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Home » Features, Sex Issue

“Oi miss! Nice butt!”: Why is street sexual harassment so widespread and what can we do to stop it?

Submitted by on December 7, 2012 – 11:36 pmNo Comment

 

Anti harrasment poster for women in New York.

“I was doing my shopping in the beauty aisle in Sainsbury’s,” Liz*, an undergrad student at City University recalls, “and a middle-aged man, maybe 50 or 60, comes up to me and asks me with this disgusting smirk on his face: ‘Do you know where the Vaseline is?’ It completely caught me off guard. How are you supposed to react? There’s a chance that person is a complete maniac so what are you supposed to say?”

Liz’s experience is unfortunately not unique. Whether it’s an unpleasant comment, an insistent stare or in worse cases groping or flashing, street sexual harassment is a form of violence many women face everyday in the UK. A YouGov study revealed in May that four out of ten women aged 18 to 24 had been sexually harassed in the past year.

Julia Gray and Bryony Beynon have been running the Hollaback! London group since April 2010, part of an international network of women fighting against street harassment. Julia believes the phenomenon is still hugely under-estimated: “Street harassment is a very difficult thing to tackle – people see it as part of a big grey area. This specific type of harassment is hugely under-reported, partly because there is a fear that the police won’t take victims seriously.”

Recently, Sofie Peeters, a Belgian woman, brought street harassment to the spotlight with her documentary ‘Femme de la Rue’. In it, she walks through her neighbourhood in Brussels, and records the many comments and insults she gets on her way. Her shocking account opened up a national debate; since then, the city council introduced fines to crack down on sexist comments and offensive language (75€ to 250€).

On their website, Julia and Bryony try to raise awareness on this issue in the UK by publishing the testimonies of victims of street harassment: “What we notice in these accounts is that there is a lot of self-blame and guilt. Women often say: ‘I shouldn’t have been wearing that’. This shows how unhealthy the attitude towards women is in this country. It doesn’t matter what you wear, a woman should be able to walk out naked and be free of the fear of being harassed.”

Liz was left feeling particularly vulnerable: “Words hurt, they really do. I was lucky somebody from the shop was around that time but these kind of creeps usually only have the guts to come up to you when your own your own. “The thing I don’t understand is why do guys keep on doing this? It never works. Like if somebody ‘honks’ at me I’m going to turn round and jump in the car?”

I asked two of my male friends why they believe street harassment is so widespread: both pointed out that our society is still very much gender fragmented. Many men, they say, don’t interact often with women and therefore rely on TV, films, adverts, music videos, and porn, to imagine what it’s like to seduce a woman.

TV series and Hollywood flicks should be blamed, one of them said, where often female characters are portrayed as ‘stupid and flirty’. How many films, he pointed out, pass the Bechdel test (used to ‘identify gender bias in a fiction’)?

To Julia, street sexual harassment has to be placed in the bigger picture of the society we evolved in: “We are part of a society in Britain where women’s bodies are seen as public property. This culture is perpetuated by the media’s portrayal of women and girls. I really don’t know how we got there. There is so much pressure on women to be sexy, to be attractive, pressure from boyfriends, from girlfriends from women’s magazines, from men’s magazines from TV and film, at school in the workplace, everywhere you look within popular culture and beyond…

“It ultimately influences the image of women and how they see themselves but there is a massive contradiction here. Be attractive, be sexy, but also be prepared to be harassed, and to take the blame for it, because no matter how you’re dressed or what you look like, putting up with it is just part of being a ‘woman’.”

If you are victim of street sexual harassment you can either:

Call the police on its emergency line 999 or on its non-emergency line 101

Report it on http://ldn.ihollaback.org/ and help build an accurate picture of the phenomenon

 

*the name was changed

 

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