I have been very conflicted about this topic for a while. Mostly, because I wasn’t sure of how significant it was in comparison to other issues, and whether this significance merited the amount of feminist responses, initiatives and organisations that have developed over the years (Hollaback, Stop Street Harassment, Pro Change, to name a few).
Obviously, this is a problem that concerns all women, whether cis or trans, femme or butch,
coloured of colour or white, or androgynous looking (even “feminine” looking men)… The list goes on. So the many responses are justified by the amount of people involved and interested in them. Clearly, we have a problem here! I guess, my hesitancy can be explained by a perception of normalcy of the problem, resulting in more or less callous acceptance. Come to think of it, what a terrible way to live!
I am 25 years old. One can rightfully assume that I have been subjected to street harassment for over ten to fifteen years. Needless to say, it has become a part of my every-day life, a constant variable in the way I behave in public. For more than ten years I have been exposed to comments, leering, catcalling and groping, and I have learned to deal with that. I had to. Now, at 25 years old, I have graduated with honours in the art of making myself invisible in public (if I want to), but there are no rewards. The bullying continues, only now I am better at looking away, leaving, pretending to ignore it, but it has never stopped to bother me and it seldomly fails to lead to its most devious effect: I want to make myself smaller, hide inside myself, run away.
Normally, I would consider myself a strong, independent woman. I am an outspoken feminist. I never hide my political convictions. If justified, I talk back to my employers at work. I often call out people for misbehaving or making stupid remarks. And no, I am also not afraid to yell back at catcallers, when I feel safe enough. It makes me feel better about the situation, but there is nothing empowering about it. I still feel angry and humiliated, uncomfortable and exposed, and sadly, my body language in public has incorporated these fears.
On the train, I am often crouched in the corner of the seat, my legs and arms crossed, looking away. I don’t like waiting on the street; if I am early I prefer to go for a walk or “look busy” by playing games on my mobile phone. Hanging around unattended on the street is a surefire way of being approached by someone uncalled-for. I avoid making eye contact with men in public, and I try not to touch them accidentally. When men offer me anything in the street (a product, help) or want to ask me something, my initial reaction is to refuse. Immediately, my heart starts beating faster. When I go outside wearing short dresses or skirts, I prepare myself for unwanted attention. At night, I change the side of the street in order not to run into approaching groups of men, or I avoid certain areas altogether. In my day to day life, I don’t think about the reasons for this behaviour and I don’t analyze its impact. It’s my life, my naturalized means for navigating public spaces with the least risk potential. It has become what the German blog High on Clichés calls a “second skin”.
Naturally, we all guard ourselves in public. It is the space in which we’re most vulnerable. But do men prepare themselves in this way, at every hour, every single day? (That’s not a rhetorical question; I’d really like to know.) How can it be that mere words can have such a violent impact on large amounts of people, yet there is rarely any backing from the public when incidents of sexual harassment occur (at least that’s my experience)?
The worst thing anyone can say about this issue is: “Men simply can’t help it.” It makes me feel so much more unsafe, having to accept that men are completely volatile predators. Fortunately, I know that this is untrue. Most men actually don’t harass women in the street, the same way as I don’t harass men. It would never occur to them; just like it doesn’t occur to me to yell “nice ass” at a guy with a nice ass. That doesn’t mean men aren’t allowed to look, and can’t enjoy a nice cleavage every once in a while, but there is such a thing as subtlety and simple human decency. It is something we all learn eventually, being social beings and all, some perhaps more so than others. But I believe there is a difference in how men take up public space as a matter of course, whereas women are often in a constant state of tension. I could go into the wider implications of this, but I suppose you all agree that this is a huge problem that needs to be addressed.
Nowadays, I feel like I can handle most forms of sexual harassment without being too shaken by it. But just because human beings are able to adapt themselves to most circumstances, it doesn’t mean they’re acceptable. Knowing that this behaviour is wrong and harmful is the first step to generate a culture that refuses to participate and citizens that will stand up to this injustice publicly. That this hasn’t happened yet is an outrage, but at least it’s better to be angry than scared.
Feel free to leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, but not without checking out this awesome Street Harassment Bullshit Bingo, created by High on Clichés (translation mine):