Ask A Feminist: Street Harrassment

Image via Bo Nielsen's Flickr photostreamThis month, the Rarely Wears Lipstick ‘Ask A Feminist’ panel have been asked the following question: Do you have any tips on how to handle street harassment? I emailed the panel and have reported the resulting conversation in full. I hope you find it interesting and/or useful. Feel free to add your views (and suggestions for future questions) in the comments below.

Response #1 – Melaina
I think it really depends on the situation. If you feel that responding to the harassment will put you in danger or at risk, don’t. Just walk away. Again if responding will only egg the harasser on then walk away and ignore – most time people harass you they are looking for a rise out of you so by getting upset or shocked you are giving them what you want. However if you feel safe and it is appropriate then let them know that it isn’t okay to talk to you like that and then keep on walking. Don’t engage in a debate just say “Please don’t speak to me like that” and be on your way. Yes we need to educate people that it is not okay but there is no need to put yourself at risk or face further abuse by getting into an arguement.

Response #2 – Eithne
Last summer a friend was walking down the street, eating a carrot, when a man shouted something lewd in her direction. Furious, she turned around and lobbed the half-eaten carrot at his head. He looked surprised. She walked away. She recounted the episode to me a few days later with a completely straight face. When I was done crying with laughter at the mental image of the carrot bouncing off the man’s forehead, we discussed what it had meant. Was it a good idea? Would she do it again? Should we all start carrying carrots in order to be better prepared to deal with street harassers?

I haven’t yet worked up the nerve to throw food at people in the street, but my response to street harassment has changed a bit in the past few years. I can remember never saying anything back, always lowering my eyes, and pretending not to hear. I still do that sometimes, when I don’t feel safe enough to respond. But something has shifted for me – I feel a strong desire to actively reclaim the space that the harasser is attempting to bully me out of. These are my streets too. I’ll wear what I want. I don’t have to entertain your bullshit just because I’m a woman. I think it’s part of the same impulse that drives me to elbow wars against men for the armrests on the underground, or to stare back at them until they’re embarrassed if I catch them gawking unashamedly at me. These days, I might try to intervene if I see someone else being harassed. That might mean loudly asking if they’re okay, drawing attention to the situation, moving to stand or sit near them so that they know that someone else is bearing witness, or even just glaring very obviously and disapprovingly at the harasser.

Sometimes, when I’m harassed, if I’m feeling bold (or angry) enough, I might tell someone to fuck off or pull a face that tries to communicate just how incredulous and repulsed I am by the fact that they’re speaking to me (and just the faintest hint that they had better get away from me or I will have no choice but to gouge their eyes out with my fabulously manicured nails). I don’t find that many of them stick around beyond that, but sometimes they do, and sometimes that means challenging the behaviour if I feel safe enough to do so, appealing to passers-by, or leaving.

Just leaving can sometimes be the hardest thing. There’s something about putting my head down and walking on a little bit faster that makes me feel well and truly humiliated. The indignity is somehow worse. I think of a thousand clever responses as soon as I’m out of earshot. I’d should go back but I’m afraid. And I know that for countless others it would be much harder to talk back than it is for me. He’s going to shout at someone else because I didn’t tell him to go eat shit or try to initiate an educative moment in which we might have had a wonderfully productive dialogue about entitlement and power (I can dream).

I try to remind myself it’s okay to walk away, however disheartening it might be and however defeated I might feel. It isn’t my fault that it’s happening because harassment isn’t the fault of the person being harassed, and ultimately that means it isn’t something we’re compelled to do anything about. We don’t have to handle harassment, we just have to survive it, and if that’s all I can do sometimes, then I try not to give myself a hard time over it. But I might start keeping a carrot in my bag. You never know.

Response #3 – Carolyn
Many moons ago when I was 18 I had to walk down a barely lit path to get home from the last bus. One night a girl from the school year above, who I hardly knew, and I were scurrying down it when 2 lads who’d also got off the bus started yapping behind us. “Nice arses, turn round so we can see your faces”. “No need to speed up, we can catch you”. “Slow down, we’re not going to DO anything, we just want to look at you.”

