International Anti-Street Harassment Week

// 19 March 2012


anti-street harassment week logo, reading

Yesterday marked the start of International Anti-Street Harassment Week (which I’m posting about today as I can’t quite get my head around weeks starting on a Sunday!). The aim of the week is to raise awareness about gender-based street harassment and send out the clear message that it’s not OK. The Meet Us On The Streets website has details of events going on all round the world.

Back in 2008 I wrote a quick post in response to a Comment is Free piece where commenters were asserting that street harassment hardly ever happens and is all harmless fun anyway. I asked readers to leave a comment if they’d experienced street harassment, and almost four years and over 400 comments later they’re still coming in. Here are just a few excerpts:

I got threatened with rape on my way home just under a fortnight ago – when I responded angrily the creeps followed me down the road (“It was just a joke – there’s no call for that type of language!”) until I mimed dialling 999.

My worst experience most recently was walking home from work on a Saturday night and two lads passing me in the street. At exactly the moment we crossed paths one stuck his hand out and groped my breast.

The most unique incident is probably when two of my friends and I were propositioned by a man when we were coming home from the supermarket. He wanted to have a multi-ethnic foursome.

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I used to get harassed by a man on my way to school every morning. He was a car-park attendant and I had to walk through the (usually deserted) car park to get to school, and every time he saw me he’d wolf whistle or ask for my name or make lewd comments.

Men have often kicked, grabbed or forcefully pushed me (even at the top of stair cases) when I’m out in my wheelchair. It’s scary.

The response to my post came as no surprise to many readers, but I think it’s an important collection of experiences because so many people – mostly men – simply don’t understand that street harassment is a problem. As one male commenter put it:

As a guy, this is truly horrible reading. I don’t recall witnessing any harassment, but I guess it’s because as a man it isn’t (luckily for me) something that effects me directly and as stated above, it’s a much rarer occurrence when other men are present.

It’s clearly common, but why isn’t street harassment just harmless fun, complimentary even?

Quite simply, because it prevents us from using public space freely, by which I mean free from intrusion, judgement, fear, intimidation and assault.

Yes, some women may be quite chuffed to be told by a random stranger that they look sexy, but seeing as these women don’t tend to carry a big sign saying “compliments welcome”, Mr Random Stranger can’t tell how a given woman is going to feel about his supposed compliment. If he really is so fond of women, he would do better to keep his approval to himself.

Because what Mr Random Stranger needs to realise is that many women have experienced so-called compliments quickly descending into nastiness when they don’t respond in the desired way, and so “compliments” often carry threatening undertones. Same goes for wolf whistles. How are we supposed to know that “Give us a smile, love” won’t turn into “Moody fucking bitch” or that “What’s your name, darling?” won’t turn into sexual assault? I know I don’t, because both these things have happened to me. And even if we haven’t experienced things taking a turn for the worse, why should we have our private space invaded by complete strangers, our bodies judged by men we have no interest in, our attention demanded for no good reason when we’re busy with our own affairs?

Street harassment affects women so deeply that we change our routes to school and work, avoid using public transport at night, stop going out running, feel anxious every time we walk past a group of men, and walk with our heads down and eyes averted instead of enjoying the space around us, to list just a few of the self-imposed limitations mentioned by commenters on my blog post. We’re hurt and angered by our experiences of street harassment hours, days and even years after they occur. I can’t count the number of times my day has turned sour because some wanker decided to harass me on my way home and I couldn’t think of a decent response or was too afraid to call him out. I hate how powerless that makes me feel.

So for International Anti-Street Harassment Week, I’d quite simply like men on the street to stop. Stop with the wolf whistles, the beeping horns, the demands for attention, the sexual comments, the stares, the touching, the groping, the jokes at our expense. And for the men who don’t do those things, recognise that we can’t differentiate you from the rest of them. Move out the way, don’t block the pavement when you’re in a group, cross the road if you find yourself walking close behind a woman at night. Learn how to be an ally. Street harassment has to end.

