Street harassment isn't a woman’s problem, it’s everybody’s problem

If every woman knew that the strangers around her would support her when she spoke out, street harassment would quickly become a thing of the past

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Whatever you want to call it — cat calling, wolf whistling or stalking — street harassment is unwanted male attention that demeans, intimidates and humiliates women.

Some types are worse than others. At one end of the continuum, as the writer Reni Eddo-Lodge describes, there is “the seemingly innocuous request for a smile”, and at the other, women are groped, run over, assaulted and shot.

For everything in between, a scroll down the Everyday Sexism project’s twitter feed will provide you with women’s bizarre and terrifying experiences of street harassment.

Street harassment is an expression of male power that reinforces the idea that the purpose of women’s existence is to please men. But this isn’t my problem with it; my problem is that it always happens in public spaces where there are often witnesses who do nothing about it.

The frequent unwanted attention women receive on the street is a visible form of sexism that has become normalised and even expected, especially in the summer. Ask any woman and they will tell you that the recent heatwave will have put them on high alert.

When something so blatant goes unchallenged, we openly encourage a form of oppression towards women that jeopardises their personal safety and lays the foundations for further sexism and violence.

Men who harass women in the street believe they are entitled to comment on, interrogate and physically pursue any woman they want. The culture of silence surrounding street harassment allows this to happen.

The comments that street harassers make are sometimes misunderstood as “compliments”. However, no matter how flattering it may seem at first, if women show their annoyance, or refuse to comply with requests like “tell me your name”, they are met with blunt aggression. When one woman in the USA challenged a harasser, he told her, “Women are put on this earth to satisfy a man, so if she feels offended, she shouldn’t have [ever] been born.”

Women who are targeted by street harassers have two options: ignore or confront. Looking away or taking another route tend to be safer options as confrontations usually escalate the situation, which is why women have come up with creative tools such as "cards against harassment", photography projects and poster campaigns to combat the problem.

But why should women risk hostility, or re-navigate their way home, just because they refuse to tolerate sexism?

To rid public spaces of sexism, victims of street harassment need allies. In my ten years’ experience of street harassment, only one bystander has supported me.

Near London Bridge at rush hour, dozens of witnesses walked by while I screamed at a stranger who had just followed and groped me. A man stopped, asked if I was okay, asked whether I wanted him to call the police and told the perpetrator to back off. All the countless other times I’ve been harassed, I’ve been left to deal with aggressors alone.

If every woman knew that the strangers around her would support her when she spoke out, street harassment would become extinct by 2015. If passers-by stopped to watch a woman confront her harasser and criticised him too, the embarrassment that harassed women feel would be turned onto the perpetrator.

If the public collectively took a zero-tolerance approach to street harassment, cat-callers and stalkers would know their behaviour is unacceptable.

Street harassment is not a woman’s problem, it’s everybody’s problem. If you hear a man harass a woman or see him become aggressive when a woman challenges him, get involved. Support her, show solidarity, be an ally. Maybe even give the harasser one of these cards.

All women have the right to use public spaces with safety and dignity, but street harassment is an insidious social problem that currently prevents that.

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