As an addendum to my recent post in which I ramble incoherently about street harassment, some more incoherent ramblings from a Facebook comment that once again ran away with me and got out of control:
Also just to add that street harassment occurs in a variety of ways that range from being threatening through to merely irritating. Even if we strip away the gender issue and remove the focus on appearance and sex, having people intrude upon your personal space is annoying. Being forced to interact, or make a choice between interacting and not interacting, which often feels like a choice between being polite and being rude even though it’s pretty rude to invasively demand someone’s attention, is wearing. I mean, no-one likes being accosted by charity workers in the street trying to get you to subscribe to Greenpeace or whatever, no-one likes being stopped for directions when in a hurry, no-one likes being the one the inebriated person on public transport chooses to sit next to and jabber away at. For example. Generally speaking, whether or not this is considered a sad state of affairs, people don’t like being interrupted whilst going about their daily business (although of course it doesn’t mean people can’t or shouldn’t talk to each other, just that a bit of consideration of whether the person you want to talk to seems like they are open to conversation should be had – it’s not usually very difficult to tell).
If you then add in the fact that the kinds of harassment directed at women are overwhelmingly sexual in nature, that the interaction or refusal to interact can quickly escalate into an abusive situation, that it is particularly frequent for a group of guys to pass comment on a single female, and that there is a pre-existing culture of misogyny, sexism, violence, etc., that already troubles male/female relations, it’s easy to see how something that is at best an irritation holds at least the potential for something far more sinister. And one of the most important things, I think, is not about what each individual occurrence turns out to be like, but about the fact that as a woman you know that you are going to have to face some interactions of this sort on a daily basis, you know that leaving the house is running the gauntlet of dealing with some kind of harassment, and that’s what produces the anxiety as much as what happens in each situation. And then there IS each situation, and having to work out what the right response is, what behaviour is least likely to exacerbate the situation, what to say to get rid of someone following you up the street, whether an appeasing reply or smile is a safer or quicker way of ending the interaction than ignoring it and hoping that the unwelcome comment is where it stops, that you won’t be hounded for a response as if you owe it.
When the weight of all those considerations is on your mind before you’ve even left the house, before you’ve encountered another person, and is still there in the background even if you get through a whole day without any such occurrence, surely it’s obvious that it’s a problem? If nothing else it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting thinking about it, worrying about it, being anxious about it, having demands on your attention, and on days when you aren’t feeling strong, or when even speaking to someone you know very well about kittens feels like too much, it can be overwhelmingly distressing. And that’s when you start wondering if you’re feeling robust enough to wear a certain outfit that day, knowing that it will attract more attention, or whether you can leave the house at all, because sure the comments you get that day might all be ‘nice’, but equally they might not be, and before they’ve happened all you know is that, wherever on the spectrum of annoying to threatening they fall, they will happen.
(NB: Obviously it’s not only women who experience street harassment, not all people receive the same kind of harassment, not all people feel the same about it, not all people are made anxious by it, and not all people have a problem with it BUT it is far more prevalent in women’s lives and I still believe it’s born out of a culture that sees women and their bodies as public property to be ogled, judged, and commented upon, and the fact that some people are ok with that, or that they are ok with the particular brand of attention they get, doesn’t mean that it’s ok as a status quo, and doesn’t mean that the attentions given to different individuals are equal in terms of amount, tone, or any other manner in which they could be measured. Although in individual interactions I’d say the guiding principle should be the response of the particular person involved, when confronting this as a societal issue I think it’s misleading to think in terms of whether people on an individual level like or dislike their experience of it. Rather we should maybe consider the questions it raises about whether we want this kind of behaviour to be normal in our culture, whether as a widespread phenomenon we think it’s ok, whether we’re happy for a large section of society to feel uncomfortable, anxious, etc., as a result of it, and whether, regardless of our personal feelings, when we examine the underlying ideologies, power structures, etc., that give rise to this kind of behaviour, we want to maintain those.)