Thursday 6 March 2014

Street Harassment - a response to Paris Lees in Vice

It started when I was a schoolgirl. Standing alone at the bus stop, after my after-school dance class, in my school uniform. Then, the beeping horns would begin. Beep. Honk. Beep. Grown men, adult men, honking their ‘appreciation’ of a girl-child in school uniform. 

The first time I remember it getting violent was when I was about 16 or 17. I was walking down my road as a group of lads followed me, threatening to rape me in the ass. 

A trip to Paris where I was groped insistently on the Metro. Flashers in Farringdon. The men who screamed ‘give me a fucking blowie’ in my face. The men who chanted ‘bitch’ at me as I walked down the street when I didn’t oblige them by ‘dropping my knickers’. The men who pretended to mug me for a laugh. The man who grabbed me and tried to stick his tongue down my throat on the bus. The man who grabbed me and did stick his tongue down my throat in the club.

They’re all part of the dreary, depressing litany of shout, bitches, cunts, gropes, insults, threats that make up the pattern of street harassment that has been the wallpaper of my life and of every woman’s life that I know. 

Today I read Paris Lees’ Vice article about how she enjoys catcalls and wolf whistles, and I felt compelled to respond. This isn’t an attack on Paris – for the record I admire her hugely for her activism and for her writing. But I do want to challenge some of what she has written, based on my own experience of harassment. 

In the article, Paris argues that she enjoys getting wolf-whistled, that cat calling is a compliment, (‘One woman who emailed me in response to an enquiry I put out on Facebook[…]takes catcalling as a compliment, too’) although she does recognise that not all women feel that way, and that there is a power imbalance at play. She also differentiates between what she considers a compliment, and harassment – the latter being the more violent stuff, the former being called ‘princess’ or ‘hey beautiful’. 

To me, there isn’t a differentiation. Catcalling, wolf whistling, street harassment – whatever you want to call it – can never be to me, a compliment. 

Why? Because, sorry to say, but those guys that yell at you on the street? They’re rarely doing it because they think you are so stunning, so gorgeous, so super hot, that they can’t resist expressing that appreciation. 

They shout and whistle at you because it’s an expression of power. 

These men aren’t ‘brave because they’re just there in broad daylight, shouting down the street.’ Harassment is deliberate assertion of power to exclude women from public space. 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 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.

Of course, I can understand why some women choose to define a whistle, a shout of ‘alright gorgeous’ as a compliment and I do not judge their decision to do so. After all, we live in a patriarchal society that values women by their ability to pass the patriarchal-fuckability test and we all have to do what we can to survive in that society. As Ellie Mae O’Hagan says in Paris’ piece:

'“One of the ways patriarchy sustains itself is by convincing women that their worth is determined by the approval of men along a strict set of terms. Getting wolf-whistled at is a small confirmation that a woman is meeting the terms patriarchy demands of her.”' 

We live in a society where women lack power, and one of the powers we are allowed is a certain kind of sexual power (but not too much! And only for a short amount of time!). To feel validated by male approval can feel powerful. But what happens when the catcalls stop? What happens when you no longer pass the test? What happens if catcalls were never about your ability to pass as hot, but actually about male power over women in public spaces? 

In her piece, Paris argues that telling women that catcalls and wolf whistling is harassment is:

part of a culture that infantilizes women and teaches them to be constantly afraid. I wasn’t brought up that way, and I don’t feel frightened when some spunky dude comes and talks to me. I hate this idea that all men are rapists-in-waiting and that all women are victims-in-waiting. It’s patronizing and doesn’t help anyone. Many women are sexual and like to look and feel and be seen sexual. I’m one of those women.’

I’m sorry, but this is when I lost my temper. 

Not enjoying street harassment is not perpetuating a culture that teaches women to be constantly afraid. Not smiling and nodding along to catcalls does not infantilize women. In fact, I would argue the opposite is true. Living in a culture where a manifestation of inequality is men calling you a bitch on the street – THAT is what teaches women to be afraid. Existing in a world where men have a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, that teaches us to be afraid. The knowledge that we are not welcome, that our presence in public spaces could lead to harassment, assault, violence, is what makes us afraid. 

But more than that, who says we’re afraid anyway? Why can’t we just be angry? I’m fucking furious with the men who have abused me on the street. At the time, when I panic that they will follow me, that it won’t stop with shouting, then I feel fear. But after that, I feel rage.  And that rage spurs me on to expose the harassment, to not put up with it, to raise my voice against it. Speaking out about harassment, raising my voice against it, is, for me, an empowering act. It claims my space back. 

