Take Back The Streets

Ever tensed up when forced to walk past stationary traffic? Cringed when a stranger, out of nowhere, instructs you to smile? Choked down your anger as a passer-by whispers obscenities? Changed your route to work to avoid harassment hot-spots? As these stories show, you're not alone.

Various Authors, 14 April 2005

Introduction

Statistically, men are more likely to be physically attacked on the streets, yet it's women who are made to feel frightened about being out alone. The level of media attention given to rape by strangers (when in fact most rapists are known to the victim), is partly to blame. So too is the level of verbal harassment received by women when they dare to leave the house alone.

Ask any woman and she'll have a hundred stories of harassment by strangers that happened to herself, to her friend; last month, last week, yesterday. Street harassment of women happens every day, turning what should be public neutral spaces into areas we travel through as quickly as possible, head down, avoiding eye contact, pretending we didn't hear it even though they know damn well we have.

ask any woman and she'll have a hundred stories

This isn't to suggest all women are all petrified victims of this form of harassment; of course not. But being verbally harassed on the steet by men from puberty onwards is bound to leave its mark on the subconscious of all but the most strong willed. So if, like me, you get a sinking feeling on a beautiful sunny day because the traffic slows to a standstill, it's not your fault; it's a normal human reaction to your past experiences. If you find yourself tensing up and hurrying your step when you pass a group of men lounging by the side of the street, it's completely understandable.

Yet the point is not how women react but why we have to put up with this in the first place. What century are we living in when a woman walking in a public place is seen as a fair target for abuse purely because she is female? We all know it never happens to us when we're walking with a man; because that would be trespassing on another guy's property. Wouldn't it?

When the harassment is combined with racism or homophobia, or other forms of discrimination, it becomes even worse.

sharing our stories is important, if only as a cathartic process

Men get harassed too; but not on such a scale or on such a regular basis (and most importantly in this context, when it does happen, it is usually by other men). Indeed, most men cannot begin to comprehend the scale at which this happens. That's why we should tell other people of our experiences, and why sharing our stories is important, if only as a cathartic process.

Anti Street Harassment UK, inspired by the work of the U.S. Street Harassment Project, collects stories of street harassment from women. A small selection is reproduced below, and Lindsay, one of the group's founders, explains why the stories are important.

If you want to know how best to deal with street harassment, check out the website, or get hold of a copy of the truly excellent "Back Off! How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers" by Martha J. Langelan.

If you take only one thing from reading these stories, remember: you're not alone, and it's not your fault. It's not you. IT'S NOT YOU.

It's them.

And we all know exactly how you feel.

Catherine Redfern

Lindsay, Anti Street Harassment UK

After looking at The Street Harassment Project's webite [the original street harassment project from the U.S.] I thought the most powerful part was the giant archive of stories that have been contributed by women all over the US and beyond. I knew when I was setting the site up for the UK, having a place for women to share stories and concerns was really important. Because not everyone is in a place where they can be involved in a campaigning group for whatever reason, the story archive has become a place where women come back to post their latest incidents of harassment or just read other women's stories. As soon as warm weather hits, the site is also hit with story after story of women being harassed and how they have responded to their harassers. The great thing also is that when the group is not particularly active, the website is still constantly being updated with these stories. It manages to keep the momentum of the movement to challenge street harassment going.

a place for women to share stories and concerns was really important

I've been moderating the website for almost two years now but I never fail to feel touched when a contributer starts her story with something about how happy she is to have found the site or how she finally feels vindicated in being so angry about street harassment. (This actually happens all the time). There have been quite a few stories sent by young women and teenagers and their stories read as if they were written by someone who is in the middle developing political consciousness. This is always really exciting to hear, especially in a moment that people are constantly, and very wrongly, calling post-feminist. I received an email through the site from a young woman doing an A-level journalism course who wanted to write a story about street harassment. I gave her some information but I made her promise to keep writing stories about it when she gets published.

