Trigger warning: this post deals with street harassment, sexual assault, and transgender harassment and may be confronting or upsetting for some readers.
Last night I went clubbing and had a pretty fab time. I was the first on the dance floor as usual because my idea of fun is to begin dad dancing with a dead pan face and then violently transition into the shopping trolley. I even escaped the wrath of creepy white dudes while inside, which is a miracle in itself when clubbing in the Sutherland Shire. Of course, however, my good luck did not last. Whilst lugging my very intoxicated friend home, I momentarily held up a car occupied by four young men. Despite apologising twice and thanking the driver for waiting, I’d obviously committed an unforgivable sin and you bet I was going to pay for it. Apparently I was due for a reminder that women’s bodies do not belong on the street in the dark – so the driver sped up and hurled a cup full of water straight into my face. For good measure, this was paired with a hearty ‘STUPID BIIIIIIIIIITHCES!’. Thanks, mate.
Unfortunately this was not a one-off rare experience, but rather something anticipated with dread. The rite of passage to being a woman, even. I recall my first encounter with street harassment like it was only yesterday – sadly, it was actually a decade ago. I was eleven years old and wearing my primary school uniform when a car full of teenage boys felt the need to show their appreciation of my prepubescent body via their car horn. Fast forward to now, I’ve had more unwanted ass gropes than coffees, had my face pushed into a smile by a grimey stranger on the street, and perhaps most charmingly, been presented with the pick up line ‘are you pregnant? Cause I’d like to put a baby in you!’ These are a mere few of my street/public harassment anecdotes, and sadly my experiences pale in comparison to those of so many other women.
According to Stop Street Harassment‘s definition, street harassment constitutes any “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”. It is
So this may include whistling, beeping, leering, yelling, groping, following, masturbating and more. As explained by Fileborn (2013, p. 7) street harassment usually occurs in public settings with a stranger as the perpetrator. The issue has become so widespread that Feminist legal scholars, according to Thompson (1993) have focused “increasing attention on the harassment as a pervasive harm, that although ignored by the law, has profound impacts on women’s consciousness, physical well-being, liberty, and fundamental rights” (p. 313). It is a human rights issue because it limits the victim’s, usually women’s, ability to be in public without fear and as such has been the ongoing subject of attention from the Feminist community.
I’m going to stop you right there with a DISCLAIMER. Yes, I know not all men. I’m sick of being told not all men. The problem is that it happens to all women, overwhelmingly at the hands of men. By the time girls are 12, 25 per cent have experienced street harassment; by the age of 19, this figure skyrockets to nearly 90 per cent; and a study undertaken by the AHRC in 2012 found that 90% of women who experienced street harassment in 2012 said the perpetrator was male (Fileborn, 2013). Thus the notion of women as the victims and men as the perpetrators is not some hocus pocus misandrist exertion – it is simply a statement ground in truth.
All women have a story, if not hundreds of stories, involving street or public harassment. In fact you could go so far as to say that street harassment is an inevitable part of women’s existence. Take, for example, the iconic Hollaback! video that recorded a woman walking around New York for 10 hours, showing footage of the barrage of intense street harassment she faced – this is a pretty accurate description of women’s lives everyday.
Furthermore, a study undertaken by The Australia Institute (2015) earlier this year showcased how rampant street harassment is within Australia alone. The TAI surveyed 1,426 women online about their encounters with the issue, and found that an alarming 87% of women had experience at least one form of street harassment. Of this, 56 per cent were alone when harassed, 75 per cent were harassed by a man or group of men and a majority were under 18 when they first experience street harassment. Confrontations typically involved honking, wolf-whistling and leering/staring. Image source.
Street and public harassment, however, don’t always end when the car drives away or you leave the club. The outcome can be much more devastating, especially prevalent in countries where women’s rights and safety leave much to be desired. Consider the 2012 murder and rape of 23 year old medical student, Jyoti Singh Pandey in New Delhi. Jyoti was walking home from the cinema with a male friend when they boarded a bus manned by a male driver and his five male friends. Jyoti believed the bus was public, yet when it deviated from the expected route and her friend spoke up, he was beaten. The 5 men on board then dragged Jyoti to the back of the bus, armed with an iron rod, and brutally raped her. Some accounts even state that her attack was so vicious, one of the men pulled out her intestines with his bare hands. Jyoti’s injuries to her genitalia, intestines and abdomen (BBC 2015) that were so severe they resulted in her death. What was the excuse for this attack? That Jyoti should not have been on the street at night, despite being accompanied by a male, because she was a woman. She should have known her place, apparently. It is not surprising, then, that a survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India in 2012 found that 92 per cent of working women in India felt unsafe, especially at night, in all major economic centres across the country (D’silva 2015).
Clearly the issue of street harassment is a global epidemic, affecting women all over the world. That being said, the intensity of street harassment often worsens for women who are more than one deviation away from the norm – possessing more than one aspect of Otherness. Street harassment, according to Kearl (2015), is the “manifestation of inequality based on gender, sexual orientation, race, class, and disability” (p. xi). As such, women who are not white, are part of the LGBTQI community, disabled and so on are often targeted for very specific aspects of themselves and often faced with racist, homophobic or ableist slurs. According to Chemaly (2014), LGBTQI members are targeted with such high rates of harassment and violence because they are visibly non-conforming to a masculine and dichotomised world – when harassment is focused on such specific characteristics, it inherently works to enforces heteronormativity upon the ‘Other’.