The path ended and we were on the housing estate. She lived in one of the first houses and legged it home. Cheers, sister! I hurried to the nearest streetlight and wheeled on them. “How dare you?!” I yelled, kind of hoping I might wake a few people up! “Do you realise how intimidating that was? You may think you were being funny, but put your mum or sister in my place. Do you want them to have to listen to shit like that? How about if it were you and a 6’5″ muscle bound skinhead* was telling you he wasn’t going to hit you, he just wanted to see your face. Grow up!”

They apologised. I went home.

Months later, in the local pub, one of them was handing out Christmas chocolates to a group of lasses I was sat with. It was the first time I’d seen him since the incident. He was demanding a kiss on the cheek per chocolate until he got to me, at which point he said, “You can just have one.”

Shortly after my Dad heard the following exchange.

“How come you just gave that lass a chocolate? You scared of her or summat?”

“Yeah, a bit. She wants to be respected.”

My dad has never been so proud. He also wondered why, cos I’d not told my parents about the snicket incident cos I knew the result would be me having to come home earlier…

All that said, standing up for yourself there and then, reflecting their behaviour back on them is not always the safest answer. And I think on-street harassment is worse now than 20 yrs ago.

If they are close enough, and you are good enough at acting, I’d do a double take and say, “I know you! I know your mum/sister/daughter! How do you think they’d feel if they knew you’d just done/said that to me? You need to apologise right now. You don’t treat women that way.”

If not, I have no answer. I’ve been the victim of a drive by shouting. There is little to be done there, sadly.

*I don’t know why I chose skinheads. I was rattled and feeling vulnerable and picked a stereotype. Sorry.

Response #4 – Karen
As a 43 year old middle class mother, this really doesn’t happen to me! When I was younger I would certainly have ignored it; now that I’m older and tougher I would probably do something like turn round to face them and say “I beg your pardon?” [assuming it’s broad daylight in the middle of town]. I’m not entirely sure how I’m expecting that to pan out, though…

Response #5 – girlonthenet
[To Eithne] Wow – I think this answer is superb, and covers so many of the conflicting reactions and possibilities. For what it’s worth, I agree. My own answer would be along these lines:

The only way street harassment will stop is if it becomes something so unacceptable that the risks involved in doing it (public humiliation, arrest, etc) outweigh the desire to shout “oi oi darlin'” at passers by. So my answer would be: challenge it where possible, not just when it happens to you but when it happens to others too, and report it to the police where someone is actually breaking the law. FYI, if a stranger grabs you without your permission, they’re breaking the law.

But it’s easy to say that when it’s light and I’m in a good mood and sitting smugly behind my computer. When I’m wrapped up in a coat at a bus stop at midnight and a scary pissed guy is leering at me, I’m far less confident to say “fuck you, terrifying stranger.” Sometimes I will challenge them, sometimes I’ll just stand there gritting my teeth until the bus arrives, sometimes I’ll pray for someone to step in and help, sometimes I’ll run away. So – challenge where you can, but don’t beat yourself up if there are situations where you just don’t have the courage. If someone is an arsehole it’s never your fault.

Above all I think it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a part and parcel of life, in the same way as we should never see burglary, bullying or misogyny as ‘part and parcel of life’. They happen, but we hate them because we don’t expect them – we don’t expect people to do immoral things, and we should never expect people to shout and leer and grab us in the street. Yes, “everyday sexism” is a thing, but I worry that sometimes we discuss it in a way that normalises it, and can increase people’s fear for their safety: “oh, women get this kind of thing every day – it’s par for the course.” Well, it’s not par for the course – I’ve walked past hundreds of thousands of men who haven’t harassed me, and a few who have. Stand up to those who have where possible, but ‘normal’ is those who haven’t. The ones who aren’t bastards.

Hope this is in some way useful!

Response #6 – John
Obviously I’ve not been harassed in the street for my gender… No, wait. I have. I’ve also been anti-Semitically and homophobically abused.

First and foremost, the harasser is a dick. Whatever else, you’ve got the moral high ground and at the very least, scuttling away muttering ‘dick’ under your breath is a tiny victory. I’m neither a confident nor an intimidating man, so normally just brush it off and scuttle off muttering ‘dick’, but I have occasionally confronted said dick – I wanted to know why it was that I was being called a gay Jew bastard, for instance, and even if I was why it’d be an issue for a complete stranger. Even if I feel like jelly inside while doing so, it’s the outward look of confidence that matters.

