Funny how you can keep seeing little bits and bobs around one certain subject and then, suddenly, you join the dots and out pops a blog post! Here’s one about all the street-harassment related items that have popped into my field of vision lately…
I came across this Welsh PSA (above) recently that beautifully sums up how street harassment can affect women – Every. Single. Day. Whilst there are those who don’t get why such cat-calls and comments are an annoyance (the very same people who tell harassed women to ‘grow up‘ and ‘it’s a wolf whistle, big wow‘) this advert aims to show them that it’s not just a one off remark that can be upsetting, it’s the culmination of a constant barrage of ‘compliments’ that can make women feel creeped-out and pissed-off.
And if you’re so pissed-off that the only answer is to vent some rage by playing a First Person Shooter for a couple of hours, well there’s now a game especially for you! Amateurish new video game Hey Baby has been causing controversy due to the fact that the gameplay revolves around brutally murdering the blocky-looking boys who might pass lewd comments on you as you attempt to make your way home;
Okay: the game isn’t about mowing down men. It’s about male privilege and what male privilege feels like.
The game’s rubbish, of course. But the one thing it does well is show how what you may think is an innocuous compliment feels in the context of a woman’s life. You approaching a woman in the street and being what you think is politely flirty is a different thing when, down the street, someone’s suggested that maybe you’d like to suck my dick and you’re a fucking bitch if you don’t.
From her perspective, it’s a culture of harassment she has to either politely deal with or ignore. From your perspective, you’re just showing how you feel. That your passing desire means you get to derail a woman’s life whenever you feel like it is the absolute definition of male privilege. If you’re a man, and you’ve acted like this, the woman you do it to, beneath the polite smile she has to offer, has probably fantasised about you dying.
Laurie Penny has also written a piece on Hey Baby for The New Statesman which has, of course, spawned a flurry of angry comments. Comments which drew another, calmer contributor (by the name of J. Van Meter) to remark;
It must be painful for some guys to imagine that their ‘friendly’ comments, rather than drawing the fond attention of passing woman, just cast them as faceless potential threats.
Which brings me neatly on to my final street-harassment related tit-bit of the day!
I came to Phaedra Starling’s Schrödinger’s Rapist post via a discussion at the Reclaim The Pub blog. Whilst Starling’s post, written as a guide for men on how not to approach women in public spaces, has received a lot of criticism (and is by no means perfect!) – in my opinion it still holds its own as a simple and eye-opening breakdown of male privilege. Basically, the post explains that whilst men may feel their romantic advances towards a stranger in a public place are harmless and good-natured, there’s only a slim chance that their behaviour will be read as such by a woman who has most likely encountered harassment and assault far too often to feel safe. Have a read here, if you haven’t already.
Each and every one of these examples I have come across lately really underlines how the constant onslaught of street harassment can add up to create a much bigger problem than the one that first appears. That is why retaliations like ‘it’s a wolf whistle, big wow‘ miss the point by a mile…
Whilst browsing for low level perverts on Hollaback, the NY edition drew my attention to a new campaign launched recently in the borough of Hackney, London. The London Anti-Street Harrassment (LASH) has a rather ambitious aim: to put a stop to a certain kind of man who thinks it’s flattering/appreciated/wanted for him to give you an insight into whatever seedy thought is running through his brain whilst he encounters you in a public space. Or worse, deciding his hands just have to wander over to your body. LASH is busy writing to MPs and the media to try to give exposure to an issue that is often considered as yet another thing women just have to ‘put up’ with. Founder Vicky Simister decided to start up the campaign shortly after moving to Hackney and noticing the level of street harassment she received increased. She states:
With many noble organisations dedicated to preventing gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual assault and other important women’s issues, street harassment gets overlooked as a minor problem. Women are told to accept harassment as a fact of life, or to ignore it. We don’t think is fair. We need to re-educate people, both the perpetrators – who often brush off their actions as “harmless” – and the victims, who frequently feel intimidated, offended and afraid. It needs to become socially unacceptable to yell at a woman in the street, or make unwelcome comments about her appearance.
Street Harrasment is one of those areas which divides opinion on as to what actually constitutes inappropriate behaviour. In the chat forum on Cosmopolitan, started by LASH, the first two pages of comments are pretty depressing. One commenter posted, “It’s when they stop wolf whistling at you that you have to worry!” and offered the useful advice “Could you not walk another way? or something?”. Whilst a small cross-section, most depressingly most of these comments appear to be written by women. Whilst no doubt some women do appreciate being wolf whistled at on the street, I’m not sure they would appreciate what the next step may be; being kissed at or having someone masturbate in front of you – just two of the most recent posts on Hollaback. So, exactly what is street harassment, what do you think constitutes street harassment?
