Street harassment is everyone’s problem

Recently I was out jogging in Wolseley wearing baggy sweatpants and a hoodie, and as I passed a young man on the sidewalk, he slapped me on the rear.

I turned around and shouted at him, but he just smirked and said nothing.

I wanted to do something, but instead I just kept running because it was dark, we were alone on the street, he was much larger than I was, and frankly, I was scared.

It was humiliating.

As summertime approaches, 80 to 90 per cent of Canadian women can look forward to the same sort of treatment - to having strange men leer, whistle, catcall and honk at us, sometimes on a daily basis.

We can look forward to sexually explicit comments shouted out of car windows in broad daylight, vulgar gestures made as we walk down the street minding our own business and potentially being groped by complete strangers in public.

This daily street harassment is a common occurrence, a phenomenon that affects the vast majority of women and one that is widely reviled yet it persists.

I want to explain to all the men reading these words why street harassment is never OK, always oppressive and absolutely a big deal, since so many of you (although, I stress, not all) seem to lack understanding of the gravity of this issue.

I consulted with several of my female friends for their input, and some of the words they used to describe how they feel when they are sexually and verbally harassed on the street were: uncomfortable, angry, guilty, scared, repulsed, guarded, paranoid and weak.

“When I get catcalled or yelled at, I deflate,” one friend told me. “I feel like my sense of power and independence has become an illusion.”

I have never heard a woman say that she takes that kind of attention as a compliment.

Women who make an effort to look nice in public aren’t always looking for affirmation of our physical attractiveness from strangers, and we probably didn’t wear that short dress because we wanted to be viewed as a sexual object.

We probably just wanted to look nice so that we would feel confident in ourselves, and being groped and harassed does not make us feel confident.

However, street harassment does not only happen to stereotypically attractive, scantily clad young women.

Women of all ages, shapes and sizes experience it, at nighttime and in broad daylight, regardless of what we’re wearing - and from what I can tell, it’s not about paying women a compliment on our appearance it’s about asserting male dominance and making us feel small and helpless.

It’s about feeling entitled to do so.

Many young men I’ve encountered, while they firmly deny that they would ever partake of street harassment themselves, treat the issue with a flippancy that is disturbing.

When I’ve tried to broach the subject with them, they’ve made jokes, brushed it off, told me I’m overreacting, or made comments like, “You should be flattered. You’ll miss the attention when you get old.”

I don’t find this funny in the least, and I don’t know any woman who does.

But, as a friend of mine said, “I guess it’s easy to be flippant when you don’t live with the threat of sexual assault over your head at all times.”

The most frustrating reactions I receive on a regular basis are defensiveness and blaming/shaming.

I am often told that if I hadn’t wanted those men to shout at me from their car as they drove past, I shouldn’t have worn that short skirt.

Men who dismiss the feelings and experiences of women as invalid in these and other ways are missing the point we are not trying to call them out simply for being a man, or blame them for something they didn’t do.

We are calling upon them to be our allies, to actively resist a culture that teaches men that their sense of masculinity must come from exerting dominance over women, and that they are entitled to have access to our bodies, instead of attempting to ignore the issue and therefore allowing it to persist.

Belittling us for rightfully feeling scared and angry is deeply detrimental.

Blaming us for the harassment perpetrated against us is even more so.

The responsibility to end street harassment does not lie with the victims it lies with the perpetrators and those who condone their behaviour.

The same goes for all forms of sexual violence.

I leave you men with one final thought: if your sister, mother or girlfriend had men shouting obscenities at her on the street, or if she were groped by a stranger on the bus, or leered at by men slowly driving by, or followed for blocks, or asked repeatedly to get into a stranger’s car, and if these things happened to her on a weekly basis, would it be something to joke about then?

Katerina Tefft is a fourth-year politics student at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 66, Number 27 of The Uniter (May 30, 2012)

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