Comments From You

Shadow // Posted 20 March 2012 at 12:17 pm

Doubtless men will claim ‘but this is anti-male prejudice because I never harass any female!’ By the way it is not ‘gender based street harassment’ it is male harassment of females.’ ‘Gender’ does not commit harassment but we must never name the absent (male) agents must we?

Males harass females because it is all about males’ demonstration of their sexual/socio-economic power over females and also to remind us females men own us (supposedly)! The number of males who are subjected to female harassment is miniscule but of course men as a group continue to refuse to take responsibility. This says it all about men’s lived expereinces:

As a guy, this is truly horrible reading. I don’t recall witnessing any harassment, but I guess it’s because as a man it isn’t (luckily for me) something that effects me directly and as stated above, it’s a much rarer occurrence when other men are present.’

In other words if men are not routinely harassed then male harassment of females doesn’t exist does it? Yes the reason why men are not routinely harassed is because they are males and are accorded socio-economic power over women – it is that simple.

Laura // Posted 20 March 2012 at 4:10 pm

@ Shadow: Actually, I mentioned men repeatedly, so not sure what you’re on about. “Gender-based” means the harassment occurs because of the harassers’ perception of the victim’s gender (as opposed to, say, rival football fans harassing each other because of their affiliation to a certain team). I think the website also uses it because they refer to genderqueer and trans people who experience harassment too.

Thomas // Posted 20 March 2012 at 6:14 pm

@Shadow “In other words if men are not routinely harassed then male harassment of females doesn’t exist does it?”

I do think that’s a fairly major misrepresentation of what the male commentator quoted is saying. He’s clearly acknowledging that this is a problem, but simply stating that he hasn’t personally witnessed it, because the kind of men who go in for harrassing women on the street tend to avoid mixed groups and focus on female-only groups.

Abi // Posted 21 March 2012 at 12:46 am

I’m glad to find there is actually an awareness week for this kind of thing. Though most of my experiences have been minor, I have been subject to various honks, shouted insults and comments in my lifetime, nearly always from men at least 20 years older than myself. I find these experiences profoundly unsettling and they are in no way appropriate for interaction between two strangers on the street.

One of the worst encounters I can remember was (fortunately) not related to sexual slurs. As a student living in Cambridge I was followed down the street by a homeless man at least 20-30 years older than me. He walked alongside me on the outside (making me feel trapped between the wall and him as i walked), trying to talk me into giving him money. When I politely refused he made rude gestures and walked off across the street, shouting insults at me. At which point I was extremely glad not to have given him anything!

This behaviour(alongside rude comments I have received about my looks or clothing from both men and women on the street) has led me to believe that in England we have a general problem with hostile behaviour towards strangers. How have we come to live in a society where hostility and wariness towards strangers on the street and on public transport is the normality?

Obviously it is likely that the homeless man targeted me in part because I am a young woman of small stature who is more easily intimidated/’persuaded’ and in those terms it was a sexual slur. I’m beginning to think these tendencies are also displayed by charity-workers in town centers. Though obviously I have nothing against charity collection, the regularity and persistence with which I am targeted by such people has become a nuisance and in itself mildly intimidating as I am constantly singled out from the crowd for their attention. I have come to dread the sight of a collection bucket on the high street! Are they taught to target young women as more likely donators or is this a preconception, judging my character by my appearance?

Rose // Posted 21 March 2012 at 1:19 pm


I used to work as a fundraiser for the Red Cross – and there is a problem with charity workers getting attacked in the street. I had large men turn violent on me because the Red Cross helps ‘our enemies’, ie. everyone.

We were never told to target petite woman – but we were advised to not approach those that posed a danger. I guess you look safe, friendly, and caring. Sorry if it’s a bummer.

Doing that job I saw a lot of harassment, being in the street all day. You get dressed in an anti-sexy uniform, but you’re ‘socially undesirable’ (ironically really, with what you’re there for), so people feel they can treat you badly openly. And they can.

