Watching Men, Watching Women

By Ali Leyland-Collins

I have found that there are three main ways to deal with street harassment: 1) respond with a positive attitude, 2) respond with a negative attitude or, 3) not to respond at all – usually the most popular choice. Just to clarify: by respond positively, I mean engaging with the harasser in a way which could be interpreted – by them – as encouragement. By respond negatively, I mean giving them a piece of your mind. Sadly, this is an incredibly overwhelming and daunting option and is not employed often enough.


Recently, a friend of mine adopted the boldest response to street harassment there is: she called the perpetrator out on the fact that he grabbed her arse and let me say this now, things escalated very quickly. Now let me backtrack a bit and give the context of this particular occurrence: it was 2am; we had just left the student union; my friend was stone-cold sober (she doesn’t drink); and the offender did not go to our university. Let’s just think about this for a moment. These guys had waited outside the union under the pretence that they were ‘waiting for friends’ and essentially planned to prey on vulnerable – most likely drunk – female students. They picked the wrong target. My friend turned around without missing a beat: ‘Sorry, can you not do that..?’ Boom. Straight on the defensive: ‘It wasn’t me.’ As far as I’m concerned, this response begs the question how he knew what he was defending himself against if she hadn’t specified… Regardless, our chivalrous male friends came to her defence and after much shouting, fisticuffs and eventually also police, we were able to sleep easy that night. It goes without saying that this is not how it should be. Yes, these boys should not have been able to find their way onto our campus in the first place, but how is it humanely possible that a guy can actually grope a girl’s arse and then be genuinely shocked when he is called out on it?

Street harassment is, more often than not, less obvious than in the above case and it is astonishing to witness how men think they are being ‘subtle’ in such instances.


I have coined a term… maybe: ‘leering loiterers.’ We all know who I mean. Too often have I been walking behind a girl in leggings, or a girl bearing her legs or even just a female being and have witnessed men standing by the side of the pavement, turn their heads as she walks past. I am not ashamed to say that watching men who do this has become a favourite pastime of mine. I do not feel guilty being an onlooker and not saying anything because – and here is the crux – we know they’re doing it. This may come as a shock to those men who don’t understand how we can possibly know you’re looking when we’ve already walked past, but we do, and for multiple reasons:

1) If said man is talking on the phone or to friends of his, his voice projects as he turns his head. This is something which I’m sure we all notice but perhaps haven’t quite been able to articulate: your voice should become less distinct as we walk away from you, not more.

2) If you turn your head just before the girl walks past, it is still obvious. Too many times have I witnessed the ‘incidental head-turn’ just before said female walks past but then the lingering eyes remain transfixed on the girl until she is out of sight.

3) We just know. We’ve been putting up with leering loiterers since pre-puberty (grim, but true) and have therefore cultivated a sixth sense for it.

I understand male instincts and the appreciation of beauty but why can’t it be just that: an appreciation. Don’t make it stealthy, because it makes us uncomfortable. Don’t make conversation with us on the street unless it’s something that you would say to anyone (including other men) …in front of your parents. I appreciate female beauty on the street too, but I don’t do it in a way that would make her feel watched or scrutinised, only beautiful.


A friend once told me a story that I will never forget because it’s so unusual and quite wonderful. Her grandmother had been sitting on the tube, staring at another woman across the carriage from her for some time. She tried to stop looking but found that she couldn’t stop her eyes from flitting back to this woman. As she got off the train, she approached the woman and apologised for the fact that she had been staring at her: ‘you’re just so beautiful’ she said, and then left. I know some people will take issue with my saying that I think this is a wonderful way to conduct yourself in such a situation. Personally, I do not have a problem with anyone from any gender looking at anyone else because it’s not a dirty thing to do, so long as you don’t act in a way that makes it seem like it is.

Recently, someone came up to me and said something very similar to the above. I admit, if I had noticed him staring from across the cafe we were in, I would have felt uncomfortable. However, in this particular instance, he was just one in a sea of bodies but as he was leaving, he approached my table and said ‘I’m really sorry to bother you but I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re beautiful.’ Not sexy. Not hot. Not bangin’, or any of those other crude variations. Just beautiful. And then he left. He didn’t ask for anything, or linger – he just left. This made me feel happy and I won’t apologise for that. No, I don’t need the affirmation of a stranger to make me feel good about myself: this simply made me feel happy and showed me that there is another way to go about ‘looking’ that is not ‘leering.’

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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