A recent experience made Stylist’s junior beauty writer Ava Welsing-Kitchener realise that the conversation around street harassment is at risk of becoming concentrated among victims. Here, she explains why all men are complicit if they stay silent.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a situation where I felt vulnerable at the hands of a man. Nobody was touched, it didn’t take place in some dark alley, but I was still made to feel as if I was completely powerless. Usually, I’d feel the all-too-familiar feeling of shame, despite doing nothing wrong. But what marked this occasion as different was the realisation that I felt nothing. I had become used to sexual harassment – or at least as used to it as I could.
On paper, all that happened was that a man decided to waltz up to me and detail exactly how he would “wreck my p**sy”. No greeting, no ‘courting’ – this was Kingsland Road at 2am, so surely a girl in a dress and platform boots should have seen it coming. Rather than silently keep tapping away at my phone, I looked him squarely in the eye and told him that I’d love to wreck his penis… by chopping it off and putting it in a meat grinder. After a few expletives and several gobs of spit were hurled my way, he shuffled off, and I jumped into an Uber. I was shaking, but not from fear, for once.
I needed to share what had happened, and not by calling my mum. I wanted to disrupt my Instagram feed, a space where nothing bad ever happens, and pointedly broadcast my experience to the young men who follow me: a mixture of guys I’ve dated, ones I’ve never spoken to, and those I went to school with. So I posted a Story.
“The majority of guys reading this probably don’t make girls feel *this* small on the street, and therefore don’t think it applies to them,” I typed. “But… if you actively tell your peers it’s a sh**ty and disgusting thing to do, then they might just listen to you.” I woke up to more than 60 messages - and none of them were from men.
“This happens to me nearly every time I go out – thank you for openly talking about it,” replied someone from my uni halls. “Every time I try and talk about catcalling with my male friends, they shut down and can’t accept their own power and influence. I’ve given up.”
Similar messages proved what I already knew: we, as women, have had a subconscious message instilled in us to protect men from everything we go through. We don’t bring up instances of sexual harassment because of the fear of victim blaming, of ‘well-meaning’ questions about what we were wearing, and that the men we trust our stories with just won’t understand.
And it’s because of this sacrificial silence that we don’t realise just how often catcalling occurs, in all degrees and forms.
Anti-street harassment group Hollaback! reported back in 2015 that on average, 84% of women in 22 countries had experienced harassment on the street before they turn 17. Throughout history, underage girls have had to grapple with and internalise being sexualised as an integral part of ‘growing up’. Can you remember the first time you were harassed as a child? I can, and although I couldn’t process what was happening with the clarity I can now, it felt debilitating – like being told off for something you hadn’t done, times a million.
Hearing that feeling echoed by hundreds of women in the trending #firstharassed tag on Twitter in 2015 made me feel not alone, and the shame started to wear off.
#FirstHarassed, groups like Hollaback! and Instagram pages like Cheer Up Luv are doing the most to shed light on the shared struggle of harassment in all its colourful forms. Although the power of these safe spaces for victims is tremendous, I can’t help but suspect that the conversation might start becoming concentrated amongst the people it affects the most.
Yes, it’s incredibly cathartic to have these discussions with others (and yes, not just women are affected by street harassment – but for the sake of this article, let’s focus on the dynamics between women and binary, heterosexual cisgender men). But I want to pointedly single out the men in our lives who shut down and clam up when these discussions are raised. It’s not enough to half-heartedly agree that “it’s disgusting”, while simultaneously maintaining an underlying “boys will be boys” attitude (can we bin that phrase once and for all, please?).
Dear well-meaning men: those catcallers who you look down on, who you are so eager to disassociate yourselves from? They aren’t listening to their victims. They might just listen to you. Catcalling is more about proclaiming your masculinity to yourself and to other men than it is about hoping the target will respond by immediately getting on her knees.
So show them that catcalling highlights the deep insecurity that lies in the fragile male ego, that masculinity shouldn’t manifest itself in chest thumping and hooting. Discuss positive, non-toxic ways to handle rejection, rather than throw a misogynistic fit and threaten to beat a woman up or throw acid in her face – or simply claim that she “thinks she’s so hot” to bring her down a few levels to her rightful place.
It’s your problem, not ours. Put your dogs on a lead and train them to not s**t all over the place, and we’ll consider giving you a seat at the table.
Images: Getty Images