article appeared first inThe
Can I help you, or are you just a moron?
need new laws and a fightback if we're going to put a stop to street
Monday July 14, 2003
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
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
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
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
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.
·Kristin Aune is the author of Single Women: Challenge to
the Church? (Paternoster Press)