One way I’ve found of achieving that is visualisation techniques. Some months ago, walking down a dark street on my own, very late at night, a couple of lads attempted to mug me. Previously, I had envisaged such a scenario and it went exactly as I had imagined. I left the incident without injury or loss of property and two lads left with a flea in their ear and someone laughing at them for pretending they had a knife when they patently did not. Failing that, chucking carrots sounds like a brilliant idea.

I know it’s different for us blokes, but hope that’s of some use. For what it’s worth, we’re really not all dicks and I do try and intervene where I see such things occur. It’s not easy, but it is important to make people aware that it’s not OK.

Response #7 – Marianne
I think the comments before have done well to cover this one.

I was having a facebook chat with random americans about objectification of women in media that included catcalling etc. One of the guys said “it’s not curtailing your freedom at all; you can tell me to fuck off or whatever, that’s how totally free from harrassment you are” – as if being free to respond however we want somehow means there’s no wrongdoing in the first place! Lack of logic aside, I tried to explain that many people cannot respond even if they want to. That might be because they’re afraid; sometimes rightly so, if you’re alone and outnumbered or simply outsized, there is every chance your retort will turn their lewd words into violent ones, and their words into physical attack. It might be a tiny fraction of cases, but who wants to take that chance? So, responding only when you’re comfortable has to be the number 1 rule.

People saying it is up to women to combat this are missing the point entirely. The harrasser is taking the unacceptable step – imposing their views on another uninvited, stepping into their world, intimidating; whether they think it is or not, however many women who don’t feel intimidated by similar actions (how will they ever know, anyway, as they don’t ask??). It is not our responsibility, but when it makes us feel better to take a stand, absolutely we have that right.

As far as I’ve ever gone is holding up a middle finger as I walk away from a group who’ve imaginatively told me to “smile, love” – hey, guess what, I’m home again to watch my wasted relative dying of cancer and to try to help my overtired other-relative-carer. Screw you all. These people think they have a right to police your looks, your feelings, to suit them. They absolutely don’t; remembering it is them in the wrong might give people that extra bit of confidence. That sinking feeling isn’t your fault; we are allowed to go outside, and we don’t owe anyone else a smile, a look, any kind of acknowledgment at all.

I don’t know what the actual answer is beyond promoting the message that street harrassment is just that, not just a laff or any other euphemism. Supporting #hollaback and #shoutingback and all those things. I feel lucky that I don’t experience it much myself – I assume it’s down to a combination of bad posture, a love of baggy clothes, a dour/generally irritated by default expression and most of all happening to encounter not that many arseholes. And loud music, so even if I do, I don’t notice. But it’s still ridiculous to feel lucky not to be unfairly victimised on a regular basis, like many people I know are.

Response #8 – Clarabelle
I do check to see if I feel strong enough and safe enough to respond. So often it’s a fleeting moment, men are using it to pass judgment noisily & move on without giving you chance to respond, or are invading your space and being threatening. Your feelings don’t count at all and they’re fine with intimidating you.

Once, a house full of builders began calling to me across the road – “nice legs love”, “give us a smile” etc. Because they were far away & up on scaffolding I felt like I had a fairly good position, so I stopped and yelled back, “What ARE you trying to achieve?” They had no answer, but one of them apologised for the others. It did lead to more heckling, but I told them that it didn’t make them seem cool, approachable or appealing in any way, but pretty stupid. The apology felt good, honestly, and I hope gave them something to think about.

Middle fingers and hollering back are all great – but sometimes I can’t resist smiling sweetly and replying with a sincere “Thanks – but it’s not for you”. Confuses the hell out of creeps.

Response #9 – Marianne
Loath as I am to give credence to people who twist Evolutionary Psychology to excuse criminal/hateful behaviour, someone did make an interesting twitter point. The scaffolding/shouting down from high places thing is very, very chimp-like. It’s such basic behaviour. To me, that’s a good excuse not to do it – can we fling shit at them to make this point?

Response #10 – Feminist Cupcake
I also think #hollaback is doing a great job with this issue and participating in their efforts goes a long way.

