International Anti-Street Harassment Day

NB: Possible trigger warning

Call it street harassment, call it eve teasing, call it public sexual harassment – call it what you want, but it is a huge (and hugely under-reported) daily problem for a frightening number of women from all around the world.

And street harassment has an impact on all women. It doesn’t matter how a woman is dressed, what she looks like or how old she is; women of all ages, all ethnicities and all backgrounds have experienced street harassment of one form or another, often repeatedly, day in and day out. The continuous bombardment of what is a disturbing form of aggressively sexual objectification can (and often does) ultimately result in physical and/or sexual assaults on women.

Aside from the obvious trauma such assaults cause, street harassment can also lead to psychological harm to women, making them nervous, wary and hypervigilant in public spaces, especially after dark – and, particularly in the cases of women who are survivors of rape, abuse or domestic violence, it can trigger upsetting and difficult PTSD-type symptoms such as flashbacks and panic attacks.

Considering this shocking level of impact on what is basically half the population of the world, it amazes me that there are still some people who consider street harassment as a ‘compliment’ to the woman on the receiving end of it. It’s not. American non-profit organisation Helping Our Teen Girls Inc. defines street harassment like this:

In general, street harassment refers to a range of harassing behaviors that occur on the street or in other public places including catcalling, sexually explicit comments, unwanted touching, and other unwanted attention and behavior [sic].

The key word there is ‘unwanted’. Any form of harassment in a public place is unwanted behaviour. And do these harassers really think they’re actually going to get somewhere with the women they insult and abuse? I often wonder what would happen if, one day, a woman actually said ‘yes’ to the sexual suggestions made by this sort of man. I suspect he would run a mile…

There are many public interactions between the sexes that are clearly not street harassment, just there are many men who are every bit as horrified by such harassing behaviour as women are. If a guy I don’t know smiles and says hello to me in the street, I will smile and say hello back (unless I’m in a really foul mood, of course – then I won’t be smiling at anyone!). I don’t have a problem with that. That’s not street harassment. He’s just smiling and saying hello, not pushing boundaries and exerting privilege.

What I do have a problem with is those men who can’t seem to control themselves when they’re out in public and women are around; men who think it is acceptable to engage in the behaviours described above – those who do push boundaries and exert privilege. Like the guy who thinks it’s funny to make crass sexual comments about a woman’s body in the street, or the guy who openly and crudely propositions women for sex on the tube. Or the builders who wolf-whistle and cat call at any woman passing by. Sadly, almost every woman I know has experienced one or more of these.

Then there’s the men who think it’s acceptable to masturbate in public in front of women, or assault you when you ignore their leering comments (the guy who grabbed my arm in the street – leaving bruises –  and insisted I marry him springs to mind here), or those who think it’s OK to trail after a woman, sounding off that she’s a frigid bitch after she refuses to respond to him (like the man who followed me from a nightclub all the way to the tube station early one Sunday morning, muttering obscenities about me under his breath).

All of that is street harassment – and my personal experiences of it are mild by comparison to some.

And it is because of all of this, because of the shocking stories told by women from almost every country in the world of their experiences of street harassment, that today is the first annual International Anti-Street Harassment Day. In a way, it is sad that women have had to resort to this, but if today’s activities make a contribution towards raising awareness of this problem as well as educating men and empowering women, then we are making a positive step forward in stopping street harassment.

That is why I fully support International Anti-Street Harassment Day – and so should everyone.

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