Hey gorgeous, nice tits!

The first time I tried talking about street harassment with a male friend, he told me that he would be flattered by the attention.  This sort of stymied me, because I couldn’t agree with him, but didn’t have the words to describe how being the subject of street harassment feels.  That experience prompted me to consider precisely why street harassment is more than just compliments from strangers.

What is street harassment, I hear you ask? It’s catcalls, and compliments yelled from passing cars, whistles directed at 14 year old girls and 40 year old women alike.  It’s feeling nervous when walking down the hill from my school at night because of the one time there was a group of teen-aged boys leaning nonchalantly on the fence by the tennis courts.

No snow where I live, but too good to pass up.

At its mildest, street harassment reminds me that I do not belong on the streets.  Being told to smile, having the driver of a passing car yell out “nice tits,” or “show us your map of Tasmania” (which is apparently a thing), or feeling the need to stare intensely at the pavement as I pass a construction site, reminds me that I am there on sufferance.  It is not my place. It’s the feeling that not even my body is mine.

The idea that any woman volunteers for this sort of treatment by wearing a low cut top or a sexy red dress has been shot down many times.

Too many times, street harassment is also just plain scary.  Fortunately for me, my experiences rank towards the lower end of normal; I’ve never seen a man jerk off while staring creepily at my face, or rub against me in a crowded train.  One time I was riding my bike, just around the corner from my home in a suburban area, and a car full of young men slowed down behind me.  [Its reflective of how we talk about street harassment that I initially described my outfit here].  I didn’t look behind me at first, but when I reached the end of the road, where I had to turn right (across the traffic here in Australia), they were still there. When I stopped, waiting for them to pass me so I could turn, they stopped too.  They called out to me, winding down the window, and the man in the front passenger seat opened his door and started putting his foot on the ground. I don’t remember what they said, or their faces, but I remember his foot very clearly.  I just bolted.  I swung my bike round, cut in front of the car and started pedalling furiously for home.

 

“Man getting out of car” does not bring up masses of intimidating images, funnily enough.

A week later, I had a similar, although less scary experience.  I was on my way to uni, on my bike.  I came to a stop in front of a set of traffic lights, where a line of cars were also waiting.  As is my habit, I waited for the lights to change just in front of the leading car, and was off the minute the lights changed, my torso low to the handlebars and my legs pumping to accelerate quickly from a low-ish gear.  The temptation proved too much for the driver and passengers of the white sedan which had been next to me at the lights, and they started cheering and hooting.  I was so incensed I kept pace with them until I had to turn off onto a side road, trying to work out what I could yell back which would convey how unsafe and objectified they’d made me feel.  I couldn’t think of anything.

I bet she’s tired of  street harassment too.Interestingly, this image was illustrating a post on a conservative American blog about the rising price of petrol.

My next experience took place while overseas in France, and probably falls more under stalking than harassment, but I’ll post it here regardless.  I was heading out to Versailles to see the famous palaces, and successfully navigated buying a regional train ticket and finding the right platform.  I wasn’t sure, so I struggled though asking someone on the platform if I was in the right place or not in my then meagre French. He said I was, and asked me where I was from.  We were in the midst of a relatively pleasant conversation when my train arrived.  Unfortunately, it was also his train, and when I unthinkingly took the window seat, he sat down on the aisle, blocking off my escape route.  The journey took roughly 45 minutes, and what where at first relatively innocuous questions about my travels so far and my home country began to get more … uncomfortably serious.  He asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I responded that I was single but gay, and really-seriously-not-kidding-this-time-not-interested.  The questions continued in this vein for some time.  It was only when I got off at Versailles that I realised that he had stayed on the train past his stop.  He had to go buy another ticket to get out, so I took my chance and powered on ahead, although he caught me up when I stopped to ask for directions.  He asked me to lunch, and continued to walk beside me.  I debated telling him to stop following me, but thought that he would not be willing to pay the museum admission fee.  He was.  By this point I was revising my French phrases, desperately trying to remember if I knew how to say that I was being followed.  I told him to go away in English and French, but he pretended not to understand.  Eventually, I came up with a crafty plan — I said that I needed to go to the bathroom, and we set off to find the restrooms.  Once there, surprise surprise, there was a queue for the ladies, which I joined.  He rounded the corner to the gents and as soon as he was out of sight I took off for an exhibit on 18th Century horticulture, sure that it would be the last place I’d be likely to bump into him.