I certainly don’t feel flattered when a man wolf whistles as me; I am mostly confused as to what sort of response I am supposed to give. Does he really think I will run over and declare my love? Or is he simply satisfied knowing that he’s made my day by blowing air through his lips?
Nor do I feel flattered when I am wheeling my bike down the road and a man suggests “I’d give you a ride” punctuated with a sleazy smile. Nor (having grown up near a park known for curb crawling) to have a man, old enough to be my father, slow down to a crawl alongside me and ask “Are you working?” before laughing to himself and, thankfully, driving away. Did I mention I was wearing my school uniform at the time? Nor when sitting on the tube with my sister, to have the man opposite us stare unbroken until we felt so uncomfortable we moved. These are just few examples street harassment I have encountered that stick in my head, but every time it happens I flit between felling scared and angry at my first reaction of fear because some else has a problem.Why should I feel threatened when I am simply walking down a street?
I feel uncomfortable discussing exactly how I look and how I dress, because I feel that removes the focus from the real issue. It is not about how attractive or unattractive a person might be… how slim they are or how big/small their boobs are. None of this is what is at fault. It is the man, who feels it gives him some power by commenting on the way you look, that is at fault.
That said, and as much as I believe that statement, I have a further confession to make… one that I am rather ashamed about; recently I have started lowering my hemlines or covering up a short hemline with a long coat. I know this is slightly illogical to my previous statement (and, no, you are not excused from comments just because you are wearing jeans and a jumper) but it does seem to decrease the amount of comments.
I am so fed up with these attitudes of some men, and my reaction to it, that I want to do something more constructive than getting pissed off and amending my outfits. There may be a lot of people to convince that street harassment in any form is not ok but, with growing support, LASH may well do it.
Once upon a time, I used to write a zine. Okay, so maybe ‘write’ is a bit of a stretch… I mainly collaged together pieces of media aimed at women and did my utmost to subvert them with Tip-Ex and Letra-Set (art students, eh?!) but it was most definitely the seed that turned into the Uplift you see here, now – so I thought people might be interested to see it!
The series of zines was named Bite The Hand That Feeds You and each little folded zine was a response to aspects of the media that vexed me. As you read through the zine, it folded out to reveal a positive message of resistance. If you were so inclined you could display this big A3 declaration on your wall (although I wonder if anyone actually did that…?)
The first BTHTFY I thought I’d share is one on a subject we’ve been discussing a lot recently. I mixed up images from a style editorial about coats (I was drawn to her oddly panicked face) with media messages about staying safe in public spaces. I think the influence for this one came from being reprimanded by a police officer mere metres away from my front door for simply walking alone at night…
As part of their ‘Get Home Safely’ campaign, Company magazine ran a piece in their December 2009 issue on how women are now using social networking sites to raise awareness of sex attacks in their local areas.
I have to say that I was a bit skeptical from the get-go, thinking that the piece would relay how women were simply using social networking as a new way to distribute those tired old email circulars. You know the ones; they’re chock full of exasperating tips that have no grounding in reality – saying you shouldn’t wear your hair in a ponytail because it’s easier for an attacker to grab, for instance.
Is it any wonder that I expected the worst? After all, one pull quote from the feature read; “It seemed an easy way to warn all my friends to be on their guard” which immediately had my alarm bells ringing. Whilst, of course, it’s a good idea for women to be cautious and keep themselves safe, I can’t help feeling that women constantly and randomly warning each other ‘to be on their guard’ can lead to the growth of fear that results in women installing their own mental curfews.
On the contrary, however, the Company coverage (written by Nada Farhoud) concentrated on specific areas that had seen incidents of an attacker committing sexual assaults. The Facebook responses weren’t just some spreading of a general ‘Careful Now’ message, but an example of how women in those areas raised awareness of attacks within their neighbourhoods. Whilst local newspapers or television programming may not fully inform people of such attacks in their home town, these Facebook groups and messages seem to be an easy and accessible way for women to spread information at grassroots level. The sense of sisterhood makes me feel all warm and fuzzy!
Still, the feature made for dispiriting reading when Farhoud spoke of how herself, and others she had interviewed, modified their behaviour in order to avoid becoming victims of sexual violence. One particular disheartening story told of how warning signs have been installed at Mudchute Park in London (which has seen a recent spate of attacks) advising women not to walk alone through the park. So far, so victim blaming.
Imagine how my heart sang, then, when I read this next couple of paragraphs;
Now, while I feel too scared to go back to the park alone, other young women have been taking a different approach. Emma Felber, 27, a PhD student from east London, refuses to let the sex attackers ruin her daily routine. Instead of avoiding the park, she has been giving out leaflets to local men, saying, ‘Regrettably, due to a number of recent incidents, it’s necessary to remind men walking alone through the park, not to rob, rape, threaten or assault anyone. Thank you, in advance, for behaving like decent human beings. Signed, single women who refuse to live in fear.’
