Document the facts - share your experience of street harassment

The following article appeared first inThe Guardian

Can I help you, or are you just a moron?

Women need new laws and a fightback if we're going to put a stop to street harassment

Kristin Aune
Monday July 14, 2003
The Guardian

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Thursday July 17 2003

The piece below makes reference to the Anti-Street Harassment project. The organisers have asked us to point out that they are called the Anti-Social Harassment project and can be found on a search engine as anti_social harassment, which we are happy to do.


Summer, most young women know, is high season for street harassment. In the tame version, this is the "hey baby, how's about it?" rigmarole accompanied by leers from car windows. Recently, walking past a group of boys in broad daylight, I felt a hand stroke my rear. In Italy this would be illegal. The Italian high court has just overturned a controversial ruling decreeing that pinching a woman's bottom was not a crime. The new decision classes such actions as sexual assault, to the amusement of many (though probably not young women).

Walking to the bus stop after drinks with friends a week or so after my bottom-touching incident, a man reaches out and strokes my hair. "Damn," I say to my friend; to the man, I say nothing. And last Saturday night, on my way into town, the friendly neighbourhood drug-dealer hails me: "Hey, gorgeous, over here." I try to take it as a compliment. Perhaps he's right, and I'm looking particularly foxy. Another time (and I am wearing my green cagoule), my harasser is not so kind: "You're really ugly," he hisses into my ear. It cannot be, alas, that I am just too pretty to be ignored.

These experiences are typical. Forty to fifty per cent of European women (and 10% of men) claim they've experienced sexual harassment in the workplace - where there are laws against it. There are no official measures of street harassment, but if straw polls of acquaintances are anything to go by, the streets (and the trains and the buses) are far, far worse. Of 40 young women I asked, 28 reported being harassed in public spaces in the past two months. These are not one-off incidents: these women experience aggravation, on average, once a month (a quarter of them, weekly).

The episodes range from the typical to the sinister to the bizarre. Some women were wolf-whistled. One, cycling home, was pelted with eggs, another with mayonnaise. Some have their paths blocked by groups of men who jeer at the size of their breasts or call them "fat-arse". Others are followed home, propositioned or threatened with rape. One woman I spoke to was then sexually assaulted.

Women's response, besides inward anger, a spattering of V-signs and occasional brave confrontation, is often to blame themselves. It happened because they were too blonde/ too short/ wearing summer clothes/ cycling/ not smiling/ bigger than a size 12, many told me.

It's sad that they think like this, but it's not a surprise. Without laws such as the Italian one to deal with street harassment, women have nothing to justify their complaints or ameliorate their distress. All we can do is blame ourselves and try to avoid the next time - though short of slicing off hair, breasts and bottom, we have little hope. A law against street harassment might be hard to enforce, but it is necessary. Laws are symbolic of what a society does and doesn't endorse, and right now, it feels like we're saying it's OK to harass women.

Neither do women have a collective mechanism for tackling harassment or understanding it in context. Taunts that fly from moving vans about women's body parts are not isolated incidents. They belong in a wider picture of how society socialises women and men. And they occupy one end of a sliding scale that can end up in physical violence, as assaults on 56 women during a carnival in New York's Central Park in summer 2000 demonstrated.

These assaults caused a "click" of solidarity for New York women, and led to the founding of the Street Harassment Project, dedicated to fighting all forms of street harassment of women by men. A similar project has just been launched by some young British women, and boy do we need it. Experts - and these young women are fast becoming them - recommend an active response to harassment, unless you're in immediate danger. Crime reports show that women who have the highest success rate in escaping sexual assault are those who use a combination of early verbal and physical resistance.

The UK's Anti-Street Harassment Project say they want to offer advice that is more empowering than the traditional "don't go out; if you do, take a man". They're planning a march through London, and a postcard and sticker campaign listing possible tactics.

Suggestions include whipping out a notepad and saying: "I'm doing a project on the sociology of the street. Would you mind if I asked you some questions about what you just did?" Or inquire: "Did you want something, or are you just being a moron?" Singing children's songs at the top of your lungs also, apparently, works. Alternatively, you could say, calmly and clearly: "Don't harass women." A friend of mine did that, and the blokes skulked off guiltily.

It's true that it'll take both laws and armies of resistance to tackle street harassment. For our bit, I suggest we get down to self-defence classes and join the anti-harassment campaign. Come next summer, we'll be prepared: we are harassed women, hear us roar.

┬ĚKristin Aune is the author of Single Women: Challenge to the Church? (Paternoster Press)