Urgh, give me strength.
So it seems to be that time. I had thought that at some point it might come to this, although to be honest I had hoped that it wouldn’t. It is time for me to talk about Street Harassment, an issue that up until this point I had managed to avoid (on purpose I might add)
So why have I been so keen not to talk about it? Well because it is an issue so contentious, so debatable and so provocative that I’m aware that even the presence of the phrase ‘Street Harassment’ in the title of this post may make even my most loyal readers roll their eyes and hit the corner X. An issue that fully splits people down the middle and that a great many people are very keen to have raging disputes about. That in itself is not the problem, I don’t shy away from a good argument. However street harassment is an issue that deals with human interaction, the way that we connect, communicate and influence through mutual or reciprocal action. Human interaction as a subject is complicated and dependent upon a myriad of variables. Any debate on elements of human interaction needs to be thoroughly researched, complex, rational, and deeply nuanced, ideas which are usually the first things to go out of the window in any online discussion. It has been my experience that any conversation on street harassment usually finds people so entrenched in their ideas on the subject that it rapidly becomes a collective of individuals talking and shouting AT each other rather than TO each other since the only opinion anyone seems to be interested in is their own.
So why is this? Well part of it is the use of the word ‘Harassment’ a word which has in itself become a subject of debate, particularly in online spaces. Harassment as a concept appears to mean many different things to many different people and so behaviour that is considered harassment by some is not considered so by others. Online the word is so often used to mean trivial things, such as replying to public tweets or disagreeing with someone even respectfully, that for some the word ‘harassment’ has become largely meaningless.
So instead of getting into a protracted discussion on what may or may not be harassment I’m just going to provide some legal definitions of the word ‘harassment’ from the US (though of course there may be minor differences depending on the state) and UK and then explain what is defined as street harassment by street harassment organisations.
Now as far as the definition of street harassment goes, according to Stop Street Harassment, an organisation that campaigns against street harassment
There is no standardized definition for street harassment (yet). Our working definition (updated March 2015) is:
Gender-based street harassment is unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.
Street harassment includes unwanted whistling, leering, sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after they’ve said no, sexual names, comments and demands, following, flashing, public masturbation, groping, sexual assault, and rape.
So while the legal definition of harassment seems to be continual or repeated unwanted attentions from an individual or group the definition of street harassment does not necessarily make that distinction, so a single incident of unwanted attention is enough to be defined as street harassment. This is where the waters start to get muddy.
Catcalling, while not the only aspect, is one of the most common forms of street harassment. However, it is an unfortunate fact of life that being shouted at or stopped in the street by strangers happens to everyone for one reason or another. Recently there seems to be this idea that every time this happens it is an instance of being harassed, because we’re all entitled to go about our day without being hassled by a stranger. However, when you think about it, this isn’t really true is it? If mankind truly felt that it was a fundamental human right to go about our lives without ever being hassled by strangers then such things as telephone cold calling or door to door sales would not exist, and the fact is they do, and a great many people make their living from such jobs. In the UK, where I live, we have people with coloured vests and clipboards that randomly stop you in the street and try to convince you to give them your bank details in order to make a regular donation to good causes. In my area they are not so affectionately known as Chuggers (Charity Muggers)
Let us not also forgot that many of the fundamentally instinctive patterns of our mating behaviour involve interacting with strangers in order to seek potential partners, whether it be at work, in a social area such as a bar, or through mutual acquaintances. Talking to strangers is pretty inevitable. So how then do we make the decision regarding what is acceptable street harassment and what is not? Because, from what I have seen, street harassment discussions and organisations rarely make any distinctions regarding severity, preferring to leave that to the one who feels that they were harassed. This leaves us with the frankly ridiculous premise that a stranger calling a woman “Sweetheart” or saying “Good Morning” uninvited is perceived by some with the same graveness as being groped, propositioned, or threatened with violence. On Twitter there have been various hashtags, such as #YesAllWomen and #FirstHarassed, that were designed to encourage women to share the stories of their experiences of street harassment. These tags have usually started out with good intentions and great earnestness before descending into mud slinging, accusations, and defensiveness as those that do not agree that street harassment is a huge problem put forth their perspectives. Certainly there are plenty of people that believe that street harassment is very much a non issue or a first world problem.
