SuzyKnew! asked: ‘How do you make a fuss when you’re touched on a bus?’ Recently, I’ve had some upsetting sexual harassment encounters in public places, like a guy grabbing my arm in the middle of the street (a forceful shove from a friend saved any other parts of my body from being groped) and crotch-grabbing in a club.
I am embarrassed to say that I froze up and did nothing. My humiliation stems not primarily from the fact that a man thought he had a right to my body or that I was completely incapable of action – but that this is not the reaction I anticipated for myself. As an educated, headstrong, independent woman with some martial arts knowledge, I always imagined an appropriately violent reaction whenever actual touching occurred to me. Since then, I have tried to understand why I was the one targeted the most and my subsequent response, in spite of walking around with two other friends. Was it because I am a diminutive five-foot tall Asian woman that they perceived me as more vulnerable? That they were males of a different race? That I wore provocative clothing? That it was hot? Or was it simple because I am a woman?
I grew up thinking that catcalls and jeers were a way of life. In the Philippines, no matter what corner you end up in, men will engage in this type of behavior as long as you are a woman. Rural villages have men loitering outside store stalls, ready to whistle and greet as you pass by. However, it was mostly in cities that I realized how the oppressive density of people also prompted more anonymous sexual harassment. The Metro Manila railway and subway system have ‘Ladies Only’ compartments, due to the overwhelming complaints from inappropriate sexual touching. Though I never experienced actual touching given that I grew up in a relatively sheltered street life because my family owns a car, I was increasingly desensitized to the social implications of this type of behavior.
Thrust into city life after four years in an all women’s college, I was unprepared to be once more viewed as an ‘object’ for men to comment on. Taught to simply ignore these unwanted advances, my female friends and I strove to enjoy our daily lives but now we were more wary about what we wore and where we went. My heart rebelled against this – why should I give them power over me by changing my lifestyle? It was propagating the power dynamic, but it’s difficult to combat this when you could potentially be raped or physically abused from an unknown man’s reaction. It doesn’t help either that such behavior is exhibited around little girls and boys. They’re being taught how to make the next generation of public gropers and sexual harassers.
A forum on sexual harassment online discusses “Holly Kearl’s book entitled, Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women. Defined by Kearl in the first chapter as “unwanted attention” in public places, street harassment includes and is not limited to “physically harmless leers, whistles, honks, kissing noises, and nonsexually explicit evaluative comments,” but also extends to “more insulting and threatening behavior like vulgar gestures, sexually charged comments, flashing, and stalking, to illegal actions like public masturbation, sexual touching, assault, and rape.” Many (if not most) women experience it; very few men know about it.
The second chapter explains the context in which street harassment occurs. If a young girl, perhaps wearing a short skirt, walks alone on a street at night and is sexually assaulted, she would most likely be blamed for the assault, right? Wrong, Kearl tells us; her clothing and time she chose to walk outside is not her fault that she was sexually assaulted. As someone who lived in a small town in Morocco for half a year, I can attest that I wore conservative clothes yet still experienced men whistling and throwing rocks at me in the light of the day. Therefore, Kearl explains, street harassment is a power dynamic that shows which gender wields more power and control in a given society.
Yet street harassment is not just a gendered issue; it is multi-layered with race, socioeconomic status, gender expression, and disability, as Kearl writes in the third chapter. It is “a global problem,” as the title of the fourth chapter states. It not only happens in cities, it is more likely to happen wherever women are alone and/or traveling in public by taxi, public transportation, and on foot.
….Women view street harassment differently and therefore they deal with street harassment differently. Kearl notes in the sixth chapter that some women choose to ignore it; others choose to directly address the harasser. A missing link in solving the street harassment issue, as explained in the seventh chapter, is to include male allies by educating and engaging them that street harassment is not okay. Equally important in combating this problem is empowering women and raising public awareness, which Kearl gives specific ideas and suggestions as to how to do this in the eighth and ninth chapters respectively. Finally, in the tenth chapter, Kearl notes that we must make street harassment an issue. If we shrug it to the side and ignore it, we are making a statement that street harassment is okay.”
But, NO. It’s not okay that a man can think they have power over a woman’s body. It’s not okay that while walking with a female friend at night, we felt so uncomfortable that we said ‘the world is so unsafe for women.’
How can we make combat street harassment in our own communities?