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?