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.    

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