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Why we can't ignore street harrasment

In 2014, many talk about misogyny having gone ‘underground’. We don’t say the overtly terrible things about women that we said in 1950s media. The genders have legal equality, whatever that might mean. However, as a woman today – although proud of and grateful for existing feminist achievement – it still seems to me that sexism walks our streets openly, is accepted into our social gatherings, and sits loud and proud in our media.

It’s frustrating to be told that sexism survives by being sneaky, cunning and insidious, when it’s right in front of my face. When I first saw the now (in)famous video recording one woman experiencing 100 instances of street harassment in one day, I was grateful for its creation. Here was hard video evidence for the kind of difficult-to-prove sexism women experience daily. It wasn’t statistics and it wasn’t a cohesive study, but I was hopeful it was the kind of evidence for women’s lived experiences that most people wouldn’t argue too much with.

As I kept watching, though, I got less optimistic. Amongst the leers were “how you doing”s and other, generally less threatening ‘greetings’. I anticipated what I would find in the comments section, and put off looking at it. It’s not that I think that these occurrences are not important and relevant to include. But it reminded me that watching the same video does not mean everybody sees the same thing. There is a reason most sexism happens openly; lots of people just don’t see the problem with it.

First, I would like to qualify that lots of the attention this woman got was (at least, I hope) obviously troubling and threatening. If you think that yelling ‘damn!’ at a woman whilst leering at her arse will make her feel anything other than sickened, then I am not sure how you will ever be convinced. What may not be obvious to everyone is that physical harassment is not some vague fear floating around outside the realm of personal experience for most women. You give that much attention to a woman’s ass and she will be scared you’re going to try and grab it.

Women cannot just ‘choose’ to not feel threatened. Men can choose not to threaten them. What is wrong with the apparently ‘friendly greetings’ is what’s behind them. Although obviously edited to include the most relevant incidents, two of those ‘greetings’ quickly escalated. Even twice in one day to one woman is too much. In one instance, an ignored ‘good morning’ results in the woman being followed for 5 minutes.

It sounds trivial, and clearly he was more moronic than threatening, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. If that woman had been truly alone, she may have felt scared to stop or duck into a shop in case it gave an opportunity for confrontation, or unable to go home if she was close by so as not to lead him there (sounds paranoid but really, wouldn’t you be), and all the while with no idea when he would stop. A second man reveals nauseating entitlement after an ignored “hey what’s up” turns into “Somebody’s acknowledging you for being beautiful… You should be more grateful”.

This really hits the crux of the issue. Every comment is a reminder that men get to direct what happens in public spaces. The only reason they feel entitled to speak to her, to expect a positive response, is clearly her gender. There is no point lying about this; these men don’t say good morning to other men. That man then has the power to turn the situation he has created into one of confrontation.

By contrast, it is very hard to gain control of a situation that you have been forced into and taught to be scared of.  In the same vein, it is a not a compliment to be called beautiful or anything else in public. It is a reminder that, apparently, my appearance is public property. To feel permitted to randomly engage women on the street is to deny that they are just people, trying to go about their (probably busy) days. And it’s not up to you whether they smile when they do it.

Sarah Gibson

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