Feeling trapped and furious

Several times a month while walking down the street in Paris, men would call out or walk alongside me to tell me how pretty I was, men who wanted me to get coffee with them or to strike up a conversation, or who asked for my phone number. In one circumstance, I was late for work and almost running to get to the metro station when a man partially blocked my way and asked me where I was going and whether I wanted to go anywhere with him. I was furious that although I was so clearly not in the mood to stop for a chat, apparently this act of calling attention to myself in public made this man feel like it was appropriate to approach me. And I resented the arrogance of privilege that made him think that his desire to talk to me was more important than my need to get where I was going. After each time it happened – and I had never been stopped on the street like that before Paris, when I lived in a smaller town in Virginia – I felt shaken, my personal space violated.

The people who stopped me (other than to ask for directions) were all male and mostly young. What struck me the most is that they always seemed to intend to project friendliness (although the effect was the opposite), and all seemed convinced that I might be receptive to their advances, although I gave absolutely no signal that I might want to talk. Every man who approached me also seemed to be a migrant from North or Subsaharan Africa, and I’ve since thought that perhaps cultural differences in signals of women’s availability or in where it’s acceptable to strike up conversation could account for some of it, rather than malicious intent.

But it’s important for me to say that, no matter what their motives might have been, what matters is the effect they had on me. I always felt angry, disrespected, like some of my agency had been taken away. I was offended by the implication that I would agree to do anything with a guy who so clearly just wanted my body, who didn’t know anything about my personality or interests. I began to feel a little less secure when walking in public. I was never really afraid of violence during the daytime, but being forced to interact with someone just because I happened to be in public, being forced either to break social conventions by being rude or to give someone access to myself that I definitely didn’t want him to have, made me feel trapped and furious.

– Lenore

Location: Paris, France

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5 Responses to Feeling trapped and furious

  1. Claire says:

    Wow, this is such a relief to read. It is very rare for people to address the problem of street harassment in Paris and as such is it very difficult to find a listening ear. I have lived here for the last 14 years and street harassment has made my life hell. There was a time where I had to put up with almost 100 comments a day-I thought I was losing my mind and had to seek counselling. And this despite living in the best areas of Paris. At times I stayed home on weekends just to avoid the worst of it. I changed jobs so that I would only be in metros and RERs at peak hours and not during the day when there were much fewer people in a carriage. I have been regularly insulted, spat on, grabbed and groped and got a pocket knife to the throat all in full daylight and in the safest and most frequented central touristy areas of Paris. I really appreciate your wording in this article. I felt infuriated and incensed that my freedom of walking from A to B was interrupted and that these people thought I owed it to them to reply. They always seem so surprised to be ignored or politely turned down and then all the insults are hurled at me -that I’m fat anyway or I’m a “salope” pute” etc. I used to come home crying as I had to fight through a jungle of dozens of men leering jeering staring commenting and insulting. I am 37 now so this is has all died down to only once or twice a week now and I can live with that by ignoring it, staying safe and walking super fast. For me too it is generally younger guys from the suburbs but it’s only a part that are of north African origin or second or third generation-in fact much of this harassment has come white French people-and men of all ages races and backgrounds. I strongly belive this has not been “corrected” in society as French men do it themselves-I ask them what they are staring at and they say it’s their right and I can go back to my country if I don’t like it. In London it’s just “hello love” and no insults as you walk on by. In Italy it’s more persistant but again never a single insult. Here the apparent hatred of women who refuse a man’s attentions as she’s simply on her way to work or whatever is truly frightening-the things people say to me! This really does not seem to be taken seriously at all and there is so much denial -people can’t believe it and as such I feel self conscious confiding in them about it. Compared to the violence I have endured-the knife, the touching, the shoving, the broken arm, nearly raped… this next story is nothing at all but it illustrates how nothing is done-I even get harassed by police officers in uniform-they try to flirt with me!! I was rushing out of the metro on the phone to my friend and a police officer in uniform looks me up and down and says “Bonjour Mademoiselle, vous êtes ravissante” (???). What I find incredible is that they are supposed to be there to protect me not leer at me. Usually quite shy by nature, I once yelled at a police officer for looking me up and down overtly ogling me as I exited a movie theatre as if it were my duty to just grin and bear it or worse be flattered whilst all I was feeling was dirty and violated-and his female colleague tried to take me into the station for raising my voice at him. Don’t get me wrong, I know the difference between a compliment and an insult-but still-none of this should even be happening-I want my freedom as a woman to walk down the road and travel in peace!! I so agree word for word with you here and it was comforting to see you reasoned like me:
    “but being forced to interact with someone just because I happened to be in public, being forced either to break social conventions by being rude or to give someone access to myself that I definitely didn’t want him to have, made me feel trapped and furious.” “I felt shaken, my personal space violated.” I endured 14 years of hell here, violated on a daily basis and my poor mother had to deal with me on the phone in tears as someone had once again groped me or hurled all the “pute, grosse conne, salope, tu n’es rien, pauvre conne” etc that they could at me. But I love Paris and I was never going to let these strange men dictacte to me -I wasn’t going to leave the country because of them. I am so relieved most of it is behind me but I feel very sorry for the young girls from the suburbs or young expats who endure this on a constant basis and I feel strongly that this issue is not properly addressed or taken seriously. Thanks for writing this.