I think that the act of sharing these personal stories, whether with full names or anonymously is a political act. It is turning a situation that was anywhere from annoying to humiliating to infuriating into a completely new scenario where the contributer can comfortably humiliate or voice disgust about her harasser in an environment where others will understand her frustration. This is an example of what people involved in left-wing politics strive to achieve by using the internet for organising and/or sharing tactics across boundaries.

the act of sharing these personal stories is a political act

The story archive has become more populist than the site of an established organisation, a place of active democracy where women are their own best-placed experts who analyse an experience and understand how to move on and react the next time it happens.

Lindsay

From Joanna, 10 April 2005

I was minding my own business, walking to Greenwich from Island Gardens. As I approached the Greenwich foot tunnel and was about to enter, one member of of a group of 5 boys who must have been somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14 called out to me sarcastically; "I think you're really cute, will you go out with me?" to which I said nothing and continued walking. He then said "How old are you?" I replied; "I don't see what that's got to do with you" before moving on. He and his friends then started calling me a "freak" , a "loser" and a "gonk". One of the ring leader's friends who was obviously over visiting from America said in a rather heavy accent "You know you're such a freak, man" to which I replied sarcastically; "..Bothered, mannnn" and continued walking into the tunnel without looking back. What struck me was the age of these kids and just what kind of parents they must have to see nothing wrong with this kind of behaviour towards a complete stranger who has done absoloutely nothing to provoke it.

Another incident I was fortunate enough to be victim to was when I was walking from Elephant & Castle tube station to visit a friend who lives nearby it. I was waking alone down the main street and this random guy just walks past me and says "Will you suck my cock?" I was so shocked, intimidated and disturbed by this that I didn't have time to think of any kind of comeback and just walked on, quickenning my pace.

Another time was when I was on the Central line of the tube and this guy comes and sits down next to me and says; "Where are we going tonight then?" I replied "Excuse me?" and he then says "What's your name?" I ignored him but he asked again. Starting to feel very uncomfortable, I said "I really don't think that's any of your business and I don't give out my name to random strangers." Apparently he didn't take the hint becuase he then asked; "Where are we going tonight? I want you to show me a good time, what do you think". I looked right at him in the eyes and said "I think you should leave me alone". He shrugged. Fortuntately the tube stopped at that moment at Bank station where I got off and quickly walked away from the platform. I could see him behind me, heading in the same direcetion (I don't know whether he was actually going to follow me or not) so I began to run and thankfully lost him, as I got on my connecting train.

From Natalie, 7 April 2005

I'm 21 and the other day was surrounded by a group of boys of no older than 13 years old, I just lowered my head to walk past and they started to make comments about my 'big tits' and other obscenities involving anal sex. I really felt like crying but just shuffled past as quick as I could. So, because I wasn't responding they started hurling insults about my weight as I walked away from them. It's just so awful to think these are the future generation of men, who in a few years will be able to vote, have jobs and drink. I think schools should start having lessons about sexual harrasment. Children learn that it's not ok to discriminate against different races, but they should teach boys from a young age that women are NOT objects and are sensitive to this kind of abuse.

From Louise, 7 April 2005

Argh, here we go again. Dressed in a baggy fleece and baggy trousers and lo and behold a car full of goons decided to open their mouths and voice their inane thoughts. Why can't they just keep it to themselves.

From Jane, 6 April 2005

It seems that walking in my North London town during the day seems to be asking for trouble - at least in the opinion of the men in this story. Two of the encounters were the usual - white van driving past, window down, and jeering and whistles from their male occupants. This was irritating but it was the man who I walked passt who called me a 'fucking whore' that really angered me. It took a few seconds for me to realise that the comment had been addressed to me. I had been meandering along on a hot sunny day, totally content and minding my own business and had not even registered that I was walking past someone when the comment was made.

