Season of Street Harassment
When she is subjected to street harassment and the circumstances are low in risk, Roswell pulls out her phone and takes a photo.
I reach for the weapon at my hip and press the trigger. The man’s expression is now in my phone for me to do with as I wish. His crime? Harassment in the form of “hey baby, want a good time?” It isn’t the worst I hear, which is without a doubt the repulsive kissy-kissy noises, closely followed by “oi-oi” occasionally with “saveloy” on the end. Those are the ones to which no witty responses are available. All I can do is keep my head down and hope the verbal bullets leave only flesh wounds.
We’re women – we’re used to it. Our every action draws scrutiny; I’ve noticed that despite the eye-popping things on my front it is not always my body that is the focus of the comments. It appears some men shout just for the sake of shouting. (Or making kissy-noises.) Has any woman in the history of the world responded favourably to such a move? I doubt it – the responses I’ve seen range from humiliation, to disgusted looks, to full-on shouting back. I’m going to return to this disturbing observation later.
Anyway, shouting back… there can be problems with any response you give but in my opinion the best thing you can possibly do is react. Stop in your tracks, look them straight in the eye and ask loudly “why do you feel that speaking to me in this way is okay?” Most of the times in which I’ve taken this approach, the man in question has backed down or even apologised.
Obviously, there are circumstances in which it is best not to risk repercussions – if there’s nobody around, if it’s a huge group of menacing and/or drunk men etc – but in general, respond and put the attention back on them.
The internet is a wonderful and terrible thing. I photograph harassers and post their pictures online (with a minimum offence of continual and creepy staring). Again, if you don’t look intimidating, are physically teeny or are in a circumstance given above then let it go, but get a photo if you are able. Nothing scares people quite like being told that their face is going on the internet for their friends, children and mother to see.
“It’s a compliment!”
Some people will tell you that you have no reason to be offended. Mostly ‘laddish’ types in my experience seem to think that “nice bubbies” is something all the ladies want to hear. My response is to say incredulously and loudly “Really? You think that saying “I’d pay to motorboat you” [or whatever the comment was] to a complete stranger is a compliment? You must have terrible luck with women.” Give them a long look, and walk.
The most recent trend seems to be “smile luv – it might never happen” and other variations. The obvious response is to burst into tears and say a person close to you has died. It’s what I do, but I also elaborate. Through my fake tears, I also choke out “and why should I smile for you anyway? If I went around like this [grimace] all day, I’d look like a freak. I don’t even know you!”
Of course, there are the truly nasty people who know exactly what they’re doing but some men genuinely do not understand what street harassment is. This is probably because it rarely happens when women are in the presence of a man. I can understand why men might think it sounds wonderful to be constantly told by strangers you’re beautiful every single day! When researching this piece, I posted on Facebook to ask my friends if this had happened to them. A well-meaning male friend responded with “I wish, lol.” Here is my response – you are welcome to use it as and when needed!
“You’re lovely, but please think for a second: you are implying that being yelled at in the street by random strangers is a desirable thing. It is upsetting and disturbing to have your body commented on and kissy noises made in your ear on a regular basis (which is the case for most women). We are then told we’re either asking for it or that we love the attention, which is what your response implies (unintentionally, I know.) If you genuinely don’t understand the problem, ask any female friend what the worst harassment she has experienced is. You’ll probably get a shock.”
What about the genuinely nasty?
We all know a creepy “hell-oooooo…” when we hear one, but how do you respond to “hello”?? I pretend I haven’t heard them and it usually means they’ll continue with their day, or will get ruder – giving me the opportunity to address it!
Here’s the thing I have noticed about creeps; they often continue shouting even if the target does nothing – they want to see her blush or hang her head in a non-aggressive reaction (hence why standing your ground takes them out of their comfort zone). While trying to work out why people do this, I realised many of the nastiest instances I’ve seen don’t seem sexual at all, but are about humiliating the target. Asserting control. This is the psychology behind the worst kinds of assault. Even less acceptable now, isn’t it? So let’s do something about it. I am not suggesting that all harassers are criminals-in-the-making, but it certainly is food for thought.
You have nothing to be ashamed of.
In the same way that victims of sexual assault often feel ashamed or guilty, so can we when someone yells at us in our gorgeous new outfit. I had to stop myself telling you what I was wearing at the beginning of this piece because I felt the urge to mention that it was not revealing, and this has to stop. Such assault is still common in countries too cold to wear skimpy clothing and in which women typically cover up more.
Clothing is not a cause and most such criminals do not even recall what their victim was wearing.
For me, the overwhelming feeling of anger and helplessness is the same (I was sexually assaulted a few years ago), and I feel much more helpless when I do not respond to these people. The French call it l’esprit de escalier (‘the spirit of the stairs’ – in which you’re left standing on the stairs after a conversation, thinking of all the things you should have said). Hollering back takes away that helplessness.
Two bits of inspiration:
– This is a woman confronting a flasher. It turns out that he has done this many times before and is arrested.
– Man sends revealing picture to woman. Woman forwards revealing picture to man’s mother.
Check out the website ihollaback.org for advice, story-sharing and how to get involved in the movement. There is one thing worse than being harassed, and it’s being harassed while surrounded by strangers who do nothing.
Here are three of their best tips:
1) Stand next to the target so they know they’re not alone. Ask them if they’re okay.
2) Film the person doing the harassing. Take a picture and get ready to post it online – somebody must know who this is.
3) Find the police/foreman on the construction site/train conductor/bus driver etc and report it.
They aren’t all creeps.
Sometimes, I have an encounter that restores my faith. The other day, I was walking down the street and a male voice started yelling ‘excuse me’. So I plunged my hand into my pocket, got my phone ready and turned around.
“Hello! I just wanted to say I saw you from back there [he pointed to a removal van] and I think you’re stunning from head to toe.”
Okay, some people still get embarrassed at these kinds of encounters but the difference here is intent. This man had no intention of upsetting me.
“You have made my day! Do you know why? Because you didn’t yell at me from across the street or comment on my body. You are really lovely and I hope you have a fantastic day. Don’t work too hard! Thank you so much.”
If somebody is kind enough to give a genuine compliment, even if you’re a little embarrassed, thank them and explain why you’re giving them the time of day. The more people do this, the more the message gets across that there is a correct way to give a compliment and this is it.
So can anything else be done?
The best suggestion I have heard came from a friend who suggested that as part of an experiment, a few random men should be picked off the street and targeted at several points in the day by huge, physically imposing men calling things like “how much?” and “nice ass hun – when do I get to tap it?” The type of thing we get on a regular basis. Then, interview the targets after seeing their horror and fear, watching them try to duck into shops to get away, start doubting themselves – ‘is it what I’m wearing?’ etc. Then televise it.
It’s a genius idea – could it be done?
Is anybody brave enough to try it out?
Shall we pitch it to Channel 4?
I may just write that letter…