Feminism Friday: Street harassment

‘I often thought that if men could walk around in the world for one day as women, and hear the comments from other men that women hear, they would rush to us in incredulous disbelief, and help us to form safety patrols.’

The above quote, from Succulent Wild Woman by Sark, reminded me that I wanted to post about street harassment.

I often find myself talking to David about harassment and, because he’s never experienced it, I really struggle to explain to him how common it is, how most (all?) women have experienced it, and how it can be genuinely frightening.

A while ago, a male friend wrote on facebook something like “Is there anything worse than being stuck in a train carriage with a hen party?” As I read it, I thought about how being stuck with a stag party would be much worse for me. And then I remembered something an online friend tweeted about (I have her permission to include the story here):

“I was on the Tube coming back from Bristol Women’s Lit Festival & this group of about 4 men came in to my carriage. They were being deliberately loud and intimidating, then started loudly discussing whether they’d ‘give me one’ and made a football chant up about how they’d fuck me up the arse, which they all shouted repeatedly. No others passengers in the Tube did anything, and I froze and couldn’t respond.”

I’ve never experienced anything as bad as that, but it seems to be fairly common on the tube. (Please read Louise Jones’s powerful post about her experiences with sexual assault on the tube.) However, I have experienced street harassment. A lot.

When I lived in Richmond, aged 18, I remember walking home and some men shouting something from a car. It was dark, I didn’t see them, I didn’t even hear what they said, but the shouting was aggressive, it made me jump and it made me feel incredibly unsafe. I walked the rest of the way home crying.

Waiting for the bus one evening in Richmond – it was early, probably 7-ish – a man asked me if I had the time and when I looked round, he had his penis in his hand.

Walking down the steps to the Tottenham Court Road tube, a man coming up the other side reached over and squeezed my boob then carried on as if nothing had happened.

I used to pass a man on the way to work each morning. He owned the local newsagents and didn’t speak much English, so we were mostly on nodding and smiling terms. I looked forward to seeing him because he was always so happy. And then one morning, he stopped and asked me my name. I told him. He said, “I want to lick you all over.”

One New Year, the man who worked in the local takeaway reached for my hand to shake and, I assumed, wish me a happy New Year. He then pulled my arm so hard that my feet actually came off the ground and kissed me hard on the lips.

The odd thing about it is that I laughed off most of these experiences. I turned them into a funny story. Only a couple of them upset me at the time. A couple of them made me really angry in the immediate aftermath. Mostly, I just thought it was just one of those things. But why the hell should it be? Why should women have to put up with this kind of stuff just for being female in the world?

Author and journalist Holly Bourne tweeted this recently. I have her permission to include the tweets here.

holly 1
holly 2
Holly 3

This is a really excellent video answering common questions – particularly those asked by men – about street harassment (with a great answer to “But isn’t it a compliment?”).


4 thoughts on “Feminism Friday: Street harassment

  1. ugh ugh ugh.
    1 Bum pinched in Paris when I was 17
    2 Harrassed all round Paris when I was 20 by man I had to hide in the loos to escape from
    3 Paris again – au pairing for a little girl and again harrassed by man who really thought it was ok to chat me up when I had a 4 year old in toe
    4 London too many nasty experiences to recall, but the worst were
    a) being in a pub with a friend, guy tried to chat us up, we gave him the brush off politely. He kept coming back, even though we’d made it clear we weren’t interested. Eventually he came over and said very aggressively, “It’s women like you that turn men homosexual” (wrong on so many levels!), then stared at us for the rest of the evening. He ruined our night and we were terrified he was going to be lying in wait for us afterwards.
    b) On a night out with friends, dropped them off at traffic lights in Turnpike Lane, then asked cab driver to take me home (a further 3 miles away). He turned round and said, “No.” Again I was terrified and made him stop the cab and got out and found my friends. As I left he told me I was making a big mistake. A joke, maybe, but in poor taste. And I certainly didn’t want to be in the back of his cab for 20 more minutes alone.
    and c) sitting on a bus and a man came and sat next to me and started rubbing his leg against mine. I was practically crawling up the window and too scared to say anything. I was 13 at the time, and no one did anything.

    One great thing about growing older as a woman, is that this kind of thing no longer happens to me, thank the lord.

    I would say as a caveat, when I was in Liverpool, I was regularly chatted up in pubs by guys, but it was a completely different experience. They would take no for an answer, and were good humoured about it. Their response tended to be a shrug of the shoulders, and it was worth a try. I didn’t mind that at all. It was a shock to get back to London and meet all that aggression.

    1. So horrible. And, yes, there’s a difference between harassment and flirting, which I think some men struggle to understand.

      It hasn’t happened to me for a long time either, but I was standing with my mum one day – this was probably 15 years ago? She was late 50s and had auburn hair. A young bloke shouted something and she turned, smiling (she was used to men flirting with her) but he’d actually shouted “Ginger minge!” At my mum! I’m not sure whether she heard exactly what he said, but she looked bewildered. Made me so sad.

  2. Yes, flirting is fine, and can be fun. The only man who calls me babe (apart from my husband), works on our local market, and it always cheers me up. That’s horrible about your mum. Ugh. What would he say if you shouted “Small dick” or “ginger pubes” back?

    1. I don’t really mind being called ‘babe’, ‘love’, etc., but the inequality of it does bug me – men get ‘mate’ or ‘sir’, which is obviously not the same thing at all. Noticed it a lot with Joe too – when people think he’s a girl, they speak to him in a totally different way. Much more patronising, much more about how cute/sweet he is.

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