  2. LD says:

    Claire, thanks for responding to my story. Your experience sounds horrible, and I’m really sorry you’ve endured so much disrespect and threats. The insults and the violence weren’t really part of my experience (but violence was still an underlying threat one time) and I can imagine that it would have impacted my willingness to be on the street if it had been. I admire you for not giving up.

    “I felt infuriated and incensed that my freedom of walking from A to B was interrupted and that these people thought I owed it to them to reply. They always seem so surprised to be ignored or politely turned down…” Yes. That. It’s not a compliment after the 10th time it’s happened! And I don’t actually need the approval of random men in the streets, and I don’t think that it’s that great a compliment if they think I’m going to be flattered by a comment just based on my appearance, thanks! When I mentioned that to some of my male friends, they didn’t understand, and said that they’d love it if women gave them compliments in the streets.

    “Here the apparent hatred of women who refuse a man’s attentions as she’s simply on her way to work or whatever is truly frightening-the things people say to me! This really does not seem to be taken seriously at all and there is so much denial” – All this entitlement and expectation that women are going to play along with the script seems like it must have a cultural explanation. If it’s not from the demographic (and the demographic of the people who harassed me could have just been a function of who lives in my neighborhood), then from expectations about French gender relations or…something. I’m sure there’ve been things written on this. I’m wondering what women who’ve grown up in France think about it, if from some of their points of view all the comments seem more like a compliment and part of the “good relations” between the sexes that France is supposedly known for. From the policewoman’s reaction in your story, it sounds like it might be different, but I didn’t talk to any French-born women about it.

    It reminds me of all the controversy over the headscarf. Of course it’s important to combat oppression of women within religious cultures (leaving aside the issue of whether the hijab is really oppressive), but why is so much feminist outrage turned against it and not, as far as I can see in the media, the issue of harassment? Why is it so important to advocate for women to expose more of their bodies in public, and why are many men so very offended not to be able to see these women’s hair? When put together with the attitudes you were describing, a lot of the people who are arguing in the headscarf controversies seem a lot less pro-women from my point of view.

    What do you think of the organisation Ni Putes Ni Soumises? I know it’s supposed to try to address similar issues, especially in the suburbs, and I wanted to get involved while I was there but didn’t have enough time, really.
    Anyway, I’m glad you don’t face as much of this, but wow, so much that’s frustrating and scary in what you said, and a lot that resonated with me.

  3. Claire says:

    Hi Lenore

    Thanks for your encouragement and support. Yes that’s a good point about Ni Putes Ni Soumises. When I first got here I considered starting a support group for street harassment as 3 or 4 of my British, American and Australian friends got it just as bad as me and one even left the country because of it sadly. I never ended up getting a support group together but I’ve often looked into what’s out there and although there’s not much I really like what Ni Putes Ni Soumises are about and I’ve often thought it’s really time I got involved.