In fact, it is transgender women who often face the most frequent, vicious and violent street harassment just by virtue of existing in a public space. As explained by Finch (2015), trans women overwhelmingly carry the burden of street harassment – and there is a much higher chance the interaction will be violent, with no intervention from bystanders. As Stop Street Harassment (2015) explain, for transgender individuals, harassment, assault and even murder [are] a regular fear and experience … when they are in public spaces and visibly “out.”
Lavern Cox’s speech about exactly this issue documents precisely the type of treatment transgender women, especially trans women of colour, face on the street. Laverne tells of an encounter in which two men catcalled her – and then began arguing about whether she was a man or a woman:
“the street harassment started first because these men found me attractive, because I’m a woman… then they realised that I was trans and it became something else … so many trans women have to experience this. Just last month in New York City, a young girl named Islan Nettles was walking down the street in Harlem – she was catcalled by a few guys, they realised the was trans, and they beat her to death … our lives are often in danger, simply for being who we are.”
I would like to add here that the man accused of killing Islan had his charges dropped, and faced no jail time. This seems to be the way it goes – women, particularly trans women, are harassed or assaulted on the street or in public. It’s so normalised that nobody intervenes and everyone is on their merry way. Women are left to navigate streets that to men are safe, and to women, a battleground. But WHY?
One of the contributing factors in the normalisation and acceptance of street and public harassment is the age old patriarchal notion that women’s bodies are public property that men have jurisdiction over. It’s not that men literally believe they own a woman’s body – it’s a more internalised and even subconscious practice in which men think their opinions about women’s actions, looks and they way the choose to present themselves should be voiced, and be met with compliance. Women’s bodies in public spaces are thus not connected to a person – they are merely there to be assessed, judged, and watched as they pass through male spaces for entertainment. Saying “hey beautiful/hey mumma/what up shorty” in such a context it not a compliment – “it means I own you.” It means: “You are required to respond to me.” It means “You are mine to assess or reject as a I please” (Eby, 2014).
This is why street harassment largely does not occur when women are in the presence of men. If a woman is walking with a man, it is not her privacy and autonomy that are respected, but his. A woman belongs to the man they are with, and thus fellow men will not invade his territory. This is also why arguably the most effective excuse to get men to leave women alone when they are without a man is – “I have a boyfriend” – apparently more respected than “I am not interested, please go away”. There is also a widely held belief that men, contrary to what women are telling them, know best – they know what women secretly really want. Take for example, Amanda Seals’ interview on CNN – even as she was telling the fellow male guest that encounters of street harassment are not pleasant for women, he refused to take her seriously.
This practice is derived from the wide spread and ingrained rape culture and victim blaming that together are the root of such problems. As in the case of Jyoti – she allegedly deserved her rape because she was a woman who existed after the sun went down. For Laverne, she was asking for the cat call because she was transgender woman who dared to walk on the street. I deserved to have a cup thrown in my face for simultaneously walking across a road at night and being a woman. Earlier this year, even, Albury mayor gave some very insightful and helpful advice after a 17 year old girl was harassed and assaulted in the street: “I always have encouraged women not to walk alone, to have someone with them at all times, because that in itself is an invitation for someone to take advantage of you” (Kearle, 2015). Thank you, random mayor, and go to hell.
Women often, if not always, have the guilt of misogyny fuelled experiences placed on their own shoulders. We are told to suck it up, and take is as a compliment (Rentschler 2014, p. 68). Yet the reality is that street harassment is very much a gendered issue, and one that works to keep women silent and subservient when in public by instilling a fear of violence, particulary stranger violence (Logan, 2015, p. 196). However, I am going to humbly suggest that women in fact are not dogs (who knew!?), and we’d really prefer it if men would stop sharing their unsolicited opinions about our bodies and actions when in public. It is not funny, or necessary – it’s unoriginal and it’s goddamn annoying. So for future reference my good people – when you’re reaching for the car horn about to show that sexy lady some sweet, degrading love – don’t.
I would like to add that I recognise street harassment is also a rampant issue for members of the LGBTQI community who aren’t women – this post is not intending to minimise their experiences. If you are interested in finding out more about this issue, watch Kate Lazo’s video.
Chemaly, S 2014, 10 Things That Street #HarassmentIs, In Case You Really Don’t Think It’s Important, Huffington Post, viewed 27 October 2015, < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/10-things-that-street-harassment-is_b_4893376.html?ir=Australia>
Eby, M 2014, Why street harassment is still a very real threat for women, Hello Giggles, viewed 28 October 2015, < http://hellogiggles.com/end-street-harassment/2/>
Fileborn, B 2013, Conceptual understandings and prevalence of sexual harassment and street harassment, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, accessed 28 October 2015, < http://www3.aifs.gov.au/acssa/pubs/sheets/rs6/rs6.pdf>
Finch, S. D. 2015, Why Our Conversations About Street Harassment Need To Include Trans Women, Everyday Feminism, viewed 28 October 2015, < http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/street-harassment-transgender-issue/>
Johnson, M, Bennett, E 2015, ‘Everyday Sexism: Australian women’s experiences of street harassment’, The Australia Institute, Canberra
Kearl, H 2015, No One ‘Invites’ Harassment or Assault, Huffington Post, viewed 27 October 2015, < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/holly-kearl/no-one-invites-harassment_b_8057414.html?ir=Australia>
Kearl, H 2015, Stop Global Street Harassment, Praeger, United States of America
Logan, L. S. 2015, ‘Street Harassment: Current and Promising Avenues for Researchers and Activists’, Sociology Compass, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 196-211
Rentschler, C. A. 2014, ‘Rape Culture and the Feminist Politics of Social Media’, Girlhood Studies,vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 65-82
Thompson, N. D. 1993, “The Woman in the Street:” Reclaiming the Public Space from Sexual Harassment”, Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 313-348