Personally, being a fat feminist much of the street harassment that has come my way is in direct reference to my fatness. For example, when I was sixteen a car full of teenage boys hollered “heifer” at me and in my adult life I been privy to more sexual taunts, such as “I want to make your jelly roll.” In a culture that encourages body policing and is hugely hateful of fatness and largely accepting of fat shaming – the experience of having your “fat” called out can be very painful for some. There is also scientific evidence that exposure to this kind of hatred/stigmatization causes physical illness and early death.

As those who answered this question before me have mentioned responding to street harassment is a mixed bag – it takes courage and can result in unwanted violence. That said, I think the most effective way to deal with street harassment is to discuss it. Tell people why it bothers you. Maybe you won’t be able to tell the perpetrators who are hollering at you but tell your story to the people in your office. Talk to your family and friends. Blog about why it bothers you – raise your voice. This is how we change culture. And while your at it make sure to mention that it’s not just stereotypical ideas of street harassment that need to be curtailed. A gaggle of teen girls giggling and pointing at a fat woman is street harassment too.

Response #11 – Alison
On Saturday night, I went out to meet a friend and whilst a waited for a bus (alone), I happened to get a compact mirror out to check my lipstick. As I did, a white van drove past, the horn honked at me and the passenger shouted a comment at me. All, I could think was, ‘Would you be rude enough to do that to my face? Or if I had my boyfriend with me?’ It’s such cowardly behaviour, beep and run.

Objectification is not cool. I wouldn’t do this to a guy and I expect it not to be done to me. So, I stood up straighter, walked taller and wrapped my coat a little tighter around me. I will not be made to feel inferior or undermined by this. I’m thankful that I wasn’t confronted face to face as we need to choose the battles we fight and protect ourselves.

Response #12 – Clouds
I’ve experienced harassment on the basis of my perceived gender presentation and my perceived ethnic background.

As GOTN said further up thread, it’s easy to hypothesise about what you might say in a given circumstance, but in the moment things tend to be different. There are so many factors. Sexist remark from a white van? I get angry, swear, flip them off. Racist remark from a white van? Check for projectiles. Harassment of any kind from a closer proximity? Death glare, move away as quickly as possible. I am prepared to argue my corner when I can, but I am small and disabled and I am not prepared to engage someone if I have reason to believe they might physically harm me.

So, in terms of tips, I’d say this is a highly personal thing, but as a general rule: strike the balance between letting someone know they’ve crossed a line and preserving your physical safety.

Response #13 – Jade
Handling street harassment is something that’s always been hard for me because I never act in the moment the way I wish I would when I’m thinking about it before or after. I have this imagined situation wherein I say something clever or, at the very least, tell the guy to fuck off. But in the moment, I have never stood up to a street harrasser. I’m always disappointed in myself for not saying anything but the fact is, I’ve been socialized as a woman to be timid and quiet and not cause problems, and that’s what happens. My advice is first to do what feels safe, and then what feels good, if possible. If your response the last time made you feel like you didn’t do or say enough, try to change it next time. That’s the advice I want myself to follow, anyway. Within the boundaries of safety and comfortability, push yourself to respond in whatever way will make you feel like that harrasser didn’t win by making you feel small or violated.

Response #14 – Carolyn
For those who don’t know, John is my husband. His reply made me remember the time I hissed at him, “Leave it, it’s not worth it,” when I felt the hand I was holding clench and saw his face harden after one of a passing group of lads said, “Look at the tits on that!” in my direction. At the time I was scared he’d get his head kicked in for ‘defending my honour’. I didn’t realise, then, that it would have been defending the right of all women to walk the streets uncommented on. He’d probably still have got a kicking though…

Response #15 – Dumb Domme
(Based on John’s response and Carolyn’s follow up, I assume John identifies as male. What follows is based on that assumption)

John (and all),

While I do not doubt your experience, nor do I think you mean harm, I find your entrance into this conversation problematic for a number of reasons. They’re the same reasons male voices are often distracting and counterproductive in discussions such as these. Hopefully, my responses below go some way to illustrate and explain.

Obviously I’ve not been harassed in the street for my gender… No, wait. I have. I’ve also been anti-Semitically and homophobically abused.