    I have mixed views on the headscarf but you raise a good point about how vehemently opposed they are to it while not much appears to be done about addressing the harassment and violations women in France endure on a daily basis. Street harassment is really something that is hard to find support for -battered women and sexual harassment in the workplace are addressed but not what we suffer from in society. People would say to me there was no point yelling back at them about how what they were doing was wrong as the world is so big and you can’t change it but I do think education and campaigning can be done. Also simply awareness of the issue as frankly most people are flabbergasted or doubtful when I tell them my story finding it very hard to believe-yet women word for word on stop street harassment experience the very same thing and I have seen dozens of girls in Paris go through the exact same thing-one or two of them even worse than me.

    About whether things have been written on this phenomenon in France from a cultural perspective yes I have seen things. Years ago I reached out to an American woman I googled who had written much on the subject-more angled at sexual harassment in the workplace and the difference between American and French women’s perspectives of the issue and why, tracing things back to the old “droit de cuissage”. It was very interesting-I wish I could remember her name and still had the article. I will look for it as it was really insightful.

    Thanks again for putting this up there. It needs to be done. There really seems to be so little about this issue in Paris.

    Claire

  4. syndi says:

    These posts express what I’ve felt for a long time. I live in an area of Paris which the guidebooks would probably describe as “cosmopolitan” or “ethnic”, but for me, it’s like living under siege. Every day, the men stare at me as if they’d never seen a woman before, and I have to walk around with my eyes averted and a face like sour milk, so that they think twice about hissing in my direction. I have light brown hair, and an average height and build, and do not dress in a way to attract attention, but it seems for them that any unaccompanied woman who is not pushing a buggy is akin to being a prostitute.
    Many men of North African and African origin seem to have a huge chip on their shoulder, and an intense resentment of white women, and of our freedom to come and go and dress as we please without needing a chaperone. Foreign women are an even easier target for their comments and come-ons, as they are less adept than French women at handling their advances. I find particularly insightful Lenore’s comment that they often pick the moment when you’re doing something that makes you look “unusual”, like running for the bus, or trying to shelter from the rain, personally I think this is a way of mocking you at a moment when you’re not poised and in complete control.
    I really resent the hatred and contempt they seem to feel for Western women, as if we were personally responsible for their grievances. I too have had to fight for many things. I also hate how much it wears me out to live in these conditions, and it is a constant effort to remind myself that one shouldn’t generalize about certain cultures.
    It’s treated as a major faux pas to try to discuss this with French people, as if you had said you were voting National Front. I just don’t understand this. I feel I too deserve respect from those I encounter every day. Just because these incidents rarely involve a physical threat, having to ignore harassment day in day out can’t be good for you. I feel that women need to talk about this issue, and your posts are the proof that my experiences are mirrored by those of many other women, French and foreign, who live in this city.

  5. Claire says:

    Thanks Syndi for you support and I’m really very sorry to hear you have to suffer from this too, I so know what it feels like. I so agree with your post word for word. Particularly when you state that you “really resent the hatred and contempt they seem to feel for Western women, as if we were personally responsible for their grievances.” The time I had a pocket knife on my throat in the metro the guy had said to me that he knew girls like me and it’s because of me they had all their problems in the suburbs, that it was all my fault and who on earth did I think I was daring to ignore him- this despite my protests that I was raised in New Zealand and so very far from his banlieue culture.
    Your other statement rings very very true “It’s treated as a major faux pas to try to discuss this with French people, as if you had said you were voting National Front.” and I am completely mystified on this one. I just don’t get the denial or why they do not address this issue correctly and why more people are not aware. People stare at you blankly like you’re from another planet when you seek support about this issue. I’ve been accused of lying in the past to try to draw attention to myself while I was in fact desperately trying to reach out for help in a situation where I had been deeply hurt from fighting off constant abuse and violence that I was complete innocent of, I felt destroyed inside and sought answers and support from anyone who could give me insight. And I agree entirely -fighting of harassmnet and insults on a daily basis can’t be good for you at all. My thoughts and support are with you. If you are still in Paris and want to discuss this further one day let me know.

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