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How do you solve a problem like street harassment?


Heather Kennedy
WVoN Co-editor

Fear. Anger. Humiliation. Just some of the things you may have felt if you have ever experienced street harassment.

And if you are female or LGBTQ and between the ages of 10 and 110, the chances are you almost certainly have.

There is evidence to suggest that the anti-street harassment movement is gaining serious momentum. With sites like Hollaback! and HarassMap (see WVoN story) springing up around the world, could the tide be turning on this most ubiquitous form of public harassment?

But whilst campaigners come together and devise solutions, elsewhere the world is still shrugging its shoulders and telling them to lighten up.

Trying to convince many people that street harassment is not just a harmless fact of the bustling street, is perhaps the biggest challenge facing campaigners.

When street harassers are socially accepted as high spirited exemplars of natural masculinity, how do we go about calling for change?

This was one of the questions addressed by the Hollaback! London (HBL) group that I joined in a Hackney nail salon at the end of last month to discuss the issue of street harassment.

The recently established initiative was inspired by the original Hollaback!, a grass roots campaign set up by New Yorker Emily May in 2005.

Hollaback! uses mobile technology to map street harassment and provides a platform for women to share their experiences and support one another.

As the HBL discussion began, I realised this was the first time I had spoken to a group of men and women about street harassment and not been told to “get a grip” or “just enjoy the attention”.

And if any of the assembled company needed a reminder as to the unpleasant and oh so habitual nature of street harassment, at 42 minutes in, right on cue, a male passer-by saw fit to bang on the window and make obscene gestures at us.

You couldn’t make it up. Well, you could, but you wouldn’t have to.

The group agreed that what we needed to send street harassers packing was a sea change in social attitudes.

In response to this, the organisers of HBL will be running a series of workshops in schools to educate children and young people on the issues surrounding street harassment.

HBL encourage people of all genders to attend and in the session I went to, they had successfully recruited four males. (Most men I know, enlightened though they are, would fall naked into a bed of nettles before they stepped into an organised discussion about street harassment).

One attendee, Robert said he believed it was vital men were involved in the anti-street harassment movement so it “doesn’t become an ‘us vs. them’ issue. We need to move away from the idea that feminism is an attack on manliness.

“A greater awareness and understanding of how ‘masculine’ behavior really affects women doesn’t have to undermine men’s sense of self and what it means to be a man.”

Further evidence that men are engaging with this problem came in the shape of an email read out to the group. A man had written to HBL for advice, at a loss over how to confront his friend, a persistent attacker who would not be told.

There were no easy answers, the group agreed. Men and women shared their experiences of confronting harassers and being met with defensiveness, apathy and an overall refusal to recognise harassment as a problem.

We live in a society where men are encouraged to rate and vocally pronounce their judgements on women’s physicality.

Assess My Breasts, where readers of Nuts magazine can score naked photos of women out of ten, springs immediately to mind.

And this is only a more obvious example of a far wider cultural dynamic. Women enjoy the attention, so the dominant story goes. And for men, street harassing has become a socially celebrated aspect of what it is to be a ‘red blooded male’.

As Robert pointed out, harassment often has more to do with masculinity than it does individual men.

One man on his own might never dream of harassing a woman in the street, but surround him with a group of male cohorts, and suddenly the rules change. For men who harasses in packs, their behaviour has very little to do with courtship and everything to do with a competitive form of macho bonding.

So how can we counteract the force of a culture that appoints men as the judging panel on the beauty parade of public life? A major success for Hollaback! New York has been an official ban of harassment on all public transport, where some of the worst incidents occur.

With public spending cuts in full swing, the government is unlikely to fund a new army of patrol officers to man the tubes and buses of London, on the look out for public masturbators and predatory oglers.

But an official ban would send a powerful public message that harassment is not acceptable. Look on the HBL site, victims of street harassment have spoken.

Public institutions should now take a stand against behaviour that leaves victims feeling fearful and dehumanized. After all, the whole of society benefits from a public sphere where everyone feels safe.

  1. Hi Heather,

    Nice feature, I wish more men like Robert would support campaigns like this.

    • Heather Kennedy says:

      Hi Cecilia, Yes, I was really pleasantly surprised to see men involved in the campaign. Often for men who would be sympathetic, they worry they are encroaching on ‘women’s space’ and wouldn’t be welcome in the campaign, so I think it’s really important that the organisers at Hollaback have made a point of welcoming all genders. The more men take an interest, the more acceptable it will become for men to be involved in campaigns like Hollaback.

  2. Jessica Metaneira says:

    It makes me sick to hear it dismissed as a ‘boys will be boys’ fact of life.

    Try being surrounded by a group of bigger stronger people yelling about what they’d like to do to you and come back and tell me it’s totally harmless.

  3. For more ideas on how to deal with street harassment, please visit the 3A’s of Street Harassment Disruption blog.

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