I’m thirteen years old when a group of adult men in a white Volvo slow down as they pass me, they whistle at me and one of them yells “smile darling”. When I don’t reply they call me a “slut”. This is my first experience of street harassment, but it will not be my last.
When you sexually harass someone, you are claiming ownership of their body and you are telling them that you do not see them as a human being, but as an object. We are told that it is a compliment, but somehow it doesn’t feel like that, when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and my hands become clammy as my pulse quickens and I speed up, eyes glued to the pavement. I do not feel like I’ve been complimented, I feel like I’ve been objectified, dehumanised, reduced to something designed purely to pleasure cis men (for street harassment often serves to perpetuate the idea that cis men are superior to other genders).
Soon after the video “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” (in which Shoshana B. Roberts is subject to various forms of harassment), Fox News decided to weigh in on the matter, and (surprise, surprise) what was said proves that we are living in a patriarchal society where cis males are allowed to believe they are entitled to anything and everything; the enlightened presenter, having watched the video, had this to say “nothing was disrespectful there”. I mean, I’m not a cis male so I’m hardly qualified to offer any opinion but it seems to me that when someone assumes they have a right to another human being then they are showing them a lack of respect – plain and simple.
Often when someone does not reply to comments like “nice legs”, the perpetrators will turn to phrases which reference the sexuality of the victim, such as “slut” or “whore”, which are designed to insult the victim by suggesting that they should build their sexual choices around cis male pleasure. In reality, people should make their choices based on what makes them happiest, whether they want to have sex with two hundred people or with no one at all.
Furthermore, as we are led to believe that street harassment “isn’t a big deal”, we become ashamed of the negative emotions it provokes (such as anxiety, fear, powerlessness and shame). Making those who have experienced this form of sexual harassment feel ashamed is incredibly damaging to the individual as it serves to prove that the society we live in promotes the concept that those who sexually harass or assault others are slaves to their primal instincts (which obviously isn’t the case). Perhaps one of the most worrying things I have found is that so many people are constantly on edge for fear that they will be catcalled or leered at or whatever other forms of harassment the perpetrator may choose to inflict upon them. The fact that this is something people feel so unable to talk about or escape shows that we, as a society, must do all we can to combat this. There are a number of ways in which we could do this but, in my opinion, the best way would be to talk more about it in the media and in schools – if we teach young people (and older people too) that no form of sexual harassment can be justified, then maybe one day we will see a generation who do not believe they are entitled to the body of another human being. No child is born into this world thinking this; it is something that they are taught from a young age and, thus, we must first look to how we teach our young in order to bring down the system which imprisons us.
The prominence of street harassment within our society cannot be denied. Whilst, statistically, those who are not heterosexual cis males are more likely to experience street harassment, I would of course recognise that anyone can be a victim of street harassment. Victimising a person by sexually harassing them is inexcusable and is not being taken seriously enough within society. We justify street harassment by saying it is a compliment or a joke but try telling that to the teenager who no longer feels comfortable walking down their own street.
(Image taken by Paul Weaver)