This post does not imply that harassment only happens between men and women. Everyone, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, class, or race can experience harassment. Street harassment happens between all groups and all groups have different experiences with it depending on their intersecting identities. Even though men do experience harassment, women (both cis and trans) and other subordinate groups such as the LGBTQIA+ community are more vulnerable to it, which is why this post focuses on such experiences and my experiences on harassment by men.
One of the most vivid memories I have as a child is, sadly, a really bitter one. When I was around 9 or 10, I remember being at one of the many beautiful beaches of La Isla de Margarita, a wonderful small island in the north-east of my country, on a family vacation. My mum and I decided to take a walk along the beach. Because I normally went to these beaches with my grandparents while my parents worked, I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible.
Every time I walked alone with my mum I felt uncomfortable, fearful and in danger. This time, my emotions were exacerbated by the fact that she was wearing a tiny bikini that accentuated her best attributes. My mum is and has always been very coqueta and this was something that bothered me a lot because I believed it was the reason behind the cat-calls she always got.
“Mami, tu si estás rica!”
“Mira ese _____ y esas ______*
*licks his lips*
Me blaming my mother for the behaviour of these men was my internalised sexism, a product of my socialisation growing up female in Latin America (among other things like religious education, machismo culture, and so on). This was almost like slut-shaming her indirectly. This was my 9 or 10 years old self perpetuating rape culture. I always got angry at her because I thought that she put herself in danger (and when I was with her, I was in danger too) because of the way she decided to dress. In my head, those men were sort of guilt-free.
Ugh. Silly me.
I always asked her if the street and sexual harassment she faced bothered her and her answer was always a fake “no”. I thought to myself, “if it doesn’t bother her, how come she never smiles or takes these comments as compliments, but instead she walks faster and her facial expression becomes inscrutable?”.
Of course it bothered her, she was being harassed.
Cat-calling is just one form of street harassment. The organisation Stop Street Harassment defines it as:
Unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public places which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.
Street harassment is so diverse, it ranges from leering, assaulting, whistling, flashing, masturbating in public, stalking, groping, cat-calling and much more. It is very scary.
Street harassment, which is one form of sexual harassment, perpetuates rape culture. This is important to mention because a lot of people believe that street harassment is only about unwanted attention and compliments, but it actually is about reinforcing power dynamics and the status quo. And this is at the core of rape culture. The dominant group, through street harassment, sexual harassment or rape, reminds the subordinate group where they supposedly belong (in the private sphere) and how vulnerable they are (in the public sphere). The subordinate group suffers street harassment fuelled with sexism, racism, ableism, transmisogyny, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, classism, sizeism and more depending on their identity.
This dichotomy of the private/public = dominant/subordinate = normative/non-normative is constructed because of gender policing, which functions to delegitimise and devalue the gender identity and/or expression of the individual being harassed. Spaces are policed because spaces are gendered. Historically, the public has been constructed as a masculine space and the private as a feminine one. So, when women are in the
masculine public space, they are vulnerable to assault, violence and punishment because it is supposedly non-normative for them to be there.
If we translate this into a day-to-day and more up to date situation, we can understand how the dichotomies help explain power relations and how harassment works. In a society that values virginity over sexual liberation for women; where the gender binary, rigid gender roles and expressions and heteronormativity at the expense of queer and trans* folks; where being white is seen as more legitimate than being black, hispanic, asian or indigenous; where being wealthy means having more social advantages over people struggling with poverty; where people who are closer to unachievable beauty standards are considered more beautiful, smart, capable and much more than people that are fat, have stretch marks, small boobs, no thigh gaps and so on; where people with disabilities are somehow only worth the pity and awkwardness of those who do not have a disability – those that are on the receiving end of street harassment are considered non-normative identities and bodies that need to be policed and punished to not threaten the normative status quo.
This happens because we construct our identities based on what we are not: “I am what I am not”. And to define what we are not, we have to police the boundaries of what we are. “I am a man so I must not act like a woman” – BOOM! Gender policing at its finest.
Until I experienced street harassment myself, I kept blaming my mum and the way she dressed for the behaviour of these men. I noticed that even though I dressed differently, was younger and did not have my mum’s body, I got harassed too. That’s when I understood that it was not my mum’s or my fault to be objectified in this way – it is the cultural sickness of rape culture. And once I had that realisation, I felt helpless, vulnerable and sexually objectified.