They shout abuse in your face and people ignore it, because you’re ‘just a chugger’.

Miserable job, horribly depressing. (You spend all day focused on the world worst suffering, and people just walk off saying, ‘don’t care’ – it really crushed my hopes for humanity). *

Street harassment seems to come down to whats ‘socially acceptable’, so I think we need to challenge every ‘bit of fun’ style excues we hear for that demeaning practice. I totally agree with the post – unfortunately, the abusers still feel ‘in their rights’ to act like that.

They need some very loud correction.

*Still love the Red Cross – they’re one of those last bits of hope!

IronFly // Posted 21 March 2012 at 8:22 pm

Rose, good for you. Red Cross is one of the few organisations I donate regularly to and their work is excellent. I’m sorry you’ve been subjected to street harassment because of your role though. I remember being shouted at during a protest by some racist guy who thought I was helping “the enemy” too (a woman who was due to be stoned to death).

However, I do understand why people dislike street fundraisers so much. I remember when I used to volunteer full time for 2 different charities, was unemployed and still donated a little to a few charities each month (a few quid was feasible, instead of buying a pack of cigs). But even then, even after I was polite to chuggers who spoke to me, there was a sizeable proportion of them who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Some were lovely and respected the fact I was stretched too thin to help them and that my priorities were with human rights, not animal or environmental rights etc etc.

But those that were pushy me made me feel angry and upset, not too different from the feeling I get after being subjected to sexist street harassment. I remember one day walking to the Job Centre and a chugger wouldn’t leave me alone. I was late for a sign on and he wouldn’t take no for an answer, resorted to insulting me (“how can you afford that jacket if you’re on the dole?”) and following me down the street. I wanted to rip his clipboard out of his hands and thwack him in the face.

I know it’s an unfair generalisation, but it’s one I tend to make subconsciously to avoid getting upset like that again. I avoid street fundraisers now at all costs, which is sad.

Rose // Posted 22 March 2012 at 2:15 pm

@IronFly (good name!)

Yeah, not many chuggers seemed to be actually happy in their lives, this leads to a small minority of them becoming jerks. (The ones who hassel people in the street are also ‘like that’ to their co-workers that they are stationed with, and often therefore living with).

If you take their number (all should have ID numbers), or just tell their company how they behaved they will be fired. In fact, it’s easy to get chuggers fired. (I remember a group got fired from working for Greenpeace for having the hypocrisy to go have lunch in McDonalds, in full uniform!)

Unlike building firms, etc, you give the date and location of an incident such as you described to a chugging company and they will take action. (Chuggers as seen as representing the charity, the charity cannot be seen to harass people in the street).

They companies do want that feedback. The training says do not follow, stand in the way, obstruct, insist, approach stationary people, etc. The idea is generally to use eye contact, a friendly smile, and the charities information.

Claire // Posted 25 March 2012 at 8:58 pm

Definitely personally feeling this post just like the last. I commented on the last under my old username but since then I experienced daily sexual harrassment from my neighbor who used to comment on my ass and boobs and when i ignored him he used to shout about a ‘stick up my arse’ and how he wanted to shove his stick (the one he waved at me and often threatened to use to ‘bash my brains in’) up me. He was an older man, who was extremely antisocial and because he was disabled the council didn’t take his threats and jibes seriously. Yet day and night he’d wait for my friend and i to leave for or return from somewhere-especially work- and scream obscentites or threaten. Luckily, the emergency Police who overheard these threats and screams, arrested him on the spot.

He certainly would never become an ally and ended up being evicted and given a suspended sentence and restraining order. But what was worse was that, with the exception of one neighbour, no one told him off, no one mentioned when he shouted at us that it was wrong and abusive and one time he was discussing something with 2 women friends when we got back and he started going on about ‘the bitches from next door’, there’s the cunts, someone needs to teach them a lesson. Their reaction, they nodded along with him, condoning what he said.

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