Street harassment and me

I was 11 the first time a man shouted at me in the street. I remember how confused I felt; both flattered by the attention and terrified...
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Olivia Singer
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I was 11 the first time a man shouted at me in the street. I remember how confused I felt; both flattered by the attention and terrified...

I read a lot of US ladyblogs, because, before XOJane moved across the Atlantic recently, there weren't really any in the UK.

This means that I have a bizarrely categorical understanding of American politics, but it also reminds me how depressingly misogyny manifests in the most tedious day-to-day ways on both continents.

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 Marketfair Mall, Princeton, New Jersey 

A case in point is the sign I saw at MarketFair Mall in Princeton, New Jersey, a while back, which read:

We apologize for the whistling construction workers, but man you look good! So will we soon, please pardon our dust, dirt, and assorted inconveniences.

Street harassment is something that speaks very directly to me; it is something that I have protested about vociferously for years.

I remember, as a really little girl, about 11, walking past a building site in a mini dress (I styled myself devotedly on Posh Spice) and having a man shout at me that he wanted to come into my bedroom through the window when my parents were asleep and fuck me.

I remember how confused I felt; both flattered by the attention that made me feel like the grownup I was desperate to be seen as and terrified by how vividly he imagined what can only be called raping me.

This ambivalence between flattery and terror stayed with me as I grew up, when men in white vans leered at me, invited me home with them, men on building sites catcalled and men in cars slowed down along side me when I was walking home.

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Thelma and Louise : more than just style heroes

When I first saw Thelma and Louise, I memorised the speech Louise delivers to Harlan and considered haughty retaliation to be the ultimate insult to leering men, although I often just resorted to a 'fuck you' when I didn't have the time or the energy to act like it didn't make me aggressively angry in the way that it did.

But when I moved abroad, to Paris, street harassment got a lot worse for me. It started to feel more threatening, until one day when a group men called me a whore and I retaliated, and they got out of their cars and beat the crap out of me.

Something shifted in me then; it wasn't the first time I had been assaulted on the streets of Paris, but there was something so devastating about that fact that my retaliation – which I had I had chosen to see as empowerment for so long - resulted in me being kicked in the face by 6 grown men, that I couldn't quite get back on my feet.

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Slutwalk in Paris : together we shout back

Physically, I literally did; I went, the next morning, to lead Slutwalk in Paris with my bruises covered up with foundation, ashamed of what I felt I had provoked by stepping out of line, by daring to speak back.

But somewhere in me, something that those men had taken from me stayed down.

When I got back to London a while later, it felt like the safest place in the world. It was winter here, so I was all covered up, and I think I was just so relieved to be somewhere where the police spoke my native language if I ever chose to file a report on anyone who harassed or assaulted me.

And then summer arrived, and I started daring to bare my pasty white legs. Suddenly it felt like all hell had broken loose on the streets.

So I did what I swore, after seeing Thelma and Louise, I would never do. I gave chaste smiles to men who beeped at me, thanked men who told me I looked sexy when I went out to get breakfast.

Every time I did it, I swore I wouldn't again; I swore that I would just ignore the next man, even if I didn't tell him to go fuck himself out loud, I would just scream it in my head.

Every time, it felt like I was losing myself, losing what I felt I stood for. And so I have started to force myself to ignore comments.

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Reclaim the Night in Manchester : because the streets belong to us, too

As the weather gets hotter and my clothes skimpier, I am forcing myself to remember that, whatever I am wearing, nobody has the right to make me feel threatened, but I am surprised by how hard that is, this time round.

I feel incredibly lucky to live in a country where organisations like Hollaback are fighting for my right to walk the streets with impunity from verbal assault - because, that's what it is.

Street harassment normalises the sexualisation of women to a despicable extent, makes objectification part of our everyday lives, as we go to work, go to the supermarket, go buy a packet of cigarettes. It’s not an inconvenience; it is symbolic of entrenched and dangerous sexism.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when feminist petitions resulted in a removal of that sign in New Jersey, because it showed that we are taking our power back as a collective.

It shows that women are prepared to acknowledge the unacceptability of what is often seen as a bit of banter on the street, see it as symptomatic of the sexism that is still so endemic in our lives and shout back, as a group.

And that, to me, is wonderful, and reminds me that things are changing- we might still face battles that should have been won long ago, but we are fighting them.