Friday 30 March 2012

Walking through Walthamstow, or the cultural semiotics of street harrassment


Posted by Goblin

Not quite sure how to start this. Maybe with a story.

It was the Lashings half-AGM on  Saturday, and one member arrived slightly discombobulated due to various street harassment incidents on the way from the station. We commiserated with them, raged a bit, discussed a bit, carried on with the meeting/rehearsal, and then I left to go to a friend's party in Walthamstow. I've never really been to Walthamstow, but I made the foolish assumption that it wouldn't be much different in terms of sartorial expectation than the rest of London on the first warmish sunny Saturday in the year, and so that I was dressed in a little black playsuity thing and thigh socks wdn't be a problem. Foolish, foolish assumption.

I was yelled at pretty much continuously from the time I left the station to arriving at my friend's house, which I did in a state somewhat analogous to a melting jelly. It was awful. Mostly groups of men, alternately and indiscriminately commenting approvingly on various parts of my anatomy and telling me to 'get dressed', alongside a fair smattering of other ephiphets and complete depersonalisation ('Hey, x, get a look at *that*!') God it was awful. I'm shuddering just writing this. Bear in mind that I am 5"2, osteoporotic, tiny-boned and unskilled in any form of self defence bar screaming; also, at this point I had no clue where the hell I was or was going. It could have been scarier, but not by much. And what did I do, in my self-assertive, culturally aware, articulate way? Absolutely fucking nothing, that's what. Kept my eyes down and tried to fold myself into myself, as if I was running away and leaving my body behind me to be stared at. No reaction, no confrontation, no reprimand: just the furtive, fervent prayer for getting through this without injury.

And it's not that I'm above confrontation in some situations, I've turned on men in clubs before now - but inside, in a place I knew, with friends and bouncers within reach, not Hoe Road in the pitch dark, where silent abjection seemed the best way of getting to my destination without incident. Interestingly enough, walking around the same streets with a male friend an hour later, no trouble at all; and rest assured we will come back to the implications thereof.

Anyway, I'd be surprised if I was the only woman either being treated or responding thus.This website has some interesting US statistics; here's the f-word on the topic. (Nb. my own personal favourite street harassment moment (in an ironic sense) was in California, where two separate men stopped to pick me up as I walked 3 blocks from the conference hotel to the 7-11, because they assumed that if I was walking I must be 'lookin' for a date'. I appreciate nobody walks in California, but *really*.) It interests me that my female friends report widely varying levels of street harrassment: some, like me, seem to get it on a pretty regular if not daily basis, while others feel pretty much unaffected. It's not because I'm particularly pretty, and I suspect I usually dress a bit too hippy/emo/goth/like a pre-Raphelite Lady Gaga (my favourite street compliment ever) to count as traditionally appealing. Based purely on anecdata and my own experience, here are some fairly unsettling conclusions about street harassment and its sociocultural implications.

Now, I know that the amount of hassle I get varies predictably according to various visual factors. Hair down (it's waist-length and red), hassle goes up. A short-haired friend recently commented that she received far more comment (and benevolent sexism) when wearing a long-hair wig, as she sometimes did when going out. Wearing tight clothes, shorts or a skirt, likewise. Heels, ditto. Heaven forbid I go out in seamed stockings - I've taken the tube in burlesque costume before now, only to find an inebriated group of gentlemen (hah) en route to a stag do, and God knows *that* was an interesting experience. I don't really have particularly noticeable breasts, and I'd be interested in perspectives from people who do, because certain parts of me - legs and hair, usually - tend to be commented on directly if they're visible. I'm also fairly obviously small and slender, as are a number of friends who also get hassled a lot. It seems that the more traditionally 'feminine' my - or others' - iconography, the more our semiotics say 'girl' (a term used intentionally for all its iconocultural loading) the more men feel it necessary to suggest we suck them off as they drive past.

Not unrelatedly, the bits of me, anyway, that tend to get commented on are those that are traditionally associated with youth. I had a bit of a moment of epiphany t'other day sharing a shower with a bunch of teenage French girls. Looking at all the long limbs and long hair, it occurred that all the bits of me people comment on are a) the parts of me which are traditionally young-looking; b) *also* those bits I tend to like most about myself and consider objectively attractive. Internalisation of cultural fetishisation of youth much?

Both of these things highlight some pervasive cultural problems. Eg:

1) femininity into something that is *inherently* belittled and objectified.The more feminine you are, the more you are *only* allowed space to be an object of sexual attention.

2) femininity is more acceptable the more immature it is. And that approval is shown in terms of sexual objectification. Eep.

3) If accompanied by a man - see previous - you count as a possession, and therefore are either exempt from comment or comments must be mediated through him.

4) (Some) men/the kyriarchy assume the right to define/comment on femininity, its worth.

5) This fucking attitude

6. Street harrassment is aimed at mocking or policing people's appearance at least as often as it's phrased as a 'compliment'.

7. Street harrassers often pick on those they perceive as vulnerable.

So could we please, once and for all, get over the idea that street harrassment is acceptable, let alone 'flattering'?


  1. I'm sorry -- that sounds really horrible. :-(

    I'm not sure that it's just the physical aspects considered "feminine" or "youthful" that attract the creeps. I also think it's a general openness and vulnerability (again, this could probably be considered "feminine").

    Of course, anyone can be harassed, regardless of size, clothes, hair, or age. I know women are very "feminine" and young-looking but who practically never get harassed in the street -- possibly because they give off more of a "don't mess with me" vibe.

    Still, you'd hope that you'd be able to dress they way you liked and give off any vibe you damn please and still not have people harass you. :-/

    P.S. I was once harassed by someone in a car when I was coming back from a dance practice. I was wearinhe car window and shouted he could see "all of my bum" and that I should be ashamed. Track-suit bottoms, I tell you! I don't even want to get into that one time I wore a crop-top as a teen (short version: someone exposed themselves to me and I ran into a shop to buy a new top)

  2. I seem to get more than my fair share of street harassment. After really bad days (had to walk through a rough area/wearing colourful, frivolous clothes/long hair loose) I’ll arrive home, sweating and shaken and tell my husband what I’ve just had to go through. At first, he was surprised as well as outraged. You see, he’s a very kind person, with a smidge of naivety and a buoyant belief in the goodness of fellow human beings. He didn’t disbelieve me; he just couldn’t imagine strangers behaving that way towards ANYONE, regardless of gender/dress, who was just walking along the public street. The behaviour of the street harassers was totally invisible to him; he’d never witnessed or experienced it. He was flabbergasted that this could happen to me just as readily in a busy place on a sunny afternoon as on a lonely walk to the chip shop at midnight. I gave examples. He empathised, but I couldn’t show him what these encounters looked like and how scary they were.

    Then I had the idea of having him look for ‘near misses’. I was walking through a local green space and had to overtake two young women who were walking at a relaxed dawdle and taking up the whole path. There was a moment when I came up behind into their blind spot and they both flinched and clutched their handbags, then burst out laughing with relief that it was another girl. I suggested husband be alert for similar reaction that reveal women’s fears about having their personal space compromised or encountering a man when walking in a lonely place. My husband is an unthreatening looking hippy, nerdy, guy. I suggested he watch out for relief in women’s facial expressions when they glanced over their shoulders and saw a smiling chap in a geeky t-shirt taking no interest in harassing them in any way. It turns out that this happens a lot. He has become more alert to facial expressions, to women crossing over the road when they hear footsteps behind them, to women making a wide berth around park benches occupied by guys. Suddenly it’s visible to him that my experience of street harassment is not unique and it’s clear that some women alter their behaviour to keep attention away from themselves.