If you listen to enough stories of street harassment, often, you’ll hear an ending similar to this: “Afterwards, when I told my family/partner/friends about the experience, they told me I was overreacting.”
“They told me they’d be glad to get that kind of attention.”
“They told me that these things wouldn’t happen if I dressed differently, didn’t go out at night, didn’t drink- if I didn’t encourage them.”
And while street harassment is always awful, it’s these endings that sometimes scare me more than anything.
If you’re a woman and/or identify as LGBT+, you’re taught to expect at least some level of street harassment. It’s still unacceptable, but you don’t have to think too hard about flipping off someone who catcalls you. You can write off the street harasser as a sexist creep and go on your way. Once you get home, the hard part should be over.
No one should have to go home to find that their sweet, sensitive and loving family, partner, friend will invalidate what just happened. Will blame them. Will make them question what happened to the point where they won’t know themselves. And it’s this fear, the fear that after everything that’s already happened that no one will support them, that is what keeps people silent.
And if we don’t feel safe sharing something as relatively innocuous as a cat call, how are we supposed to feel sharing other, more violent, more traumatic experiences?
Street harassment is a problem not only because it is internationally recognized and experienced by millions of women and LGBT+ individuals, but because it is expected. It is recognized and dismissed. It’s something people have to experience, and they feel they have to experience it alone because they feel they have no one they can trust who will recognize that their experiences are real and awful and undeserved by anyone.
If we want to eradicate street harassment, the first step is getting people to share their stories. That not only means encouraging people to share- it means creating safe spaces where they feel they can share. It shouldn’t be entirely up to women and LGBT+ folks to share their stories- we should be working to make sure they all feel safe sharing their stories.
If you’re reading this, I’m sure you know there are plenty of communities online (The Everyday Sexism Project is only one example), but if you’re looking for things you can do to combat street harassment offline, I think one of the most important ways is being able to support family and friends so that they feel they can share these experiences with you. Not everyone knows about these kinds of communities. Supporting people who experience street harassment shouldn’t be exclusive to anti-street harassment spaces.
If you have trouble finding the right thing to say, here are a few quick tips:
-The advice can wait. Besides the fact that certain advice like “don’t walk alone at night” is a.) something most women have heard before and b.) not something women can always avoid, wait until they feel less vulnerable before springing in with the, ‘next time, try…’ line because we already internalize the idea that we deserve the harassment we get. And if you must give advice, try to avoid wording it in a way that implies, ‘you wouldn’t get harassed if you do this.’ Unless the advice is something along the lines of, ‘never go out in public,’ it’s not true.
-On that same note, it’s very easy for people who experience harassment to start blaming themselves. Cut the guilt trip short. Assure them that no matter what they were wearing, where they were going or what they were doing, they didn’t deserve what happened to them.
-Don’t tell them to calm down/ ‘not take it so seriously’. Their emotions are valid and need to be expressed. Sometimes people need to cry. I know, it’s not fun comforting someone who’s crying, but it is still definitely worse for the person who is crying.
– Listen. Listen listen listen because often we just want to acknowledge that it happened, and it was awful. Knowing that you don’t have to experience this bullshit alone can make handling it infinitely easier.
(This is not a real post, but a repost of a facebook status I made on the Catcalls Called Out facebook page. I’m putting it here so that it’s more easily archived, and easy to find. New post coming tomorrow.)
On a personal note: Today I had a particularly trying street harassment experience.
My train was approaching my station, so I walked away from the seats to the area near the doors. There was one other person there. For the entire two minutes I stood there, he swore at me, threatened me with sexual violence and repeatedly insulted my race. He was angry enough that I didn’t feel I could safely respond. When we finally got to my station, he left the train as well, and for a moment, I was sure he was going to follow me.
This wasn’t my first experience with street harassment, racism, or feeling unsafe on public transport- but it still hit me hard. Logically, I know that it wouldn’t have been safe to respond; that I did nothing to provoke him besides existing; that sharing this story should bring shame to the harasser, not me. Yet despite knowing this, there is a part of me that can’t help but feel guilty for ‘letting it upset me.’
I’m telling you this because it’s nonsense; it’s a lie we’ve been fed by a society that tells us that sexual harassment is the price we pay for existing in public spaces. It’s easy to get caught in this lie, even when you know it’s wrong. That’s how pervasive it is. It’s important that we support each other so that when others get caught in this toxic mindset, we can remind them that they have no reason to be ashamed.