Let’s start with a walk in an underground station at midday. You climb up your third flight of stairs alone and see two men in the otherwise empty building walking towards you. They stop talking when they see you, one of them stares at every inch of your body and –while this station is built to accommodate an influx of thousands of people and there are three of you with nothing but space- he blocks your path with a smirk and you step aside to stop this man from brushing against your body. You are enraged that some stranger feels like he has the power to push you aside in a public space, but before rage, you feel relief that this time nobody has decided to follow you.
Except other times, they do follow. They follow, sometimes to compliment your looks, sometimes to yell obscenities because you didn’t say anything to them when they first called out to you in the street. It’s never through invitation.
One friend, at the time a student on Erasmus, missed her last bus and not having a taxi number at hand, decided to start walking back to her college residence at night. On the 30 minute walk, her mobile phone constantly at hand, she was either stopped or cat-called at seven times. Talking about it afterwards, she said “nothing bad actually happened to me, but I was still shaken by thinking that it could have.” This is the bind you fall into. When “nothing bad” has actually happened, complaining can get you accused of being over-sensitive and self-victimising. And if something bad did happen, the same people would ask what you were doing on your own, what you were wearing and what you had drank that evening. As a woman, there is no such thing as being blameless.
Taking street harassment and paring it down to a definition tells us it is “a form of sexual harassment that consists of unwanted comments, wolf-whistling, “cat-calling” and other actions by strangers in public areas.” This is as true, factual and sterile as language can be in revealing what harassment is, whilst telling us nothing about what it does. The fact that these anecdotes are relevant to all women means that every unwanted public interaction reverberates at a mass level, influencing how it changes female experience, especially in the urban world. Richard Scrivener, a social geographer writing in the Journal.ie, discussed how public harassment changed women’s interaction with public space:
“Streets, bars and public transport are given negative associations which have impacts on future behaviour. Women avoid certain streets, they wait for friends or even stay at home. These are the real effects of street harassment. In terms of social geography, we see how street harassment changes the way women experience and use public spaces. Open free streets are replaced by no-go zones or dubious spots it is better to avoid. Public space for women is made smaller, it is limited. Their geographies are controlled.”
Upon looking at statistics on harassment against women, an apparently under-studied area, figures show the extent of the problem. 64% of Irish female undergraduate students reported incidents affecting them on college campuses, 65% of women within all of the US had experienced harassment, as had 100% of female public transport users in France. In comparison, male complaints of harassment stand at the figure of around 25% in the US (the higher percentage of males who were affected being homosexual men), revealing the gendered nature of the issue.
Despite the enormity of these numbers, female anecdotes of harassment are often dismissed with a blithe comment “not to worry, it was just some weirdo.” And it’s true that it is weird that there are people who get pleasure from invading women’s personal boundaries, but it is also something a lot larger than the existence of “weirdos”. Because even if it’s weird and awful, there is a degree to which it is socially sanctioned, a fringe result of a world that commodifies the female body to sell products and to entertain, and an internet culture that dismisses women who complain about their lived experiences as “snowflakes” who wish to demonise men.
To stop individuals from making comments on women’s physical appearance or following them through the street, we need social attitudes that prohibit such behaviour by condemning harassment and recognising women’s complaints. It needs to be acknowledged that harassment is not just a string of isolated inconveniences for women to live, but that it is everybody’s problem and everybody’s problem to solve.