Street harassment starts young

// 1 June 2012

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This is a guest post by Farrah Kelly, a student at the University of York. She is a student media editor, and writes a personal blog here. She can be found on Twitter, @farrahkelly.

 I used to be followed home. Not from work, nights out, or even university; but from school, wearing a uniform. I was fourteen.

I was trailed by the same guy each time. He was roughly five years my senior, and well aware of how intimidated I was by him. He was a friend of a friend who’d taken a bit of a shine to me and, over time, trying to avoid him became a regular aspect of my journeys home.

I’d try to outpace him, but he was happy to follow from a distance when he didn’t manage to get a grumbled conversation out of me. To lose him, I’d wait at the end of my street feigning phone calls until he got bored and wandered off- solely so he didn’t find out exactly which house I lived in. If he’d known precisely which door to wait by, I could’ve been much more vulnerable home alone than I was walking around in broad daylight. I confided in our mutual friend, who simply insisted that he was “a nice guy really”, and that he just “really liked me”. A resounding “get over it”, then.

After a while, I stopped noticing him around. He’d taken the hint, and I was victorious. That was, until I saw him trying to take pictures of my younger sister and I on our way to the shops. The reality of how sinister this guy was hit like a train.

What’s concerning is I’m not alone. In discussions with other young women, many unwanted encounters took place while we were all still worried about homework deadlines. One friend was catcalled by two separate cars of older men on her way to a 15th birthday party. Another was walking home from school when a group of older men pulled up alongside her and decided to snatch her mobile out of her hands so they could gain her phone number. She received inappropriate calls for months afterwards.

Perhaps this is a factor in why the results of the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) survey are puzzlingly lower than what we all expected. 4 out of 10 women experiencing street harassment seems a bit of an understatement. The survey doesn’t include any participants younger than 18, but overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that a great deal of sexual harassment occurs well before the age of legal consent.

The social greying of what constitutes harassment has ultimately led to an acceptance of unwanted sexual attention in society. Being wolf-whistled at, being chased, being groped. It’s become a daily encounter for women, and we have become so accustomed to it, it’s considered the norm. This confusion over what we count as unacceptable has meant younger women have become victims.

At no point during my encounter with my unwanted chaperone did it occur to me that I was being sexually harassed. It wasn’t until I was worried for my sister’s safety that it became clear how unnerving my situation was. All of my friends took a moment to realise that what they had experienced was highly inappropriate. We’re all used to it, well before we’re even of age.

Accepting such extreme harassment at a young age contributes to how we later view how we’re treated in public. If we’re shrugging off being followed home at fourteen, we’re not going to see being mauled in a club at twenty, or being offered an old man’s lap as a seat on a crowded train as a big deal. If something is detrimental to how safe we feel, or we are made physically vulnerable, we should be acknowledging it for what it is, and reporting it. Yet we’ve already been conditioned to accept abuse, so it’s little wonder that we find it difficult to draw a definitive line between flattery and harassment.

We need to recognise that harassment begins at a much younger age than 18. We need to educate young girls on identifying and reporting it. We need to start seeing street harassment for what it is; sinister, unnerving, and dangerous. And we need it to stop.

Photo at the top of the post is of a placard that says “I’m not a dog, don’t whistle at me”, taken from the Stop Street Harassment website.

Comments From You

Shadow // Posted 1 June 2012 at 3:32 pm

Agree Farrah most girls grow up internalising the belief that men, older boys and even these girls male peers have the inalienable right to subject them to male sexual harassment. Not forgetting of course, such male sexual/physical/verbal harassment of females is still dismissed by male supremacist system, which means governing bodies such as the police and law authorities as ‘just boys being boys.’ This neatly side-steps the issue which is endemic male domination over women and girls and male enactment of their pseudo male right to control, limit and police women and girls 24/7 particularly when females enter public areas which are supposedly owned and controlled by males.

I think the reason why this survey was limited to over 18 females is because any child under the age of 18 cannot be surveyed without the express permission of a parent/guardian.

But of course as we know, males start sexually/physically/verbally harassing girls who are aged as young as 9 years old. But our male supremacist society prefers to be like the three wise monkeys: see no male harassment of females; hear no male harassment of females; and speak of no male harassment against females. Denial is what males commonly enact whenever they are held accountable for committing harassment agaisnt females and just in case non-harassing males are wondering what they can do? It is very easy but it will mean you will be challenged by the male harassers and that is to challenge those males you see harassing women and girls. And if you hear other males discussing how they subjected a woman/girl to harassment – don’t ignore it – hold these males accountable.

Fantail // Posted 2 June 2012 at 8:43 pm

I’m glad you made this point — when I read the results, my initial thought was “Why didn’t they survey younger girls?” Harassment for me began at the age of 13. I was in a shopping mall in my school uniform when a middle-aged man tried to chat me up. At first I thought he was just a lonely man looking for a good-natured chat; when he started pressing for my phone number, I was horrified.

One of the worst incidences of harassment I recall is when I was 14 and on a tube train with a group of drunk middle-aged men leering at me. They followed me off the train, and one of them said to me: “Come on love, don’t be shy”. When I responded with “I think in this case, I will be”, he called me a bitch.

What is really frightening when I looked back on these events is that people have always said I look younger than my age. I never took any care with my appearance at that age, dressed in baggy clothes, wore no make-up, and didn’t do my hair. I was very clearly a child and not interested in being viewed sexually.

I have never discovered any support for girls who experience encounters such as these, which encourages the notion that they are “normal”, harmless aspects of life as a girl — or even positive, flattering experiences. Until society begins to take harassment seriously, we will never be rid of it.

The Goldfish // Posted 3 June 2012 at 11:45 am

The first harassment I received was in my primary school uniform (I was well-developed, but couldn’t have looked older than twelve or thirteen and of course, didn’t deserve to be treated like that if I’d been 22 or 23). The one time I was… I don’t know the phrase to describe it, because I’ve barely spoken to anyone about it, but as part of a crowd watching a street performance, a man in a suit came up behind me and masturbated against my backside. I was fourteen.

Now I am an adult with young children in my life, I feel terrifically angry about these kinds of things. I have large breasts which developed early, and when I received so many comments and calls from cars, it made me worry constantly about wearing clothes which drew attention to them. It added another level to my teenage body-nonsense because I felt that my breasts caused this stuff to happen.

I honestly think this happens more often to very young women and girls because they are vulnerable. Girls are much less likely to answer back, let alone retaliate physically or make a formal complaint. They are more likely to be scared and maybe run away, which I think is the big part of the amusement/ power trip for men like this.

But you’re spot-on. You learn as a girl that this sort of thing is normal, or even a reflection of your burgeoning womanhood – you’re growing up now and men are beginning to notice. You learn to mistrust the perfectly sensible intuition that when a stranger makes a highly sexual remark apropos of nothing, or touches you in a sexual way, you have cause to be angry and scared.

Amanda McIndoe // Posted 5 June 2012 at 12:04 am

I remember years ago a girl I used to go to college with was telling me about her experiance when she was on the bus into her work. A middle aged man sat beside her and put his leg up so she couldn’t get away. He was being very leery and she felt really intimidated, however, an older woman noticed and started saying at the top of her voice, “ARE YOU OK HEN? IS THAT MAN BOTHERING YOU?” which didn’t put him off, what did make him go away was when he found out that the girl he was harrassing was actually 21, not 15 like he orginally thought. It’s horrible to think it was the fact that he believed she was a girl of school age that made him want to force his attention on her.

I think it’s so common though, and I do think teenagers are targated because these men know they are more likely to be upset by their attentions and less likely to complain or fight back.

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