In the Streets

I’ve been noticing a profusion of blogs about street harassment lately, along with a number of posts on feminist websites talking about personal experiences with street harassment. And, of course, they don’t just talk about the streets. It’s subway platforms, trains, buses, hotel lobbies, and pretty much any fairly public area in which genders mix.

I started getting curious, reading around a lot more and actively seeking out discussions of street harassment. American women seem to agree that New York City is pretty much the worst place in the United States for street harassment, although I also encountered harrowing tales from other places; Washington, DC, for example, seems pretty bad. Overseas, “Eve teasing” has become such a big problem on the Indian subcontinent that women-only cars have been instituted on trains. I also read a horrific account of a Japanese woman who was raped on a crowded shinkansen, which goes beyond simple harassment and into a whole new realm, but is reflective of an amazingly high level of tolerance for violence to women.

I’ve been a target of street harassment a few times. At all sizes, I would note. Living in a relatively rural area, it’s not a huge problem here; I probably get shouted at or catcalled every few months. When I was living in the City, it was also relatively rare, probably, to be honest, because I was often in the company of a group, and that group often included several large men. So, my experience is pretty limited.

That said, every time I’m harassed on the street, it is upsetting. As someone who has experienced street harassment while fat and while thin, I can say that the same kind of commentary rules in both cases. People shouting “hey baby,” making lewd gestures, and so forth. Exerting their ownership of my body. Even when fat, when I’m usually invisible, people of all races make comments about how I’m “fine” and “foxy” when those terms really don’t apply to me (not because I’m fat, but because I’m not a particularly attractive person; let’s just say that I look pretty much identical to my grandfather and it’s not a resemblance that favours me). I’m told I should “smile more,” “shake that booty,” “work that thing.” Of course, as a fatty, I also get shouts about how I’m fat (just in case I haven’t noticed), and I was once oinked at. I’ve also been mooed at and called a “fat cow” and a “greedy piggie.”

I’ve also been physically harassed. I’ve had men grab at my breasts or buttocks, I’ve had people shove themselves against me on trains (thankfully, shoving was all that they were doing), I’ve had people deliberately intruding into my privacy bubble on all sorts of public transit. Even when I recoil and express outrage, few bystanders are willing to get involved; everyone continues silently staring at their own little area, refusing to acknowledge what is going on. In every experience where someone has intervened and spoken up on my behalf, it’s been a young black man telling my harasser to back off, to treat women with more respect. I’m not sure what that says about our culture and the people that inhabit it.

What I’m curious to know is whether or not street harassment is increasing in cities, or if people are starting to raise more of a ruckus about it, drawing attention to the issue and publicizing it. Obviously it’s always been a problem, but is the severity of the problem increasing, and, if so, why? Are we experiencing some kind of backlash? Is social unrest being subverted into more overt street harassment behaviour? I’d be interested to hear from readers of all genders living in more densely populated areas where that kind of thing is more likely to happen.

I’m also curious to know what you do when you encounter street harassment. My usual response is to ignore it, although I am sometimes motivated to made a rude gesture with my hand. I try not to engage, because I view street harassers as trolls, figuring it’s better to not feed them. Others have taken a more aggressive stance, responding, engaging, and documenting street harassment. Documentation actually seems like it could be a pretty effective response, since a harasser may be shamed by the fact that someone is documenting ou actions. Is one approach more effective than the other? Do people feel moved to intervene on behalf of others when they see street harassment happening?

I’m going to take a wild guess and assume that the kind of people who engage in street harassment probably don’t read this website. I can’t help but be curious about the motivation for their behavior, though. Clearly, they aren’t getting phone numbers or romantic attention from the women they scream at (at least, I hope not). So, what’s the goal? Is it just casual misogyny, a reminder that women are never safe, no matter where they go? Do people genuinely think that being harassed is somehow complimentary or flattering? And, of course, some other groups are subject to street harassment: mixed race couples, for example, and same gender couples, and in these cases, it clearly comes from a place of hatred.

Perhaps most critically, is street harassment something we can ever eliminate?

5 Replies to “In the Streets”

  1. I don’t walk a lot any more and public transportation in Dallas sucks, so my sampling is skewed. But I may have actually gotten harassed more before I transitioned — I was never very gender conformative as male and got a lot of homophobic slurs shouted at me from passing cars and trucks and a few things thrown. The last time (earlier this year) someone shouted at me on the street I couldn’t even understand what they were saying, just that they were loud and I was afraid. They’ve all been white.

    The wife and I are a same-sex interracial couple so we get a lot of unpleasant looks depending on where we are and how obvious it is we’re together. I don’t recall there being anything much more overt than avoidance, bad service, and muttering.

  2. I tend to get pretty confrontational about it, which might not always be the safest thing to do, but I’d rather call people out on their bullshit than not. Catcalls, etc, usually just get a loud “F-you” shouted back. Times I’ve been touched or physically intimidated by someone in public (usually on the bus) I loudly say “Do NOT touch me.” Assuming there are other people around, that’s usually enough to shame them into backing off. There was one time where the bus driver had to stop and have transit police remove a man who would not stop harassing me and refused to get off the bus though. I seem to get less public harassment than many of my friends, and since I’ve been told I give off a strong “don’t mess with me” vibe, I figure that’s why.

  3. I think street harassment, like all violence against women, won’t ever be eliminated until all men respect all women as human beings. That depresses me beyond words, and I wish I could be more optimistic about it.

  4. It reminds me of advice I heard once regarding harassment and sexual assault – how you shouldn’t ever yell “rape!” because people will ignore you. Instead, you should yell “fire!” because people worry for themselves. It bothers me that it seems to be true – shouldn’t everyone be appalled by the first?

  5. Ditto @Anji

    From my research on street harassment, I’d say that the internet is just making it more visible. Unfortunately, this has been happening for centuries; it just wasn’t called street harassment before. For example, in some ancient societies, lower class women who were out in public were free game for harassment and sexual assault and upper class women had to be accompanied by male family members or servants to be shielded from that. That’s just how it was. Neither situation is good for women. In some ways that same class difference exists today but now we have wealthy women who can drive their own cars or who can take taxis everywhere and so may experience less harassment than women who must (or want to) walk or bike or take public transportation everywhere. But no matter one’s class, it’s still an issue all women have dealt with either directly or indirectly through advice not to go out alone at night or not to wear revealing clothing etc.

    The first time I’ve found the term “street harassment” used in the context we use it today is 1981. I’ve come across lots of feminist articles and op-eds about street harassment from the 1980s. What depresses me is that their articles could have been written today. I mean verbatim. Nothing has changed. Men still do the same crap and women tend to react the same way and limit their lives or have their lives limited in the same ways. And it’s still treated as a joke or a compliment in main stream media.

    There is more discussion online now than ever before and I hope we can take that offline too and work in our local communities to end street harassment and make public places safe and welcoming for girls and women. I hope that in another 25-30 years we aren’t reading essentially the same articles on street harassment that we are today. I hope there will be change!

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