Women everywhere have their movement limited by the male gaze

Street harassment stems from patriarchal entitlement and male structural power that treats women as objects who exist for the benefit of men.  Less frequently discussed, however, is how it intersects with other power disparities and prejudices, from racism to ableism.

Reni Eddo-Lodge
7 July 2014

Summer is the season of body politics. In the past few years, street harassment has entered our lexicon as an all encapsulating term to describe unwanted speech or actions aimed towards people in public. It has other names- catcalling is one of the most recognised. It takes the form of sexually explicit comments, groping, or staring. Many women have a story of being following by an unknown man and being subjected to a barrage of uninvited questions. We monitor the mood, sometimes running or hiding, fearing the threat of violence.

It’s often threatening, but most importantly, street harassment is an exertion of power and ownership of public space. Those of us on the receiving end are told by those who aren’t to take it as a compliment. Our bodies are battlegrounds, policed externally and internally. We are aggressively reminded in public as to where we should and shouldn’t be. If we listened to the rallying cry of the street harasser, we would be nowhere.

It starts with the seemingly innocuous request for a smile. Women must be bright and cheery as we walk down the street, like a flower, because we’re considered background decoration.  Harassment might be a clicking noise, or a whistle, sounds usually reserved for pets. It might be a yell from a car window. It could be request, out of the blue, for your phone number. All seem innocent, until you express your irritation. Then you’re a stuck up bitch, a slag, an ugly woman who the street harasser was never interested in anyway.  “I never really realised how annoying it was that the bus driver told you to smile, until I realised that they don’t do it to men too”, Aileen from Manchester told me.

These projections of structural power are so much so that those on the receiving end often make a concerted effort to avoid it by adapting our day to day lives. We avoid certain routes, asking male friends to chaperone us.  Or we create self-imposed curfews to navigate the threat of intrusion or violence. 

Bryony Benyon and Julia Gray, co-founders of Hollaback London, explain how this works. “People who regularly experience street harassment often create what we call 'personal geographies', a mental map of 'safer' and 'riskier' areas, which are of course ever-changing and not always reliable. This map informs which streets to avoid on the route from school or college, or even from the bus stop to their door. The frustration that is felt by women who do everything they can to avoid harassment and receive it anyway, is widespread.”

Most of the women I spoke to for this piece agreed that they receive an increase in street harassment as the weather gets warmer. Lighter evenings, more people on the streets, outside evening events and social drinking contribute to an emboldened atmosphere.

Women change their lives to avoid street harassment, and the exertion of power wins. It’s a declaration of entitlement, as gendered as it is frequent. If you are read as female, you’re fair game.

“This has happened near my home. It’s meant that I’ve had to change my route home, or I’m always looking over my shoulder, even though it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and there’s lots of people about” explains a woman who wished to remain anonymous. Speaking of a man who repeatedly harassed her near her home, she says: “I ended up having to walk past my house, because I didn’t want him to know where I lived. That happened about five or six times… they don’t understand how intimidating and scary it is to think that someone has been watching you.”

Her race comes into it, too. “Sometimes I get told I have an attitude. They wouldn’t say that to someone who was Asian, they wouldn’t say that to someone who was white. They think if you’ve got darker skin you’re some kind of deviant. People shout on the street “don’t ignore me, I love mixed race girls”.”

Chanelle from South London explains that she is a regular runner. “I was a bit annoyed today, because my husband took my headphones to work with him. I’m not going for a run without the headphones, because it’s just going to distract me if I overhear somebody make a comment. At the gym, people will try and get on the machines next to you to try and talk to you and obstruct what you’re doing. It gets on my nerves that I won’t go to certain places, or I won’t go at certain times”.

Mary is currently living in east London.  She outlines the tension she feels between her clothing and her feminist principles. “Women shouldn’t have to change what they wear. But sometimes I do, and I feel bad about that. If I’m out with other people, I’ll feel safer.”

She also has a story to share of intrusive street harassment that followed her to her doorstep. “Where I used to live, a smart looking guy in a suit accosted me, asking for small change. Suddenly it turned into questions about how old I was, and if I was married. He seemed to know that I had just come out of my house, and was asking me if I lived there. That really terrified me. I actually moved out, with one of the reasons being that I didn’t feel safe in that area”.

Mary points out one of the factors that hinders women from discussing street harassment openly. “Even people you agree with on most things will sometimes give you a look as if you’re bragging. That makes it hard to talk about.” She recounts an incident of being sexually assaulted on a packed train. “I started kicking him in the ankles, really hard”.  Only one fellow passenger on the train came to her help.

Echoing Chanelle, Mary says: “I used to wear headphones, even if I didn't want to listen to music, to distance myself from men on the street. The idea being that, if I can't hear them, maybe they won't say anything”.

Jacqueline also lives in East London. She notices peaks in street harassment near train stations. “Often it’s black men doing it. They think that because I’m a black woman I have to pay them attention. And If I don’t I get nasty remarks. I don’t go out after 9pm. If I do have to go out, I’ll arrange a cab to take me home, just to avoid being in places with not many people. It doesn’t change much, but it helps my peace of mind. This is just part of my life, especially in London”.

She speaks of homophobic and bi-phobic street harassment around Pride weekend. “Often it comes from other white, queer people. At one Brighton Pride, I was spat at by another marcher. These spaces are often very, very white. One London Pride, I had all these people coming up to me asking if I had any drugs to sell. It made me really angry. A lot of the harassment I get, whatever it is, seems to be based on stereotypes.”

Lisa currently lives in Leeds, and has multiple sclerosis. “Throughout my life my street harassment has been sexual suggestions or threats in the most part. What I have noticed is that when I am in episode in a wheelchair the sexual nature of it drops completely and I get aggression for simply being in the way - punished for not being an object of sexual desire but a futile object that should not be. Like the wheelchair stops me having any sexual identity, so I am useless to them.”

Street harassment is informed by existing power disparities and prejudices. Women are expected to be available to be objectified without their consent, yet are snarled at for voicing an opinion on this treatment. 

“Street harassment is much less common when walking with my boyfriend, or another man”, Mary concludes. This typifies the archaic, entitlement ridden attitude of those who think they own the streets. Street harassers not only believe that women leave the house for their benefit, but they also assume every woman is straight. It comes from a place that believes women are property of men – an accusation that is so often directed at countries hotter and blacker than Britain.  But patriarchy is not limited by borders.  Women everywhere have their movement limited by the male gaze. 

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