“Alright, darlin’!” shouts a builder across the road. Whilst wheeling my bike along, “I’d let you ride me” is the hushed comment from a man who passes me. And from a crawling car “Are you working?”
I’m not alone in experiencing encounters like this. Whenever I mention these instances of street harassment to my friends, they have just as many stories of whistles, cat calls and unwanted propositions to share. In the past women have had little opportunity to discuss these experiences with a wider circle outside of their friendship group, but this is changing. I spoke to the young women involved in a growing movement that is aiming to get not only women talking about their daily experiences of street harassment, but society.
HollabackLDN was set up by Julia Gray, 23, and belongs to the global Hollaback network, founded in New York. The London based website allows women to share their stories of street harassment and, in sharing these stories, it acknowledges street harassment as a serious issue and raises awareness of the problem. Whilst women may brush off the odd nasty comment or quick grope, the stories shared on HollabackLDN often express the externalisation of an experience that has left the writer feeling ashamed, intimated or depressed. Gray believes talking street harassment is crucial, “People don’t acknowledge it [as an issue], it’s really under-reported and isn’t talked about. Women seem to have just accepted it; that it’s part of being a woman and you just have to deal with it.” Gray feels the response she has had from male friends also illustrates the need for discussion, “[They] have said to me ‘I can’t believe how often it happens, because no one ever said anything to me.’”
Vicky Simister, 25, set up the London Anti Street Harassment (LASH) website early last year. After moving to Hackney she noted her experiences of street harassment had become more frequent and it was after one incident, which ended in her being physically assaulted, that she felt more had to be done by police and MPs. LASH has successfully lobbied MPs and journalists in order to begin a serious discussion around street harassment. So far Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, has lent her support to the campaign. Labour London Mayoral Candidate Ken Livingston has also voiced his support and believes that street harassment needs to be addressed.
There are, of course, both women and men who see no harm in wolf whistles or cat calls. But whilst being asked “Alright love?” is unlikely to make most women intensely fear for their safety, the stories shared on HollabackLDN illustrate just how threatening a harasser’s creepy behaviour and explicit comments can feel. Holly Kearl, author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming (2010) conducted informal surveys on over a 1000 women’s experiences from 23 countries and found 99 percent had been harassed by strangers. “There were 25 per cent who said that they felt happy, grateful or flattered when someone commentated on their appearance,” Kearl says. “However, none said they liked sexually graphic language, stalking or public masturbation.” These particular unsavoury incidents had actually been experienced by most of the women surveyed – over 80% had experienced sexually explicit comments, three quarters experienced stalking, about one third had been the target of public masturbation and over half had been groped or sexually touched.
Though some women may feel flattered by non-sexual comments and seemingly harmless incidents of street harassment, Gray believes there needs to be a blanket approach to tackling street harassment because “if you allow some [types of behaviour], like wolf whistles and cat calls, it contributes to an atmosphere where it’s ok [for worse behaviour to take place].”
Whether it’s a cat call, or something more explicit, street harassment can severely impact women’s use of public space because of an underlying fear of sexual assault. “The women I spoke to said that the threat of street harassment does make them change their behaviour,” says Kearl, “From a young age women are told, then learn from experience, that public spaces are unsafe for them – particularly when they are alone or at night. I was astonished by all the ways women change their lives to try to avoid harassment and assault.”
These subtle changes in behaviour can be seen in a woman re-thinking what she may wear, or where she might go. Speaking with friends showed me that these little modifications occur all too often. “If I know that I have to come home by myself when it’s dark, even when it’s not actually late, I often think about how I am dressed,” said London based Rachel, “If I’m wearing a skirt or shorts I like to bring a longer coat so that more of my legs are covered up.” Fashion blogger Nicole also admitted to amending her Saturday night plans to avoid sleazy behaviour; “There are certain clubs and bars I won’t go to as inevitably some guy will start grinding up against you.”
So why is it that some men street-harass? There is limited research as to explain exactly why, but Kearl suggests that some do it “as a joke, to prove their masculinity, to impress friends, to show off in general and to humiliate women”. Also she theorises that “they may have internalized the culture of disrespect for women so much that they see nothing wrong with commenting on a woman’s body, touching her, or following her – and even think they are being nice or complimentary. Even men who claim they do it to compliment women, at some level probably realize they are actually being bullies when they harass women, because they wouldn’t do it if she was with a man and they wouldn’t want other men to treat a woman they cared about that way.”
Both Gray and Kearl believe that education, particularly of men, is crucial if street harassment is to be tackled. Gray explains, “We need to re-educate men, so they don’t view women as sexual objects and women, also, to not take up that role.” Kearl has a range of proposed solutions; “Educating young men about healthy definitions of masculinity is essential” she says, and suggests that men “call out their friends who harass and also help a woman out when she is being harassed.” Further she explains “sharing stories to break the silence around the issue” and “to confront or report street harassers” is equally important in stamping out street harassment, both of which HollabackLDN and LASH have started to do.
The fact that so often street harassment is accepted by people suggests that women’s bodies are still considered public property, an attitude the anti-street harassment movement is aiming to change. As Gray says “the ultimate aim is for all women to walk down the street and feel safe. That it’s their street and they have a right to be there and they won’t be undermined.” With the current surge of anti street-harassment campaigns, let’s hope that this bright future is not too far away.Comments (2)