Most of us can relate to the #metoo movement. Women are the largest victim for sexual harassment and sexual assault althoug it happens to men as well, regardless the sex of the victim it’s never okey! I will focus on one type of sexual harassment that is directed mostly towards women – street harassment.
Street harassment isn’t “just a bit of harmless fun”. It’s about power and control – and it often turns into violence.
It’s way too common and we should never allow it as ‘just a compliment’. Mostly you can tell when it’s about to happen. The sign could be a set of dull eyes from the middle of a group of teenage boys. Or a brief smirk coming from a man in a suit or from someone looking like a grandad. Sometimes there’s no warning, but you just know that you’re about to be told how sexy you look by a complete stranger, or getting sounds directed to you that will make you wonder if you’re actually a cat.
Street harassment includes unwanted whistling, leering, sexist-, homophobic- or transphobic slurs, persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after they’ve said no, sexual names, comments and demands, following, flashing, public masturbation, groping, sexual assault, and rape. Harassment is about power and control. Street harassment is a human rights issue because it limits the harassed person’s ability to be in public, especially women’s.
I experienced it countless amount of times in my life, like most women. For example, more or less every day as I pass by business men in the city on my way to language class. Or when I was on my way home one early evening after a dinner with friends just a few weeks ago. I walked toward a group of men, they were overtly looking me up and down, eyes lingering on my breasts and legs, they turned to one another, saying something I couldn’t hear, and laughing. My heartbeat quickened, the hair rose on my arms, and I felt the usual emotions flood through me… fear, anxiety, impotence, anger and pure frustration. Misplaced embarrassment and shame.
A few days later in the subway on my way home after a photoshoot, a man walked torward me in the staircase. He looked at me as a piece of meat and mumbled to himself. As I got closer he said “Here comes something real yummie, I wouldn’t say no to that”. And it snapped, I lost it, all those disrespectful comments from men that I for several reason hadn’t approached lately came out in pure anger and I yelled “You know what – fuck you! I didn’t ask for your fucking opinion!”. This is not how I usually react in life, but I lost it and it felt good to react and seeing the shock on his face as I passed by in rage with all my luggage. As I got down the stairs, I felt that anxiety again… will he come after me? Hit me, maybe rape me?
This is one of the things many men don’t understand, the men who ask you what the big deal is, say they’d love it if it happened to them or suggest you just “take it as a compliment”. It’s not a simple, one-moment experience. It’s a horribly drawn-out affair – it never ends. My experience is that it happens significantly more often here in Germany than in Sweden. Why that is can be further discussed.
Unfortunately, it’s not to be experienced ones in your life. The process of scanning the street as you walk; the constant alert tension, will this man be a potential rapist, abuser, murderer? Sometimes I walk with keys between my knuckles to feel safe – wearing earphones so I can ignore it. The whole process of going out, particularly at night, can become fraught and difficult. The discussion is so focused on the fact that women shouldn’t walk alone at night, but the discussion should be – why are men still behaving like this towards women?! What is wrong with these men? How is society raising our young boys? That’s also something to be further discussed.
Why don’t you just take it as a compliment? Because it’s not a compliment! It’s a statement of power. It’s a way of letting me know that a man has the right to my body, a right to discuss it, analyse it, appraise it, and let me or anybody else in the vicinity know his verdict, whether I like it or not. It’s a power that is used to intimidate and dehumanise.
This doesn’t mean the end of compliments. I don’t mean that you can’t flirt, or be attracted to a stranger, or make a polite approach and strike up a conversation. But comments about your body that is directed at you, not to you, the dehumanised discussion of your parts by a group of passers-by, not caring that you can hear, or a scream of “sexy” or “slut” or “pussy” those are not compliments. They’re something else. I believe that the vast majority of people know the difference.
Violence could follow any insult or sexual comment, yelled or whispered, from a stranger on the street. The words are merely a hint of how your rights- or very existence, are disrespected. Women are still being hurt by people who hate them, everywhere. And still the words are nothing compared with what they could be, but are also a reminder of that. They’re intended that way: a smug reminder, a smirking warning – don’t get too comfortable in your life. Don’t think you’re entirely safe out here; you aren’t. The actual message, and motive, behind street harassment is quiet and assured, and that’s why it’s so grating and tiring.
This doesn’t mean that every woman is a cowering victim, or that all of us are too scared to go about our business on a daily basis. It just means that it would be about time if those people who think street harassment is “just a compliment” recognised the real and enormous impact it has on victim’s lives – not just in the moment, but day-in, day-out. It’s defintiley not always safe but if it is, then speak up. Say something back, most of them get completely shocked when I do, as if they thought I couldn’t speak. When I feel safe with the situation I speak back. Yesterday when I unlocked my bike at lunch a car with some “incredibly” cool guys came towards me, windows down, making noices to me. I didn’t react towards it at first, but when they actually stopped the car and the guy continued I turned around and gave him the finger. His face turned into a big hole. OR today when I walked with two of my girlfriends and we passed a group of young guys, one of them started making noises and I quickley asked him if he had a problem or if he wanted to say something, he didn’t know what to say anymore, I staired at him and said “I thought so”, and we passed by.
The ironic thing is that then I’m a total bitch for not being nice and flattered by these men’s disrespectful approach.
The men who ask you what the big deal is or say they’d love it if it happened to them…
…let’s speak statistically how many women attack men out on the street, abuse them, rape them and murder them? How often does a man have to be scared that a women he meets on a street at night could be a potential abuser, rapist or murderer?
Speak up for yourself, for others around you, your friends or someone you happen to see. If it feels safe, then say something. More posts around this will be followed. Throw in a comment and tell me about your experiences.
Photo by Julian Freyberg
Makeup by Hoky Siswan
Wigstyling by Michel van Oostveen