Street Harassment: 1880s vs 2008

November 24, 2008

I just read “Going Public: Shopping, Street Harassment, and Streetwalking in Late Victorian London” (thanks Emily!) and what I’m most struck by is how some of the arguments around street harassment are pretty much the same 130 years later.

In part, the article looks at how more middle class women and girls were entering public arenas in the late 1880s, specifically to do shopping and to go to tearooms and they were outraged over being treated like “streetwalkers” by unknown men.

Some of the newspaper editorials cited in the article about this occurrence echo today’s blogs and the comments sections of online articles about street harassment. I’ve come across dozens of modern day examples during my research, but here are a few:

1. Women say they were harassed despite being dressed respectably/modestly:

1880s England: In letters to a newspaper which were excerpted in a column headed “How Ladies Are Annoyed in London Streets,” women usually described themselves as innocent victims of street annoyances who were respectably dressed, walking or traveling in broad daylight, and who weren’t attempting to attract notice. (Victorian London article page 10).

2008 USA: “I have been followed and shouted at while wearing loose capris and t-shirt. The outfit was in no way skanky or revealing but even [if] it was that doesn’t give someone the right to harass and threaten me.” (comment from a CNN online article from 2008)

2008 England: “I echo the sentiments saying that what one’s wearing etc is irrelevant. My breasts are not big. I will not necessarily be wearing revealing clothes when I get comments. I am not especially attractive or especially ugly. But I have had comments, been followed home, been whistled, been groped, and been punched (no reason, no dialogue, the guy was walking past and just punched me in the chest).” (comment on the F-word Blog about street harassment)

2008 England: “I wore a wonder bra ONCE when I was a naive 15 year old and decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle. So I went back to my ‘modest’ clothes, not because I’m ashamed of my body but because they’re more comfortable and more me. This hasn’t stopped the perverts though.” (comment on the F-word Blog about street harassment)

2006 India: Blank Noise conducted a project where they collected hundreds of clothes women had been harassed in to show that women are harassed in anything and everything

2. Men blame women’s appearance/clothing for their harassment:

1880s England: “What can women who ‘dress themselves up’ with ‘false bottoms and stays – and other erotic adornments’ expect? If women ‘really do wish to be left alone,’ they should dress to be ‘plain and unappetizing and avoid the haunts of men.'” (from a newspaper letter from 1887 cited on p 6 of the Victorian London article).

2008 USA: “Whenever a woman dresses in a skanky way… she will receive more attention whether she wants it or not. Not saying they are a “ho”… but they are wearing a “ho’s” uniform, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.” (comment from a CNN online article from 2008)

2008 USA: “Word of advice, look in the mirror…if you are dressed like a hoochie (tight jeans, short skirt, see through or low cut shirt etc) you can expect more catcalls. It’s not rocket science. And for you ladies out there who look hot in sweats, you’ll receive them no matter what. For the record, any physical harassment is totally wrong, but hollering at a woman walking down the street? Come on!! What do you expect dressed like that?” (comment from a CNN online article from 2008)

2008 England: “What comes first – the stare or the wonder bra/low cut top? I find wolf whistling as boorish as you but to not recognise a 2 way street is just as sexist.” (comment on a Guardian online article from 2008)

So there continues to be a major focus on women’s appearance and clothing. Then and today, some men think a woman who looks – to them – like she is seeking sexual attention from men through flashy or revealing clothing deserve any interactions – negative or positive – men bestow on her. Many women argue that it doesn’t matter what they wear or what they look like or how respectable/modest they appear, they still get harassed.

So what do we do about this obvious disconnect? There’s clearly more going on than just “skanky” women getting catcalled. And why should men be allowed to comment on, yell at, touch, follow, and assault any woman they want just because the men think that’s what the women want based on what they look like… Ugh I could go on for a while discrediting the comments of these men, but i’ll save that for my potential book 🙂 and to anyone who wants to take a shot in the comments.