I actually quite enjoy looking at stuff like this, and learnt interesting things about the introduction of the potato and tomato to France, but I still wish I’d been comfortable returning to the royal chambers

A similar event happened in Lyon two weeks later.  I was walking down the street, and a man smoking in a doorway called out to me.  When I didn’t respond to French, he switched to English and started walking beside me, asking me to go get a drink with him.  I was clearly uncomfortable, and again kept moving and making minimal responses.  He followed me to the train station where I was going to buy a ticket for a trip to Marseilles that weekend.  I did not want him to know the details of my travel plans, so I gave him a phone number.  My dad’s Australian mobile number, without an area code.  Maybe this was a bit of a bitchy thing to do, but just two weeks previously I’d felt very threatened by a man following me who would not take no for an answer, and I worried that if I said no this time, he would continue to bug me.  Also: the fact that I DID feel threatened, should have been enough to make him back off, whether my feelings were justified or not.

This advice is nothing if not equal opportunity.

So what hope is left in the world, now that men cannot hit on women in the streets?  I spent a long time looking for a blog post I remember reading last year, which was written in response to Rebecca Watson of Skepchick’s story of feeling threatened by a man asking her up to his room after a short conversation in a hotel elevator, which went viral after Richard Dawkins posted a highly demeaning and sexist response.   I found a whole pile of other really interesting responses, but I think I was thinking about this blog post by PZ Meyers of Pharyngula about how Decent Human Beings hit on strangers.  His point was that asking a woman up to your room for coffee in an elevator  does not give a woman a graceful way to refuse and is insensitive to the legitimate anxiety she may have about being alone in an elevator with a man.  In another post on the same topic he suggests that the sceptical reader google “elevator rape,” and consider it is a moment where a woman is actually, physically, unable to get away.  I am happy to take his word that the images are brutal and numerous.  He suggests strategies like giving a woman your number rather than asking for hers, creating opportunities for her to gracefully decline and watching for her reaction, ready to back off if she looks nervous.

She looks to be having fun, even though her escape route is cut off.  It all depends on context.Also, is anyone else freaked out by tanned-guy’s hair?

I have one good story to share: I was at an ice rink with some friends who’d come up with the wild idea of going skating while in formal wear.  One of the better skaters slid up next to me partway through the evening to say that I looked lovely.  It was awkward, largely because he was obviously nervous, and skated away immediately, and because I’m bad at accepting compliments (I once completely cut the cute girl I’d been talking to all night when she asked for my number, because I was so shocked.  Fortunately I got her number from a mutual friend once I’d had a chance to think about it and rectified the damage), but his compliment did not make me feel unsafe, or like an object.  He didn’t call out “nice tits” while racing past, or put me in a situation where I had no graceful exit.  Copy this.

First posted to my blog: when-feminists-attack.blogspot.com

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2 Comments

  1. Posted June 3, 2012 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    You are exactly right to be cautious about men who hit on you on the street, especially in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language well and don’t have a support system of people you can call on for help. There are men who prey on young female tourists, and they do it because they know the girls are vurnerable. A girl here in Tokyo was murdered by a Japanese man who agressively approached her on the street. She thought she was being too over-cautious, and despite her reservations finally agreed to meet him- and he raped and strangled her. It was a combination of him guilting her into trusting him (what’s wrong, I only want to talk to you!) and social conditioning that prevents a lot of women from being able to say “no” assertively and confidently. As I’ve gotten older, I care less and less about men’s feelings and care much more about my own comfort level, so I feel quite comfortabe saying this: men who aggressively approach women when they are in vurnerable postions, whether it is when they are alone on the street or in an elevator, don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. If you precieve any danger whatsoever, do not hesitate to scream, kick, call out to passerby, or call the police. It could save your life. And if it does turn out you weren’t in any danger greater than being hit on? So what. You haven’t lost anything, and whatever negative attention the man receives due to his boorish behavior, it is well-deserved because he should bloody well know better. PZ was right on. (I’m a fan of his blog, and read the article you refer to)

    • Posted June 3, 2012 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      I’m resolved to make a fuss and get away faster next time.

      Also, I’m intrigued by your interpretation that they might be preying on vulnerable tourists. I felt that maybe they’d targeted me because I was not conforming to culturally expected norms of behaviour; that by asking for directions and not keeping my eyes demurely on the pavement as I passed them, I was performing behaviour which they read as interested in them. I didn’t blame myself, but rooted it in the cultural disconnect, if you know what I’m saying.

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