Street Harassment: 1880s vs 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.

2 Responses to Street Harassment: 1880s vs 2008

  1. lindabeth says:

    Wow, thanks for this side-by-side comparison. Really great stuff!

  2. horribly fascinating!

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