“Smile love. It can’t be that bad.”
“Want to suck my cock like you’re sucking on that lolly?”
“Want to be my girlfriend? Oh you already have a boyfriend. Can I be your special friend then? No, okay, how about I walk you home?”
“Well, look at you in your fishnets”.
*General yelling and shouting*
*honked car horn*
That is just some of the street harassment I have received.
Half of those occurred when I was under 16. Including the arse grope. Which is actually sexual assault, not street harassment.
The first time I ever feared for my safety in public was when I was eleven. I was on the bus home from school in my uniform. The guy sat across from me kept winking and smiling at me and beckoning at me with him finger to get me to come and sit next to him. Let me remind you, I was 11 years old. I knew about paedos and “stranger danger” so I got off the bus, praying that he wouldn’t follow me, and pretty much ran home. That was my induction to sexual harassment. It didn’t get any better when I hit puberty and started growing boobs.
The wolf whistles from the builders on my street. The men in their white vans asking me, a kid in school uniform out with my mates in the middle of the day, if I wanted to suck their cock. The guy that tried to corner me in the park when I was fifteen and on my way home in the afternoon, to ask me if I wanted to hook up and “be his special friend”.
That was all before I was sixteen. Street harassment starts YOUNG you guys.
When I was a student in Sheffield I was pretty much left alone. The only times I got comments was when I was gothed up for a club night, and even then it was usually a comment on my massive platforms rather than on my physical body.
Liverpool then was a hell of a shock.
I got comments yelled at me approximately once a week, usually in the evening, any time after 5pm, often when I was walking home alone. It’s not like I was even dressed to attract attention (yay slut shaming narratives!) as I was in my regular goth clubbing days. I would usually be wearing loose fitting trousers and a baggy hoody and grotty trainers, but that didn’t stop the harassment. The Liverpool favourite seems to be the drive-by. Guys either singly or in groups in their cars, yelling shit from the windows. I never felt safe out by myself in the evening. I would always be on alert, scanning for danger, for other people, men. If I ever saw a group of people approaching me I would feel my heart rate increase, and it would only come down if I spotted a woman in the group. If there wasn’t, I would cross over the street to avoid them, keeping my head down and shoulders up and just praying that this time I would escape comment. In truth, that is what I still do. Even on familiar roads and areas where I have yet to be harassed. It’s called hyper-vigilance and it is not fun.
My current city is nowhere near as bad. I can count the number of incidents on one hand, despite being here for two years. In Liverpool, I lost count.
So when, the other day, I was on my way to the train station at 8am and a guy said to me “nice legs” as he walked past, no wonder I flipped out. I turned around, caught his eye and gave him the middle finger, then turned my back, caught my train and let rip on Facebook.
The discussion that ensued led to the men complaining they can’t give a woman a “compliment” in public.
The problem here seems to be two-fold.
One, a misunderstanding about what the word “compliment” actually means.
Two, a massive under-estimation of the scale, duration, and effects of the problem of harassment upon its sufferers.
Let me, by contrast to the samples I gave earlier, give an example of a genuine compliment I have received in public.
“I really like your necklace! Where did you get it?”
Needless to say, it was given by a woman. I thanked her, told her where I got it, and smiled for the next half hour. In fact, I still smile at the memory. It was brief, friendly and about something I had chosen rather than something my body just is.
The difference between that and the few comments I have received that could be construed as compliments if you really stretch it? Context and intent.
Being told “nice bum” is completely different when said to you lovingly by your boyfriend than when said to you as a walk-by comment by a stranger when you are out and alone and potentially vulnerable.
Why? Because in the second situation I AM ALONE AND VULNERABLE. I have NO idea what the bloke on the street is going to do or say next. He might get angry if I brush him off. He might get violent.
I have NO WAY TO TELL how the situation is going to go.
The most likely outcome is that I’ll give him the middle finger, and he’ll smirk at me because he got a response, and I’ll go off and be in a sour mood for the next hour while he’ll carry on with his day completely unconcerned.
The unlikely but still possible outcome is that I’ll get attacked, dragged off and either raped or murdered. I could end up a Crime Watch video. A statistic. A victim.
That is what is in the back of my mind when someone says something unprompted to me on the street.
So when you turn round and say “oh but he probably meant it as a compliment” you are ignoring the context in which that thing was said to me, the context being that I live in a society that spends a lot of time telling women “You are not safe. Be on alert. If you are not, if anything happens to you, it’s probably your fault.”
Now, lest you complain “what if I’m lost and need to ask for directions (or other valid help)?” let me assure you there are ways to approach a woman alone in public on the street to ask for help.*
What you do is walk up to her slowly in her line of sight and stop AT LEAST two arms’ length AWAY from her. i.e. out of easy grabbing distance. Then say “Excuse me please” as your opening salvo. If she doesn’t immediately brush you off or ignore you, you may ask your question. The conversation ends when she ends it. Do not attempt to follow her and keep asking her questions!
“Oh but how will I ever meet a woman? Wailey, wailey, woe?”
Shared activities, hobbies, clubs, pubs. All of these are valid places. The open road is not.
Clubs and pubs and bars have their own set of difficulties but I won’t go into them in detail here. It has been done to death elsewhere. Google is a thing. The advice is simple though. Treat her like a human being. Maintain the personal space bubble. Back off if she gives any subtle signs of discomfort or evasion. Don’t follow her around. Don’t try to trap her in a corner. Take her soft, polite ‘no’ for what it is. Zum beispiel: turning away, rebuffing your comments, short, one-word responses, being generally vague, disappearing to the loos, walking away. You know the signs because I bet you can tell when a bloke’s not interested in talking to you. It’s the same for women, just often more subtle because we are raised to be polite and care for your precious fee-fees and fragile egos. (Yes, I’m being patronising and sarcastic. Deal with it.)
It is not hard to give a nice compliment to a woman. You just have to be non-specific and non-sexual. And polite. Anything along the lines of “ You look really nice”, “Your hair is pretty”, “cute bag”, is probably okay, if the context is right. Basically you may compliment anything she obviously put a bit of effort and personal taste into. If you’re somewhere like an art gallery, or a show or gig or poetry reading or whatever, ask about the thing you are both there to see and experience. Find the common ground and don’t force it. And always bear in mind what she might have experienced in her life. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t have at least one example of being harassed on the street, and the statistics say that as many as one in four women over the age of 12 have experienced sexual assault or rape.
*For the record, I can think of precisely four situations that would require any form of interaction in public with strangers
1/ How to I get to _Place_? Or any variation of needing directions.
2/ Hey stop! You dropped a thing! (Wallet/phone/keys/bus pass etc).
3/ Has _public transport_ showed up yet?/How long have you been waiting for _this bus_? Is this the train for _destination_?
4/ Umm, sorry to bother you but did you know you’re having a wardrobe malfunction? (You’re flying low. You’re missing a button. You have gum stuck to you. You have loo roll stuck to your shoe.)
NB, wardrobe malfunctions should NOT be commented upon by a man to a woman because of the implicit potential power differentials and background context i.e. the entire rest of this piece.
If it’s not any of those things and you’re in a city, just don’t go there. Unless it’s about the weather. (This is England after all!)