experience. And to encourage everyone to respect and honour that experience. 

I’ve written about street harassment a lot. But I will keep on writing about it, because to speak out? To shout out? To tell our truths? That’s what will make it stop in the end.    


gherkingirl said...

Great article Sian.

I found it interesting on CiF that all the men who commented that they had intervened when they saw a woman being harrassed had been attacked for doing so. They used this as evidence as to why they shouldn't step in again and while I respect their right not to put themselves at risk for a stranger, they all missed the point that if those encounters ended violently, they must have been violent before they even stepped in, not just been a 'compliment' from a guy she didn't fancy. Their point actually backed up what the women were saying, but the men meant it to disprove it and say that they had it worse.

I've also mentioned on my blog that when I started my PTSD therapy, I was amazed to discover how much of my agoraphobia was triggered by street harrassment. Those catcalls and comments were having as much influence as my rapes and my whole life was being put on hold because of the waves of terror washing over me everytime a guy looked or yelled in my direction. I resent the fact I've spent 3 years in therapy and pushing myself daily to 'get better' when if men would stop being such privileged twats and hassling women in the street, the problem would be solved. I'm doing all the compromise and it's not bloody fair...

Tarin said...

Have a Take Back the Night March!

They don't solve much on the day to day basis -- and of course it is important to know that most physical sexual assaults come from people that are known vs random strangers in the night... but there are few things as empowering as gathering with a large group of women and walking down the street at night and shouting "where-ever we go, however we dress, no means no, and yes means yes!"

sian and crooked rib said...

we do! i've helped organise the last three in Bristol - as you say it's so empowering when you stand there and assert your presence on the street. i love it!

DisorganisedGigi said...

I was trying to explain the effect of this kind of harassment to a male friend the other day. We're both 19, I don't think he's really considered it beyond "well, it's not nice" before. The best I could do was to narrate the thoughts which go through my head when I am out alone and it's dark:
"Okay. I'm sticking to light places. Got my headphones out so I can hear anyone coming and I'll keep checking the shadows around me. I'm wearing my New Rocks and this jacket doesn't show my boobs, so maybe they'll think I'm a guy and not attack me. Although if I was raped, I'd be the perfect victim. Jeans, high-necked t-shirt, not drunk. I'm not even wearing make-up for god's sake! And I have short hair, so no one can grab me by that. Although I did go out on my own, so that'd count against me. And I'm going to my boyfriend's, so they'd probably end up discussing my sex life in court, trying to prove I wanted it..."
It was only when faced with that, the idea that women think like that when they're out, that I think like that, because he knows me as a confident person, and that women can be genuinely scared of men that they see in the street, that he really started to realise how it could feel. I don't think many men really realise how much of an effect this kind of behaviour can have, when they can see it as "just a compliment" or "only a joke". But they are so prepared to just dismiss our experiences that, unless they are willing to listen as my friend was, we aren't going to get anywhere and it's so frustrating!
Sian, do you feel like coming across to Cardiff and organising a march here?!

sian and crooked rib said...

absolutely, we were talking last night about how the fact that almost all women have these strategies, have these conversations is the ultimate proof that almost all women live through harassment.

I think Cardiff already have a march - i know they had a slutwalk last year and i think there's a feminist network :-)

DisorganisedGigi said...

Excellent, I shall have to hunt them out :) I have only been here since October so I missed last year's Slutwalk although I know people who went. I just wish I could do more. Although I think my friends are getting fed up with me!

Poppit said...

Thank you for this post. I too have often struggled to articulate why a male stranger telling me to 'smile' on the street pisses me off so much. I've never been able to fully articulate the reason for that feeling of deep-seated anger. Your comments have helped me understand my own response to that, the inherent sense of injustice I feel and the whisper of fear that if I respond something far more awful will happen.

Matarij said...

It is interesting that finally rape culture had been given a name. I always thought that I was weird because I instinctively protected myself when out in public - and put this down to my sexual abuse as child - something I had to 'get over'. Now I realise that the sexual abuse that i experienced as a child was just the beginning of the sexual harassment that I would experience for the rest of my life. It makes me sad to realise this, but also extremely angry that I, and every other woman, has to develop strategies to cope. One day I really hope that we will win this battle.

sian and crooked rib said...

thank you for all sharing your stories. hope you are all ok and sending you solidarity x

sian and crooked rib said...

and we will win this battle :-)

e.f. bartlam said...

I'm stopping to comment this time because I'm pretty much completely behind you on this one.

Not only is it incredibly rude and's frightening for women. It restricts a woman's liberty. It's unacceptable.

I come by here occasionally and find myself disagreeing a lot, not so much with the issues you put forward, but with the spirit of it...I guess. I'm just not very comfortable with immersive ideologies.

What I do love is to read coherent, lucid thoughts that are different from mine. I cannot spend all my time agreeing with people. It's mind numbing. That's why I come by.

Of course, I originally stopped by because of the profile pic..the young lady looks to have a crooked buzz...made her seem like a kindred spirit. :).

I promise I will not make a habit of invading your space.