Sexual objectification happens when a person is robbed of their desires, autonomy and dignity by being dehumanised, treated and seen merely as an object of sexual pleasure. This stems from the dichotomies of self/other, us/them, subject/object, mind/body. In our society, men are the sovereign subjects while women are the Other, the objects of men’s desires. As men represent the mind, women are reduced to their bodies which are often objectified, commodified and sexualised on a daily basis.
The feeling of helplessness, vulnerability, dehumanisation, indignity, filthiness, anger and fear that comes from the sexual objectification inherent in street harassment, while paralysing me, often feels like a call to action. Every time I face street harassment, I wish I could slap the attacker on the face for making me feel like less of a person than him. I wish I could ask him if he would like his mother, sisters or daughters to be reminded by strangers of the oppression and violence women have to face on a daily basis. I wish I could scream back at the harassers that my body is not for their entertainment and that it does not define my worth.
I wish I could simply walk on the streets – alone, at night, at daylight, with a short dress, a skirt, a ton of make-up and heels, cleavage, my belly showing, in a winter coat, in boots, in shorts, drunk, high, whatever the heck I want jeez even naked – and feel safe enough to do it. I remember in London walking late at night on my way back home from the library with the keys between my fingers just in case something would happen. I remember a guy trying to slap me on the face after I slapped his for grabbing my ass. I remember all the damn times a guy or older men asked me to smile at them because I look so cute and sweet and hot. I want everyone to be able to walk freely and safely on the streets without the fear of being harassed!
I have been harassed so many times and I am fucking angry about it. I want to scream back at the attackers and tell them that my body is mine and that I dress and walk and am out in the public sphere for myself and not for them to look at me or comment on my appearance. I am out in the public space just because I am just as entitled as anybody else to it because I am a person. I do not need anyone’s validation. People can keep it to themselves, I don’t want to hear it. Don’t approach me. Don’t touch me because I haven’t given you consent to do it. Don’t tell me to smile. Don’t force me to conversation. Don’t try to force eye contact with me. Don’t touch yourself looking at me. Don’t lick your lips. Don’t blow me kisses. Don’t whistle at me. Don’t stalk me. Don’t follow me on the streets. Don’t make a comment about how I look. Don’t objectify me. Just don’t.
Even though men are also vulnerable to street harassment (and sexual harassment in general), the #NotAllMen argument derails the conversation about how men perpetuate and benefit from rape culture (whether they want it or not). So, I understand a lot of guys get offended when the feminist community calls them out on raping or harassing women and trans women but, whether or #NotAllMen do it is completely irrelevant! Men need to check their privilege and how they benefit from our patriarchal/kyriarchal society and understand that #YesAllWomen are potential victims of or have experienced sexual and street harassment at some point in their lives.
My partner asked me what would happen if a guy approach a girl with good intentions (let’s say they are genuinely interested in the book the girl is reading at that time) and the girl would think the guy is harassing her. I answered that even though we know that #NotAllMen are harassers, #YesAllWomen have been conditioned to always be alert against possible predators. We grow up in this mentality of not walking home alone at night, not leaving our drinks unattended, not talking to strangers, always looking at our surroundings, try to take a self-defence class and so on. For this reason, in that hypothetical situation, I answered that the guy must not feel offended but should understand why women react in a certain way, like ignoring him, walking away or being defensive – we need to always be alert!
This post was originally going to be about the ways we can react when we are going through street harassment, but I personally feel very angry about this topic and have always wanted to express those feelings. However, I do want to share an article, organisations and projects that aim to empower victims of street harassment. Maybe I can write a blog post about those some other time 🙂
- This is an article shared by Everyday Feminsim about 7 Steps You Can Take To Address Street Harassmen. It talks about how to help as a bystander, how to respond to harassers as long as you feel safe and much more.
- Hollaback! is a movement that aims to fight street harassment by enabling people that experience street harassment to share their stories (and pictures of the incident!) via their mobile app <3.
- Stop Telling Women To Smile is an art project that aims to create a presence for women in the public space by drawing their portrait and words addressed to their attackers on the streets.
- Stop Street Harassment is an organisation that reports on gender-based street harassment and violence world-wide.
- Cards Against Harassment is a project that creates customisable or pre-designed cards that can be printed to give to the cat-caller as a response to their attack <3.
- Watch this video shared by Upworthy about a woman wearing a hidden camera to show how many times in a day she gets harassed. It shows how sick, disturbing and scary the experience can be.
Have you experienced any form of street harassment? How did you react? Did you care? Did it make you mad? Would you give the cat-caller one of the cards? Why? Why not? Would you holla’d back? Would you say something back at the harasser? Are you usually afraid to do so?
Please share your stories with me in the comment section below! 🙂