Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Walking While Female: Let's Talk About Street Harassment

I've been putting off writing this blog post for awhile because, to be quite honest, I wasn't quite ready to delve into all the feelings that I knew would be inevitable when writing about this topic. Street harassment makes me feel a lot of ways - angry, afraid, embarrassed, indignant - and I can ultimately deal with all of those emotions. The one emotion that street harassment arouses in me that I have a difficult time abiding is that of helplessness.

Margaret Atwood has been quoted on the internet a million times: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." I fear that at this point, this statement has become so ubiquitous as to lose its impact. It sounds quippy, but I don't think that its meaning can be overstated. What it illustrates is the base level of misunderstanding between the sexes that causes the dissonance that occurs when safety, and more specifically, perception of safety, is being discussed.

I've briefly talked about street harassment on a previous post, but I always knew that I wanted to devote an entire entry to this topic because I feel that it is so important to bring awareness to what women experience when they're out in public, particularly while traveling as a pedestrian or using public transit.

Every single time that I travel alone, I experience some form of street harassment. Sometimes it's just (I hate to say "just" like it's somehow insignificant) being ogled; other times, it's being catcalled, or having suggestive comments made about my appearance or what men would like to "do to me." Sometimes it's men who just won't stop talking to me, no matter how clear I've made it that I'm uninterested in having a conversation, or men who don't respect my personal space. It does not matter what I'm wearing; while there is definitely a spike in the harassment that I experience when I am dressed up, I am still harassed regularly when I'm wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. It makes no difference. Like I've said before, street harassers aren't ultimately concerned with what you're wearing, they just feel the need to objectify a woman.

And to make it perfectly clear: No matter how a woman is dressed, it is not "for you." Whether she's wearing sweatpants or a miniskirt, she is not interested in your opinion of how she looks. She did not dress that way so that random men on the street would stare at her, talk to her, catcall her, or tell her what they think of her appearance. It doesn't matter what a woman is wearing, she does not deserve to be harassed. 

For those who think that women need to just get over it, or take it as a compliment and not be "so sensitive," I have to stress that the point here isn't a matter of just being offended. Street harassment makes women feel unsafe. It's not a compliment, it's not harmless fun, it's not "boys being boys" - it is called harassment for a reason, and that is because it literally makes a woman feel like her physical safety is compromised. At this point in my life, I feel lucky that I have a husband to travel with most of the time, but the problem is that I shouldn't have to feel that way. This isn't the dark ages; I shouldn't need a male chaperone to keep me safe while I travel. Unfortunately, having John with me is the only way that I can ensure that I won't be harassed - make that outright harassed, because although it eliminates the catcalls and suggestive comments, some men will still ogle me when I'm with my husband. He catches them doing it all the time, and then gives them the I-caught-you-you-piece-of-poop stare. Which means that there is actually nothing that I can do to make some men realize that I am a human being who deserves respect. 

The worst thing about street harassment is the fact that it's a lose-lose situation for the victim. On the one hand, it seems like it would feel really good to yell something clever back at the harasser, or to make a disgusted face, or even flip them the bird. And it really does, at first; then it sinks in that you've done almost exactly what they wanted you to do. I am a firm believer that street harassers do what they do because they want to exercise their power over women, whether consciously or subconsciously. When you respond to them, even if it's clever or angry or makes you feel good, to me, you've given them that moment of having power over you. They elicited that response from you. I never know which course of action makes me feel worse ultimately; when I react, I feel better for a moment and then I feel like I've been tricked into a response, but when I do nothing, I feel like I'm letting the harasser off, granting him permission to treat me that way by way of my silence. Either way, it makes me feel helpless, that there is literally nothing I can do to avoid being victimized, and in the words of the great Tavi Gevinson, "I shouldn't have to have a strategy to preserve my personal space."

Street art project by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.
While one should not have to have a strategy, there are resources online that can help women deal with street harassment: Hollaback is a great website/support forum that I would recommend. From my own personal experience, I can't say that I've found the best method of dealing with street harassment, as is clear from my conflicting feelings described above. However, getting yourself a good old bottle of pepper spray will at least make you feel safer. I also have a self-defense cat on my keychain that I really love. And until things are fair in this world, and the responsibility of ending street harassment is rightfully assumed to belong to men, you should have a few tricks up your sleeve to (hopefully) avoid some unwanted contact. You can avoid making eye contact, and use headphones as a way to discourage unwanted conversation. I was raised in the South, and it was ingrained in me to be "polite" to people, so I've had to practice how to be curt and firm in cutting off someone who is not respecting my boundaries. If you need to do this, you should practice, too. It gets easier the more you do it! If you're so inclined, you can also think of something clever, scathing, and/or slightly baffling (One great way to fend off a harasser? Seem crazier than they are) to yell back at catcallers. Some women like to yell "show some respect!" - which I like. 

The way things are at this point in time, the best thing that we as women can do is to empower ourselves, and try our hardest to not feel helpless. I hope that in the future, it won't be our job to avoid street harassment, but rather, men's job to stop doing street harassment, but until then, stay safe, stay firm, stay strong, and help raise awareness! 


  1. Taiwan buses and MRT have a lot of protections for women. Safe waiting areas, whistles hanging from the handholds, warning posters.

  2. Great piece. I too never know how to react to catcallers. For a long time I chose to flip them off and realized that it just made me feel angry and oftentimes men would laugh or do the same back. I don't think reacting angrily is constructive. I think that your ideas of "ignoring," the attention are helpful until men learn to stop thinking that sort of behavior is acceptable and rather obstructive.