“No, wait. I have” reads as snarky to me, due in part to the sentence that follows reminding us that people are also harassed on the basis of faith/nationality/heritage, sexuality, etc. First, it feels like one-upsmanship. Second, while it’s absolutely true (sadly), the introduction of faith/nationality/sexuality lessens the focus on gender-based harassment. It’s a different topic, or a broader topic, and while Lori’s question didn’t exclude harassment on grounds other than gender, the responses before and after this one focused primarily on gender, because that’s what we’ve decided to talk about.

First and foremost, the harasser is a dick. Whatever else, you’ve got the moral high ground and at the very least, scuttling away muttering ‘dick’ under your breath is a tiny victory.

Most women are aware that harassers are dicks, and while your sentiment may be well-intentioned, we don’t need you to tell us. We already know we have the moral high ground. And for the record, “scuttling away” while muttering under our breath, calling a harasser a “dick” in a voice so low he can’t hear us? That is NOT a victory — not even a tiny one.

Let me qualify here, as I don’t speak for all women: Perhaps it’s a victory to some, but not to all of us — I don’t consider it a victory, nor do I need you to tell me what is and what isn’t a victory.

it’s the outward look of confidence that matters.

Matters to who? For what purpose? When I’m afraid, the only thing that matters to me is feeling/being safe again — confidence, or the appearance of such, is of no matter to me.

One way I’ve found of achieving that is visualisation techniques. Some months ago, walking down a dark street on my own, very late at night, a couple of lads attempted to mug me. Previously, I had envisaged such a scenario and it went exactly as I had imagined. I left the incident without injury or loss of property and two lads left with a flea in their ear and someone laughing at them for pretending they had a knife when they patently did not.

Being mugged is fundamentally different than street harassment. Muggers want your money or valuables. Street harassers don’t — they want to assert dominance, or objectify you, or claim their entitlement to your body (or at least the view of your body), or they want to assault you, or get a rise out of you… it’s different than mugging.

But since you’re making a comparison here, what, exactly, am I supposed to visualize? When a street harasser cat-calls, or whistles, or calls me a whore or a bitch or a hot piece of ass, what should I have practiced visualizing to prepare myself for the situation? Standing up to him? Ignoring him? Calling his bluff?

One last point on this: If a woman stands up to a street harasser, and he DOES have a knife (and even if he isn’t armed at all), there is the potential to lose so much more than a wallet.

I know it’s different for us blokes, but hope that’s of some use.

Yes, it’s different, and no, it’s not of use. In my opinion, what you’ve offered here does more harm than good.

For what it’s worth, we’re really not all dicks

We know that — we know that not all men are dicks. No one said all men are dicks, so there’s no need to defend men.

and I do try and intervene where I see such things occur.

Maybe some of us don’t want you to intervene. Maybe some of us want you to leave us alone too.

It’s not easy, but it is important to make people aware that it’s not OK.

It’s not easy… for you?

I’m sure it isn’t easy for you, but can you see how that statement might feel like you’re fishing for a gold star and a pat on the back for being one of the “good ones”?

I’m sure you are one of the good ones, but this isn’t about you.

Response #16 – Marianne
I think D’s made some very good points – it’s important for men who do want to be supportive, as I think John clearly does, to know what effects their words and actions can have, and how to avoid repeating some wolf-life mistakes dressed up in sheep’s smiling clothing (if that makes any sense). The only part I would really take issue with is this:

Maybe some of us don’t want you to intervene. Maybe some of us want you to leave us alone too.

I think the context is important here. If a couple are together and a guy wants to be part of the shouting-back, I don’t see a problem with that – if he knows he’s not riding in to save anyone, but doing it because he feels safer and he can, and he knows she wants him to and he thinks he can make a difference to the harrassers’ mindset, I don’t think that’s a problem.

I think part of the reason harrassment is so common is precisely because men DON’T police the behaviour of other men enough. On the contrary, because of this stupid chimp-behaviour, they’re showing off to each other – builders etc especially – and doing it for approval, not to step out of line. To assert manliness/dominance. So if other men do tell them they’re idiots and need to stop, it can be far more effective than when women do it. That might be a bit sad, but men do have a responsibility to change the behaviour of other men for the better. Staying quiet or worse, giving praise, when guy friends talk shit is a huge reason for people to keep doing it.

