A Facebook friend of mine recently posted about how empowered she felt after being wolf-whistled in the street by strangers. This is not the first time I have seen women react positively to some forms of street harassment. Tabloids, such as the Daily Mail, argue that women love some forms of light harassment as a reaffirmation of their attractiveness to men. Despite this, it is important that street harassment be recognised for what it is: a form of sexism that is regularly faced by females. It is a display of masculine dominance that is intimidating, can be threatening and, at other times, is plain dangerous.
So what is street harassment and why is it sexist? It is any public form of forced conversation, cat-calling, leering, vulgar gestures or noise that is uninvited and makes one feel uncomfortable. On the darker end of the spectrum, it can include flashing, sexual touching, public masturbation and assault. Many women, girls and females generally, will have experienced some or all of these things before even coming to the end of puberty. Speaking just for myself and the women I am close to, each one of us has been harassed near our own houses multiple times in the past week alone. Two of us have been followed in the night, all of us have had men trying to force us into conversation: “Excuse me! Can I just ask a question?”; “You alright beautiful?”; “Nice skirt! Yeah you know that’s a nice skirt!”; “Smile love!” All of us have also been stared at. This is not acceptable and it should not be normal to behave like this to people that you don’t know, on the street.
It is sexist simply because it is unwanted behaviour committed predominantly by men to women. It is far less likely for men to behave in this way towards other men or for women to do it to men. Harassment reminds us on a daily basis that public space belongs to the masculine; it reaffirms that women should be passive receivers of male attention and that they are valued, above all, on how attractive they are to men.
It might seem like an overreaction but the reality is that women limit their own freedom as a result of street harassment. Which woman hasn’t avoided darkly-lit roads when wearing skirts? Which woman hasn’t crossed the street to avoid a gang of boys? Which woman doesn’t think about how they would run away if attacked/followed on the way home at night? Which woman hasn’t been verbally abused for not responding positively to male attention? How many women have thought again before entering a bar that is full of men?
Harassment does not only happen at night or in bars, it happens everyday in shops, at bus stops, on the streets and in the workplace. It is not only directed to attractive women. It is not always directed to adult women. It is not exclusive to some ethnicities, classes or other social groups. There is no correct response from the person who experiences it. Responding back can lead to aggressive attacks; reporting it to the police can lead to your complaint being ignored; walking on by can lead to you being followed and harassed down the street; smiling can encourage it. I, along with most females, have tried some if not all of these reactions. The fact remains the same: we have no control over the situation. The masculine harasser who demands your attention verbally and sometimes physically has already claimed that power.
So how should it be dealt with? One answer is to try to deal with the sexist attitudes that have made it acceptable for men to interrupt women’s daily lives and force them into speaking to/noticing them. This can be done on a private level by speaking to our friends and family. Telling men that they don’t have to be chauvinistic in order to be a man and by telling women that they are worth more than their looks. It can also be dealt with locally. Councils can start to fund local initiatives that educate young people about the dangers of sexism. They can fund social movements that seek to make street harassment socially unacceptable. It can also be dealt with nationally by a governmental commitment to fund and support organisations that fight sexism everyday.
In a time of increased cuts to social services, local councils and charities it seems unlikely that a monetary commitment from the government will happen anytime soon. This does not mean that we should not care. It does not mean that we shouldn’t think about how this form of aggression affects women’s lives. I, and all my friends, have been hooted at, cat-called and harassed since we were children. The wealth of internet activity about street harassment assures me that we are not alone.
The world teaches women to value their self worth on their physical appearance/sexual attractiveness to men. It’s not surprising that my friend felt flattered by the wolf-whistle. By celebrating this fact, however, she is only encouraging masculine dominance over ‘passive’ femininity in public spaces. This dominance should be recognised for what it is: sexist bullying directed at feminine adults, teenagers and children. And bullying is never acceptable.
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