“I walk through Mudchute Park regularly,” explains Emma. “When I got home that night, after seeing signs about the attacks, I ranted at my flatmate about how there were no signs up telling men not to rape anyone, and that it was unfair that it was always up to women to protect themselves. Why should we have to live in fear? The next day, it occurred to me to make some signs of my own…”
I’m so happy that people like Emma Felber exist, and I’m even more happy that her input was included in the Company piece. Whilst some might balk at her forthright feminist approach (I am, obviously, not one of these people!) and worry about insulting men (rather than worrying about women being assaulted, attacked or raped), Felber is making a valid point that is not often given exposure in mainstream media.
So often women, as an entire gender group, are the ones who suffer as a result of action that is intended to curb sex attacks and assaults. Which is crazy, since women are the ones who are directly suffering from sex attacks and assaults anyway! The rolling out of the warning signs for women at Mudchute Park (effectively banning them from going about their legal business) is just another example of how society will try to wish away attacks by stunting the freedoms of potential victims, rather than attempting to get to the root of the problem and punish the perpetrators. For women, to have to live with the constant reminder that we are ‘potential victims’ and moderate our behaviour, well… it’s no way to live.
What Felber’s flyer does is remind us that the onus for sex attacks should be placed squarely on the perpetrators. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not of the mind that all men are potential sex attackers. But then, the warning signs of Mudchute Park grouped the entire female gender into a ‘potential victim’ category – so at least her male targeted flyering acted as a rather bitter role reversal where men could experience the feeling of having their conduct monitored just because they belonged to a certain gender group.
I can imagine many men bristled at being handed such a leaflet, but let’s hope that any red mist descending did not get in the way of anyone seeing the bigger picture. After all, women are still being assaulted in public spaces that exist for everyone to use… and that, surely, is more of an atrocity than a small knock to the pride of a few men?
More refreshing tips to avoid sexual assault and rape here, here and here.
Whilst writing my (ever multiplying… gosh, I’m easily perturbed, aint I?) blog postsaboutmusic videos, I’ve started to notice another little trend. This time, however, it’s not content of the videos that’s getting to me but the lyrics of the songs, instead. (more…)
I’m very pleased to introduce our newest contributor, Lydia Harris, who wrote the latest feature ‘Hollaback Grrrl‘;
“I’m Lydia Harris. I’m 21, a recent Goldsmiths graduate and living in London. I’m involved in feminist activism and I’m especially interested in D.I.Y. culture, zines and riot grrrl.
I spend a lot of my time reading and writing words, listening to Sonic Youth and organising a feminist club night (with co-conspirators) called Girl Germs. I also work in a second-hand bookshop and volunteer at the Feminist Library. Reading that back, I guess it would be fair to say that I’m pretty into books!
Street harassment is something we, as women, will encounter far too often and it can be accompanied by the fear, if not the reality, of sexual assault, violence and rape. In light of this, Lydia Harris welcomes the arrival of a British Hollaback movement;
I was so excited to hear that the UK now has its own Hollaback blog. For people who haven’t come across one of these blogs before, they’re essentially accounts of street harassment from women in various US cities. It’s a great way for women to vent their experiences, rather than just bottling up that impotent rage that many of us feel after dealing with sexual comments from strangers.
After all, how many of us feel up to confronting these swines after we’ve been humiliated and degraded? We often just slope off red-faced with our skin crawling, angry at them for daring to speak to us like that and angry at ourselves for saying nothing in return. And this is exactly the reaction they want…
I came across the My Strength website via the comments on this piece on the F Word. My Strength is a Californian initiative (though it has now spread further), aimed at men, that strives to promote youth empowerment, gender equality and healthy relationships.
I found the My Strength campaign posters (available on the website) to be really refreshing pieces of media. Not only are the sentiments quite unique (in terms of how the media usually responds to and reports rape and sexual violence) but I also think the images are a bit special too. It’s not often that we see a male/female couple where the male meets our eye and the female gazes into the distance (isn’t it usually the other way round?) AND it’s not often that we see a male/male couple full stop (especially one that acknowledges the sexual relationship between the two).
Aaah it’s like an invigorating breath of fresh air! Why can’t we see more campaigns like this?
Following on from our long, wet and happy march everyone slowly filtered into the Camden Centre. Whilst we had been marching it had been difficult to see how many of us marchers there were, but packed into the centre the greatness of our number was an awesome sight!
Admittedly, it was lovely to have an opportunity to sit down and dry off (with hot Caribbean food, home made cakes and a licensed bar all making this period of the evening even more enjoyable) but that wasn’t the only reason for us gathering! The vast group of tired marchers were eager to reflect on the night and listen to some emotive and inspiring speakers.