Saying women don’t have to accept catcalls as a compliment isn’t casting us as a victim-in-waiting. It’s recognising that we have the right to live our lives free from hassle, free from shouts. We have the right to exist in public space. We are not passive objects to be commented on, to be judged by the shifting measure of the patriarchal fuckability test. 

And then we get to the sex comment. I too would consider myself to be a sexual woman. I too like to look and feel sexual, whatever that means. But to me, being told by a stranger that I’m ‘fit’ or by another stranger that he wants to ‘fuck me in the ass’ doesn’t make me feel sexually empowered.  It makes me feel disempowered, because I have been reminded once again that as a woman in public space, my body is no longer my own. It’s public property to be judged and approved or disapproved. That doesn’t make me feel sexy. It makes me feel worthless.

It feels like a real straw man argument to me, that accepting these compliments is part of being a sexual woman, with the implied judgement that those of us who rile against it are somehow 'non sexual'. But if the not wanting to be an object of the male gaze makes me uptight, then hell, I'm uptight. 

Moving on, we have the class argument, broached by Nichi Hodgson, who is quoted in the piece:

“There’s a sense of being sullied if an uncouth or lower-class kind of man—a white-van man, for example—heckles. But if it's a Roger Sterling type who can just about pull it off with a certain retro-sexist panache, the offense isn't experienced the same.”

Well, I call bullshit on that one. I’ve been flashed by middle class university students, my friends have been groped by posh city boys in posh city bars, I’ve been hassled by kids in tracksuits and by drunk hipsters and by old men and by teenagers and I have hated every single experience. I haven’t looked at the cut of a harasser’s suit and thought, ‘hey, he totally just degraded me but wow, he’s kind of cute’, and then looked at another harasser’s trackie bottoms and gone ‘well, how dare he! Can’t he see I’m middle class!’. 

To argue that women don’t like harassment because of class is just another way of silencing women’s experience. It’s the kind of things misogynists say below the line on CIF – that women don’t mind being harassed if they find the harasser attractive. They only don’t like it if he isn’t pretty. That ignores the experience of women like me who simply don’t want to be objectified in that way by anyone, at any time. What's more, it suggest that women who don't enjoy being harassed are somehow snobs exercising their class privilege. That we should just suck it up, or be accused of being classist. 

Paris and Nichi argue that it’s a misnomer to link sexual violence with wolf whistling and cat calling. Again, this seems like another straw man argument. Of course no one would argue that men who harass women on the street are all rapists. And no one is arguing that. But I agree with Kat Banyard’s assessment of street harassment in her book, The Equality Illusion. She argues that the culture of entitlement over women’s bodies – which leads to a man calling me a ‘fucking bitch’ because I didn’t respond to his ‘invitation’ to take me home that night – is part of a culture that denies women their right to their bodily autonomy. Again, it’s about who has power in public space. Put simply, we live in a rape culture, and street harassment is part of it. 

So, I’ve gone on now for nearly 2,000 words and I’d better stop. But I want to make one final point before I finish. 

My views on street harassment are not to deny that Paris and other women truly do find it complimentary and feel affirmed by catcalls and wolf whistles. That is their experience. As I said before, I will not judge any woman on how they choose to define their experience. Although, as earlier, I would urge caution about what that kind of validity means, and what happens when it’s gone. 

But for so many women I know, and for myself, the experience is very different. I tried to explain how harassment made me feel in this post, back in 2012: 

But what he didn’t understand, what he didn’t know, is that as soon as a strange man starts shouting things at me on the street, I feel scared. I feel scared because since I was 15 I haven’t known whether that shout will be safe or not. Will it be someone just saying I look nice? Or will it be someone screaming that I’m a fucking bitch for ignoring them, or someone yelling that they’re going to follow me and rape me in the ass, or that I’m a cunt, or that I’m a bitch who needs to drop her knickers, or that I need to stop walking and give him a fucking blowie. I don’t know and so as soon as that voice is raised I can’t take the chance that it’s going to be a well-meaning compliment.’ 

I have grown up with street harassment. Since I was 14 I have lived with men beeping horns, grabbing my ass, calling me ‘beautiful’ and then calling me a ‘bitch’ for not responding, telling me what they want to do to me, what they want me to do to them. I have never felt like I’ve had a choice about being randomly objectified, or had a choice about how I respond to it, because in patriarchy every response is the wrong one. Fight back? You’re an angry, ungrateful feminist. Ignore it? You’re a bitch. Respond positively? You’re a slut.

Street harassment can be triggering, it can be frightening and it can be intimidating. And it makes me angry. I have a right to my experience of street harassment, just as Paris has a right to hers. And my response to it doesn’t make me uptight, or classist, or a victim. It is my response. 

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