As soon as I realised that this man was talking to me I felt the blood rush to my head, I felt sick, shocked but I also felt angry. I turned around and said 'fuck you' to his back as he walked off. He then, without turning around, stuck his fingers up at me. I said it again, taking a few steps in his direction before realising that I could be placing myself in danger, so I turned around and walked off. I then went through a range of emotions, including being angry at myself for not reciting my well-rehearsed speech about his comment being harassment and therefore totally unacceptable. I tried not to let his comment ruin my day, but it did. What gave him the right to make me feel like that? I had as much right to be walking along that street as he did. I am determined not to be intimidated by such behaviour.

From Sarah, 27 March 2005

I'm 15 years old, and I recently had the thrilling experience of being harrassed in the street in broad daylight by a sixty year old man. I was wearing what you might call "Punk clothes", I had on heavy black eyeliner and black lipstick, and my hair was dyed and spiked. Because of this, I was stopped by the man, who informed me "It's not Halloween, you f***ing freak" and then proceeded to hurl obscenities at me. I wanted to come up with a clever remark, or even just to say something, but was too frightened. Some people might argue I deserved it, for my style of dress, but isn't the idea of women NOT being judged by their make-up or skirt length included in the idea of real liberation? Grrr...

And come to think of it, I was recently harrassed by a cashier in a shop. When I knelt down to pick up some money that had fallen out of my pocket, I got "Look at the size of the arse on that one!" in a loud voice, in front of both the other customers and his boss. This is a corner shop that sits beside a high school bus stop, and is mostly frequented by teenagers and CHILDREN in their early teens. What kind of message does this send out?

From Laura, 11 March 2005

One of the most humiliating encounters I've had was while paying for groceries, a group of men aged 25+ were behind me buying Nuts magazines, and debating in loud voices and in crude detail why they would or wouldn't f**k me. I did nothing to deserve it, I was full up with a cold, and wearing five layers of clothes for goodness sake. What makes them think this sort of behaviour is ok?

From Michlle, 3 March 2005

Unbelievable..unfortunately I feel it's getting worse. I am 22 and was walking with my younger sister on her way to school. We both had skirts on as she was going to school and I had a suit , well the level of harassment as we walked pass a site in which new houses are being built was extreme. However more worrying was a van load of mixed aged men who slowed down to walking pace for about 30 seconds while a mixture of crude remarks were hurled at us ...while they laughed and shouted trying to be ruder than each other. My sister is just 15 and along with numerous other taunts was told in no uncertain terms by a middle aged man what would happen to her knickers if he got out the van! Is this acceptable?

From Kerrie, 15 February 2005

I was just washing my car and a couple of eejjitts walking their dog turned their heads right round to look at me and make leering noises. These guys must have been about seventy. I just shook my head and carried on though I really felt like throwing my dirty sud water over them! But why should I lower myself and become undignified just because of the way they make me feel. I don't like feeling this way but sometimes I really hate the way our society condones this sort of behaviour. It eats away at my energy and self-esteem and it takes a lot for me to carry on and counter the belief that this is my lot because I am a woman.

From Harriet, 28 January 2005

I was walking home late one night, about 2 in the morning, and there was no one around. A car full of young men came down the road, they all shouted at me I can't even remember what now, and then the car stopped. Luckily I was just walking past the entrance to some Halls of Residence so I pretended I was a student, turned in, and ducked down behind someone's car. They continued shouting for a bit and then drove off. This happened a couple of years ago now but every time I remember it I get so angry: How humliating to be a grown woman crouching terrified in the dark and waiting for the menace to go away. Admittedly, I probably shouldn't have been walking around at that time on my own, (although ironically the only reason I was in the first place was to prove to myself that I could), but it's still not fair.

From Jade, 26 January 2005

I'm absolutely sick to the back teeth with it! I feel so intensely angry with these so called men because I know I'm being made a target because of my sex. The worst cases i've experienced range from some man getting out of a transit van to scream aggressive sexual abuse, to another bloke repeating over and over again 'nigger', to being clicked at and wolf whistled at by some guy who was walking behind me trying to get my attention. To my enjoyment the latter idiot got a right mouthful on how 'if you treat a woman like a dog, she'll piss on you. Now f**k off!' He genuinly looked surprised that I didn't blush and stop for my new master to make further come-ons.

