In the last couple of days, I’ve noticed two women writing about a feeling of defeat as a result of their own silence in the face of steet harassment. First of all, my heart went out to Lauren on the EveryDaySexism feed (I can’t find her comment again as there is no site search facility – help IT genius?) She felt bad about having no witty comebacks for her harassers and longed for the day to come when instead of standing helplessly silent she could silence them with her searing ripostes. Secondly, fellow wordpresser Week Woman expressed self defeat having walked away in silence.
Both of these ladies had pretty scary stories to tell. I dread finding myself in similar situations and it has happened from time to time. In fact, I’ve been putting up with street harassment since I was 11. That’s right, since I was still a child. If that doesn’t disgust you, you are very much on the wrong side of the fence. You would no doubt be on the same side of the fence as that rather objectionable chap who was interviewed on Woman’s Hour last year (or possibly the year before) and claimed that men’s freedom of speech was being threatened and that the girls in South London seemed to have no trouble aggressively fending off unwanted attention. I can’t remember this objectionable creature’s name but I have seen it since, I believe he writes a column somewhere.
I’m from South London. I’m not particularly aggressive and don’t see how anyone can tell me that I should need to be. However, I nearly always wear a scarf over my clothes to cover my chest and I feel incredibly exposed if I find myself outdoors without it. Why do I do this? For the same reason that I won’t wear a short skirt if I’m out alone. For the same reason that I don’t expose my midriff. For the same reason that I don’t wear lots of make up or dye my hair a bottle blonde. Because I still hold on to the mistaken belief that harassment depends on what I look like. In reality, it happens no matter what I wear. It happens when I’m dressed up, when I’m out jogging, when I’m wearing jeans and trainers. It happens because it is not my choice.
For anyone who thinks it is just a bit of fun and that your freedom of speech is threatened, can you see how it controls me? Where is my freedom? To walk where I wish, to dress as I wish, to feel safe as I wish? How can those wishes threaten your freedoms?
Then, on the other hand, there are some women who claim to secretly like the attention. I read one blog post about it and thought “should I link to this?” and decided NO! because it is far too damaged and damaging. Please, if your self esteem is so low that you feel you need this kind of attention, please get help. My tone here is not insulting or offensive, I am genuinely pleading with you. You are worth more, you deserve more. Please, please get help!
Now, to the women who feel defeat in their own silence, let me tell you something that happened to me this week. As I stepped out on my way to work a few evenings ago I ended up walking a little way ahead of someone. He started with the tradional “Hey, sexy lady,” which I always ignore. This happened to be one of those occasions where I was in jeans and trainers, but as we have established, that is irrelevant. He seemed surprised at being ignored and continued to try to attract my attention in the same or similar manner. When this didn’t work he started to make a number of comments about how nice my “cheeks” were. At which point I became genuinely offended. So I stopped, stood on the side of the pavement and looked away from him, hoping that he would just walk past. Thankfully he did and I started walking again. A few moments later he stopped and turned around, something I was not expecting and which made me very nervous. To my surprise he said “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for making you feel bad, ok?” I said nothing, just giving him a look as if he were something I was trying to scrape off my shoe. After another pathetic “I’m sorry” he turned and went on his way.
So you see, silence can be your best friend. I’m not saying this will work in every situation. All I’m saying is don’t feel defeated for not saying anything. Hold your head up high and make silence your best friend, your most damaging weapon.
When I told my significant other about this, he was surprised. Men very rarely witness this kind of behaviour happening to their girlfriends for the simple fact that it doesn’t happen to a woman when she is in the company of a man. But if you are thinking right now that this doesn’t happen to your girlfriend, or sister or daughter or mother or niece or cousin, I suggest you go and ask them about it. I’ll tell you right now the answer will probably be yes and they’ll tell stories to make your skin crawl.
If you’re a man and you see it happening, could I ask you to remember that the woman is someone’s loved one and it could just as easily be your loved one. So call the harassers on it. Say “That’s not OK, that’s street harassment. And you’re making us all look like idiots.”
If you’re a woman and it happens to you, head up, eyes front, and imagine you’ve found a cockroach who has just stepped in that man and is screaming “Eugh! Get it OOOOFF!”