So while I agree that the whole white-knighting, coming-to-the-rescue stuff is a bit sicky, the positive outcomes of men telling other men to STFU are not to be underestimated. It’s a vital role for men in feminism, I think.

Otherwise as I said I think your points about bringing up other kinds of harrassment (we all know about intersectionality, but as you said, we’re talking about gender-based harrassment) and doing things to please other people are important.

Response #17 – Ali
Eithne’s original post pretty much sums it up for me. I’ve little else of value to add. It just saddens me that we have to think about this stuff at all.

Response #18 – Claire
I’m conflicted about how to answer this question, mainly because (as GotN said earlier in the conversation) it’s very easy to be brave when you’re sitting safely at home. I’d like to think I’d come up with a witty and withering response which would make the men involved think twice about their actions and re-evaluate their attitudes to women. In reality however I don’t think I’ve ever done that, the best I ever manage is to tell the person shouting at me to “f**k off” and most often I just put my head down and get out of there as fast as I can. It’s only later on that I think of the response I should have given.

My advice to others would be to shout back when you can, in whatever way you feel able. However in situations where you feel threatened there’s no shame in just getting as far away as you can. I think attitudes are changing, ever so slowly, due to campaigns like Hollaback but also we’re clearly a long way away from a world where no-one has to deal with street harassment.

With regards to the discussion above about male responses to harassment I think Marianne’s point about men policing the actions of other men is important. Yes, as women we don’t *need* other men to “rescue” us but I think men who identify as feminists or feminist allies can make a difference by telling other men when their behaviour is unacceptable – I think we’ll only eradicate street harassment by making it clear that the majority of people see it as objectionable.

Image via Bo Nielsen‘s Flickr photostream.

20 thoughts on “Ask A Feminist: Street Harrassment

Add yours

  1. When–if ever–is it OK to step-in or act on someone’s behalf when you witness them being harassed on the street? Is it something that you should do? Is it something the victim would even want you to do? Or do you run the risk of escalating it on their behalf?

  2. When I see or hear men harassing women on the street, I usually go up to them and ask why they did/said it. Depending on how they react, I tell them why it’s rude, intimidating and ignorant.
    I don’t want to do the whole white knight thing, but I think Marianne is right in that these men need to hear it from other men, as well as women.
    If the people around them, male and female alike, acted visibly disgusted with catcallers, they’d soon be shamed out of doing it.

  3. Hi Lori (and all),

    I’m curious about two things — for ease of reading, I’m including both here instead of replying to individual comments.

    “I reminded all contributors that my feminism (and therefore my site’s feminism) is inclusive.”

    The way I’ve understood “inclusive feminism,” it often means intersectional feminism and/or trans-inclusive feminism, but it seems you’re using it to mean something different. Can you say more about what you mean by “inclusive (feminism),” specifically within the context of this conversation, (as a response to my critique of John’s contribution)?

    “I do not condone the way the male commenter was treated, but I hope you understand that removing that response that addressed his from the replies would have meant that the subsequent conversation would have made less sense, and I wanted to keep those replies in.”

    I was a bit surprised to learn that my response (or my treatment of John) was considered egregious enough that you would have removed it if not for the responses that followed (which required mine to make sense).

    I guess I’m not sure what you mean by “treatment.” Was it the content of my response? my tone? or both?

    1. Hi there. Thanks for leaving a comment. By inclusive, I mean that I would like to include anyone who self-identifies as a feminist in conversations about feminism on my site, but I didn’t ever really explain that, did I? I should probably have made that explicit, sorry.

      The reason I mentioned that I’d initially thought of editing the conversation before including it in this post was that your response, at first, read to me like a personal attack. Especially because it was directed at the lone male voice. But then I absorbed the points you were making, and those of the subsequent replies and realised how important that it was to leave them all intact. I think that the tone of your message was perhaps misunderstood by me and the people who commented via Facebook, hence my rather too defensive replies to them! To be perfectly honest… I really didn’t think it through before submitting this question to the panel and I understand now that was rather naive of me.

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