What annoys me the most is the fact that being harassed is not seen to be a big deal most of the time by most men and even some women! So, I should just expect to be made uncomfortable or intimidated by individuals because after all; boys will be boys. Well I hope these boys don't come crying when we've got their balls in our broth, after all girls will be girls. hehe

From Kerrie, 6 January 2005

Well. Building hideous new properties on one of the few green areas left in my area was bad enough but the builders really take the biscuit by wolf whistling and calling out to me.

From Hannah, 20 December 2004

On my way to work I walk past workshops, garages and building sites. On the walk home the traffic is usually stationary with blokes just sat watching pedestrians pass them. I couldn't begin to count the number of times I've been whistled at, told to cheer up or smile or told i'm sexy. It makes me shudder to think of it, who do they think they are? One guy breathed 'Sexy lady' in my ear once as I walked past, I stopped, turned round and said 'well, you're not are you mate?'. He really couldn't think of anything to say althought usually they retort 'slag' or something imaginative like that. That brief moment where one weasley little man was taken aback helps make me chuckle and feel better. Also I find comments relating to a man's penis size or his age help such as 'no thanks Grandad' or 'cheers baldy'. Immature I know but it has helped me get to work without my blood boiling too much. Cuss a bloke in front of his mates and he is floored. We shouldn't be scared of them although I agree that they shouldn't comment in the first place.

From Deborah, 19 December 2004

I feel as thought I have found some validation to my own extreme feelings of anger about my experience with street harassment. I have actually felt in the past that my anger was odd. I felt that I should be feeling differently about these experiences and that I was being a rather moody citizen by getting so enraged about these situations. I also thought there must be something about me that provokes it, something in my general expression or gate. Now I understand that my sometimes hard to control urges to kick the wing mirrors off those white vans and knock over those pedestrian bollards on work sights was more normal than I thought! I will take this as inspiration and now document every time I get harassed and see what comes of it.

From Lindsay, 2 December 2004

Riding the bus early in the evening, I was sitting reading when a group of white teenage boys got on the bus and came upstairs being really loud. They sat down at the back of the bus, two of them in the seat behind me. The bus stopped and one of the boys hit me on the back of the head and ran downstairs off the bus. When I turned around, there was one boy left trying to take my picture on his camera phone and saying 'you got slapped on the head you stupid bitch'. I was angry about being targeted because I'm a woman, I was angry about the way these cowardly little shits were getting their thrills and I was also angry at the fact that even after hearing me yell at these kids, nobody else on the bus even said anything to me. They just kept their noses buried in their books. When we are continuously harassed as women, physically, sexually or whatever, we feel isolated and victimised but when nobody even acknowledges it, we can easily feel embarassed and like there is no point complaining.

From Laura, 15 November 2004

I was coming back home to Leeds from Sheffield on the train. I was sitting reading, minding my own business and two lads got on the train and sat behind me. They started tapping me on the shoulder and at first I ignored it but after about five taps I turned round and said "please could you stop touching me". This didn't work and one of them started going through the ring tones on his mobile and holding it up to my ear. I ignored this as best I could but then one of them lent over onto my seat and said "my mate wants you to go to the toilet with him he can find out what type of girl you really are". At this point I stood up and shouted (so everyone in the carriage could hear) "stop touching me and making comments to me" This served to embarass them quite well, I thought. I sat down, quite triumphant. Nothing happened for about two or three minutes and then one of them shouted right in my ear "BOO" as loud as he could. It really hurt my ear and the pain was very sharp so I got up and moved seats to the other end of the carriage. It was pretty obvious that they had singled me out as a young woman on her own. Two women got on at the next stop and sat where I had previously been sat but thankfully they didn't endure any harassment. Just another typical day for me in the life of a woman minding her own business and trying to have a pleasant train ride home!

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The F-Word would like to thank the women who posted their stories on Anti Street Harassment UK. Add your own stories, and read more, at Anti Street Harassment UK.

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