A few other points in the article definitely echo today, for example, the lack of concern by police officers when women report street harassment, how the definition of street harassment varies among women, and the desire of women disgruntled by street harassment to distinguish themselves from women with so-called lower morales than them. There aren’t a lot of studies out there on street harassment and this article is definitely worth the read if you’re interested in the topic.

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Street Harassment in Songs

November 18, 2008

Inspired by Feministing’s post yesterday about favorite feminist songs, I thought I’d try to find songs that mention or address street harassment. Below – in no particular order – are my results.

  • Fugazi’s “Suggestion” (“Why can’t i walk down a street free of suggestion?/ Is my body the only trait in the eye’s of men?”)
  • Emilie Autumn’s “Thank God I’m Pretty” (“With the ability to rend a grown man tongue-tied/ Which only means that when it’s dark outside
    /I have to run and hide can’t look behind me”)
  • Queen Latifah’s “Unity” (“I walked past these dudes when they passed me/ One of em felt my booty, he was nasty/ I turned around red, somebody was catching the wrath/ Then the little one said (yeah me bitch) and laughed”)
  • No Doubt “Just a Girl” (‘Cause I’m just a girl I’d rather not be/
    ‘Cause they won’t let me drive/ Late at night I’m just a girl,/
    Guess I’m some kind of freak/ ‘Cause they all sit and stare/
    With their eye”)
  • TLC “No Scrubs” (“A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me/
    Hanging out the passenger side/ Of his best friend’s ride/ Trying to holler at me”)

Okay, this is harder than I thought so I’m leaving it at five for now. Please share any you know about in the comments!


Hello’s Can Feel Like Harassment Too

November 8, 2008

Yesterday afternoon was unseasonably warm, so in a short sleeved shirt I walked over two miles in downtown Washington, DC, (where I work) to do an errand at lunch time. A lot of men said “hello” or “how are you doing” to me. I said hello or nodded and smiled back at nearly all of them because I’m polite. Several of them stared at my chest. Several men who did not say anything to me stared at my chest. In the reflection of glass buildings I caught two of the men who had said hello to me turn and watch me walk away from them. One other man looked like he would have tried to say more than hello to me if I responded to him at all, so I ignored his hello and turned my head as I passed.

By the end of the walk, I felt dirty, objectified, shameful, and provocative. I wore my coat during my commute home despite the warm weather and once I was home, I changed into a shapeless, huge t-shirt. I’ve been upset by what happened ever since (hence a post) and I have been thinking a lot about why.

  1. If it only had been a few hello’s they probably wouldn’t have bothered me, but the sheer volume became obnoxious and made me feel like I had a sign on my forehead saying “pay attention to me.” Plus several men were oogling me as they said hello so then it was no longer a simple hello but also objectification.
  2. No women said hello to me. Before too long I got the impression that the sudden desire of so many men to say hi to me and inquire how I was doing as I passed them on the sidewalk was not benign and coincidental. I felt it was the result of an evaluation of how I looked. I started to feel disrespected and objectified. From hello’s.
  3. Once I became bothered by the hello’s, I pondered what I could do. It just didn’t seem appropriate to yell “don’t harass women” at a man who was saying hello. Could I say “don’t stare at my breasts” as I passed by? I wasn’t standing on a bus or subway with them where it would be more apparent that they were staring at chest or butt. I was passing by so it would be hard to say with 100% certainty that they were doing that. And it is a free country right? We can look where we want? If I don’t want to be looked at I should cover up and wear a burka and stay inside unless accompanied by a man, right? Many older women say they hate being invisible in the streets so I should be glad that men are oogling me, right? Hey, I’m still young enough to be sexually desirable to them so I am graced by their hello’s and stares. Wheee! Lucky me. Excuse me while I go listen to No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl!” on repeat for the next hour…

No one openly commented on how I looked, no one touched me, no one followed me. I never felt unsafe. But a day later my hello-filled walk is still very much on my mind. I see it as part of a larger context of disrespect and the objectification of women and it boggles my mind to try to figure out how to change that culture when it’s so pervasive.