I don’t own a car and I live in a highly desirable inner-city suburb, so my primary mode of transport is my two feet. I walk to the shops, to town, to restaurants and when I worked in the city, I walked there too. This means that yes, unfortunately, I am confronted with a lot more street harassment than if I was able to drive everywhere. (Although this would not make me immune to it, as more than one of my friends has had a man try and climb into her car while she was waiting at a red light.)
But what is street harassment? It’s men who stop to comment on your appearance as you walk to the supermarket. It’s men who tell you to smile when you’re waiting at a crosswalk. It’s men who follow you home in the middle of the night, shouting that you’re rude for not stopping to engage them. It’s men who shout at you from their cars as they drive by. It’s men who make comments about your sexual viability (‘I’d tap that’) or nasty comments about your size (‘Wide load!’).
But it’s not just verbal… unfortunately, it can go as far as flashing, public masturbation, groping, sexual assault and even rape. It is based in the belief that a woman’s body is public property and that a man may treat it in any way he sees fit. And disgustingly enough, it begins as early as puberty, with almost all women having experienced it before their 18th birthday.
LGBTQI, people of colour, people dressed in religious coverings and disabled people also experience street harassment, but those are stories for another day, as today’s focus will be mostly verbally based gendered street harassment. In other words: the shit that women and female-identifying people deal with every single day of their lives.
Here are some things that have happened to me. Almost all have happened more than once:
- A man follows me home and shouts nasty comments at me
- A male truck driver at a red light takes his foot off the peddle and lurches the truck forward to frighten me while I cross on the green man (this one happens to me ALL the time)
- A man stops me on a dark street late at night, asks me how my day was, gets angry when I keep moving
- A man shouts something sexual from a moving car or car at a stop light. When this happens at night, it’s been to ask for a blow job
- A male shopkeeper grabs my ass and tells me I’m so hot, he’d cheat on his girlfriend to be with me
- I am asking my friend to inspect the back of my dress when I’m positive I’ve sat in something gross and a man walks by and says “Oh girl you can shake that for me anytime!”
- A man makes unwanted sexual advances towards him, I turn him down, he becomes angry and calls me a “stupid bitch whore who is ugly anyways”
Here are some things that haven’t happened to me but have happened to girlfriends of mine:
- A man masturbates on a train/bench/beach while staring at them
- A man telling one friend to “pull her bike shorts out of her c**t” when she was exercising at a park
- A man throws something (often rubbish) at them and calls her a dirty whore
- A man walks past and says “Nice tits!”
- A man walks past, tells them to ‘put some f**king clothes on’ when they are wearing short skirts or crop tops
When I tell men about my experiences, they express disbelief or tell me that it’s because I live in a dodgy part of town. I then have to inform them that I’ve lived in four different Australian cities, two international cities, I’m well travelled and that the first time I experienced street harassment, aged 13, I was walking down a street in Perth’s outer suburbia. As I mentioned above: most women’s first experience is before the age of 18.
Finally, I inform them that if they bothered to ask any other women in their lives about their experiences, they’d hear the same stories repeated back to them.
According to The Australian Institute, 87% of Australian women have experienced at least one form of verbal or physical street harassment and over 56% of them were alone the last time it happened. In most cases, the harasser was a single man but in about a third of cases, it was a group of men.
Street harassment is everywhere, and no woman is immune to it. So why aren’t men aware it’s happening?
There’s four main reasons for that, in my opinion:
1. The kind of men who engage in street harassment don’t do it when other men are around to witness it.
This one is pretty straight forward and very true: men who harass take advantage of women who are alone and especially women who are walking down sparsely-populated areas. Just like a robber breaking into a home or store, it gives them ample opportunity to get away with the crime.
2. A lot of men who do it think what they’re doing is harmless or acceptable.
The saddest part of street harassment is that men’s harassment of women is not taken seriously. We are told to take these incidents as a compliment, a joke or ‘nothing to worry about’. On top of that, we are also regularly blamed for it happening to us, based on our outfit, where we were walking or the time of day we were out.
We hear time and time again that ‘Boys will be boys!’, ‘Oh what he’s doing is harmless!’, ‘He’s just trying to give you a compliment!’ to excuse bad male behaviour, but no more often than when it comes to a man hanging out the passenger side of his best friend’s ride trying to holla at me…
Break! Did you know that ‘No Scrubs’ by TLC, a song that literally describes the phenomenon of street harassment and how bullshit it is, is 17 years old? How have men not got the message yet?
Ok, now we’ve got that out of our system, it seems that too many men honestly believe that they can say anything to a woman about her appearance and expect that she’ll respond positively. For these men, it’s a power-trip, an ego-boost and they will hone in on any woman regardless of what she’s wearing or doing.
The scariest part of this is that if we fight back, we risk these men becoming violent and so we bow our head and we keep moving.
3. Men, even the kindest of men, have a nasty habit of dismissing a woman’s retelling of her experiences as ‘over-reaction’ or ‘a one off because that woman walked alone at night in the city’ and is not an everyday experience.
The more men I speak to, decent men who would never ever catcall or harass, the more I hear “Oh that seems like you’re exaggerating!”. In order to get them to listen to me and believe me, I’ve had to rope in other women to back up my claims and relay their own.
This all stems back to the idea that women are over-emotional, hysterical and have a tendency to stretch the truth in their plight for sympathy. An idea that is already incredibly problematic in itself, as it allows men to dismiss women’s feelings and experiences and contributes to rape culture (but more on that another time).
4. Women are so conditioned to street harassment that they don’t speak about it.
One of my best friends regularly talks about her experiences with street harassment and people either think she is just unlucky OR that it’s just a byproduct of the way she dresses/the area she works it (a nightclub district as a door person). As far as I’m concerned, she experiences it no more or less often than most other women in public, she’s just vocal about it.
She inspired me to also speak out about my experiences and make sure that as many people heard them as possible. Because if we don’t say it, it won’t get better.
But for most women, because street harassment has been an experience they’ve dealt with regularly since they first hit puberty and it’s generally accepted as the price you pay for being a woman, it quickly becomes so banal and everyday that yes, you just let it wash over you.
Because of the way society treats gendered street harassment, almost all women blame themselves. Of the Australian women who have experienced street harassment, nearly all of them (87%) have changed their behaviour in at least one way to improve their personal safety. That might be carrying their key in front of them as a weapon, ensuring they never walk alone or spending unnecessary money on short taxi rides that are more than walkable, changing the way they dress or only going out with friends.
But no woman should have to change her behaviour to suit that of a harasser, especially when it means not being able to do things like walk home, things that men do without any fear or second thought.
Let me repeat this one last time: street harassment is an everyday experience for women. Any woman who walks around, alone (or with one other female), at any time of day or night is likely to experience street harassment, no matter where she is, what she looks like or what time of day it is. So if you see it happen, whether the harasser is a stranger or a friend, don’t be a bystander! Tell the harasser to bugger off, that their actions are unacceptable and then check the woman is alright.