So why do I need to talk about street harassment? I suppose you’re expecting this to be the moment where I share my personal experiences of street harassment with you right? Well I’m not going to go into details, the purpose of this is not to shame anyone or to claim victimhood. The only detail that is relevant to this is that when it first started happening to me? I was still a child, and I am far from alone in that being the case. According to this survey from Hollaback! and Cornell University from 2014 the majority of women that they surveyed first experienced street harassment between the ages of 11 and 17, most commonly at 13-14.
One of the most common responses when someone says they were catcalled is “Take it as a compliment” however it’s hard to do that when you’re at an age where you aren’t sure what’s happening and may not know how to deal with it, you just know that it makes you deeply uncomfortable and perhaps a little afraid. Now, to be clear, this is not an attempt to demonise anyone, there are many reasons why people catcall and sometimes young people look older than they really are. If you’re reading this blog post and you just happen to be the kind of person that enjoys paying compliments to young people that you don’t know then you might want to be advised, they may not be as old as you think. When arguments about street harassment happen online there are invariably criticisms that those talking about their experiences are living in the past or allowing those experiences to rule them. I can’t speak for everyone but I can say that because it happened to me when I was young it was part of what shaped my perceptions of people at that time. I was sexually assaulted and I was just told that it happens to everyone, that there are bad people around and sometimes you’re unlucky enough to encounter one. I was young and I wasn’t even sure that it was assault until much later, I didn’t report it. I was taught that you only called the police if it was an emergency and the only context I had for what constituted an ’emergency’ was what I had seen on television. What happened to me didn’t look like it did in the soap operas, it seemed much less dramatic. From my perspective the conversation about adult to adult street harassment needs to be handled differently from the kind of street harassment that occurs adult to child. We can teach our children that sometimes people do things we don’t like, that sometimes people are mean or say things because they want to get a reaction from us, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say that that shouldn’t happen. We should be able to say that children should not have to deal with this.
Now I am fully aware that there are problems with the Hollaback! research, it’s overall sample sizes are small for something claiming to represent entire countries. It also doesn’t appear to have included any men in it’s research, ignoring and erasing any experiences that men may have had with street harassment. Part of the problem with the way that street harassment as whole is dealt with us that it is very much painted as a crime that only women endure as victims and only men commit as perpetrators. Is it then any wonder that when discussions about street harassment occur that some men can get defensive? No one cares that it may have happened to them, they are expected to ‘man up’ and get on with it while being judged as a harasser or potential harasser themselves. How is that fair? So much of the discussion on street harassment is focused on women. So much that it seems to be designed to make women terrified, of life, of men, of stepping out of their front doors. Now while there are places in the world where what is perceived as the wrong response to street harassment can place the recipient in real danger of physical harm. Does that mean that every single woman is in danger of rape every time a man says “Good Morning”? No. That is why I must talk about street harassment, however much I may not want to. Because women are NOT the only ones that are catcalled or assaulted while out in public, men and children are too. Yet they are completely ignored while women are told that they constantly have to be afraid, that men will abuse them if only given the chance. The balance of this discussion is all wrong, it only takes into account the perspectives that women are victims and men are aggressors or that there is no issue to deal with and people need to be a little more thick skinned about catcalling and report more severe behaviour to the authorities.
And so that’s where I sit, right in the space between those who say “Street harassment is not a problem” and those that say “Street harassment is a HUGE problem for women” Human beings are complicated, and the discussion of street harassment should be equally complicated. As for myself, as I have gotten older occurrences of catcalling have lessened and I have tended to take them less seriously. In fact, the last time I was catcalled I was thinking about writing this very blog post. So I’d just like to say, to the man on the bicycle with the gap in his teeth who said “Hello baby” as he rode towards me when I was on my way to work the other day? That’s why I laughed in your face, hope you weren’t too miffed.
Thank you for reading
Find me on Twitter @angelheartnight