Street Harassment: 2003 Viewed with 2018 Eyes

Fifteen years ago I wrote this and then never posted it because I never finished it.

I post it here now because, frankly, I’m a bit freaked out by how blasé I am about harassment. Why now it only happens a few times a week. That’s awful, fifteen-years-ago Justine!

I hated being harassed then and I hate being harassed now, yes, even though it’s even less frequent now.1 And I REALLY hated being harassed when I was a teen and felt completely powerless in the face of the constant barrage.

What I say about Sydney being the worst is hooey. Street harassment happens everywhere. I was right that I thought Sydney the worst because I spent my teens/twenties there.

But I left out the other reason I was harassed far less in my thirties: because I was with my husband pretty much everywhere I went. The only times I’ve been harassed since I married was when alone. I left it out because I didn’t realise that’s what was going on until much later.

I was single or dating women during my twenties. Funnily enough being with your female partner doesn’t stop harassment the way being with your male one does. I wonder why . . .2

The headphones thing still works. Back then I listened to music, now it’s podcasts. They still form an excellent shield. But, damn, WHY DO WE NEED A SHIELD?! Fix theyself, world of shitty men.

For the first time in my life, I’m feeling something akin to optimism about sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement makes me weakly hopeful that some day, not soon, but maybe in a few hundred years, this horrible harassment will finally end. Sadly, I fear the planet will be uninhabitable for humans sooner.

What? That’s way more optimistic than I was fifteen years ago.

In the meantime, let’s keep talking and raging and fighting harassment. Men have to stop.

Sexual Harassment on the Street (2003)

This is always a difficult one to talk about. There’s still this weird idea that if you mention guys calling out to you in the street, you’re somehow boasting about it. “Hey, I am so damn hot, that this paralytically drunk guy with no teeth lurched across the street, vomited in front of me, and said: ‘Show us your tits, love.’ Boy, was I thrilled. Someone out there finds little old me attractive. My day, no, my life, is now complete.”

So let’s just skip that crap, eh? You know and I know that most of the time men you’ve never met before in your life feeling free to comment on your appearance (negatively or positively: I’ve had several blokes in Sydney feel moved to tell me how ugly I am) is a pain in the arse. You’ve just lost your favourite jacket, your job, your best friend, and some charming bloke thinks it’s his duty to say, “Give us a smile, darls.” Now there’s a killing offence. And even when they don’t say anything there’s that horrible prickling feeling along your skin that you are being looked at, and at any moment someone may be moved to demand you show off your mammaries or perform sexual favours for them.

I hate to say this about my beloved home city but the harassment there is world class. I and my friends have heard more choice misogynist nastinessess in the glowing Emerald City than we’ve ever heard anywhere else in the world. Gross, scary things. Now it could be that that’s because we couldn’t understand what was being yelled in Tel Aviv or Bangkok, or because we lived in Sydney during the peak period of a girl’s life for copping this crap. It’s possible. Let’s just say that none of us, despite being told that one day we would miss the catcalls and invitations to suck a total stranger’s bed flute, are experiencing said sadness as we get older and hear less of those oh-so-flattering invitations.

Why now I’m blessed to be harassed only a handful of times a week. I know many what believe me but it’s SUCH a relief.

In the parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan and I and my friends live the harassment is much less nasty than Sydney. Like I said this could be because me and my peer group are longer in the tooth than we once were. Maybe the seventeen year olds are copping it every bit as bad as me and my mates did at that age. I hope not. Or maybe we’re more sure of ourselves and less intimidated. I hope so.

That said, there’s a lot more of it. A woman on her own walking down those beautiful New York City footpaths is hit with dazzling smiles, lots of hellos, how’re you doings (yeah, yeah, I know, that’s just friendly, but seriously, people, it’s almost never friendly), and hears a lot of the kinds of noises people make to attract the attention of their cat.

If she responds in any way, the guy will elaborate further with comments on her hair, skin and clothing. (Including the dreaded, “Show us a smile, sweetheart”.) Or possibly a suggestion that they make some form of love together.

New Yorkers altogether seem more inclined to talk to people they don’t know. Women in NYC often comment on the clothing of strangers. Always positively, sometimes a little too positively. One woman on the subway, after telling me that she loved my coat, offered to buy it from me. “Er, no”, said I. “Thanks though, quite happy with coat”. I have even been so bold as to tell the occasional resplendent stranger in this fine and well-dressed city how fab their coat/dress/hair/tattoo is though I always keep walking to make it clear it’s a strings-free compliment.

I’ve got nothing against compliments, me. Just, you know, as long as a fella doesn’t think it entitles them to anything. But randomly yelling at a stranger on the street is not a compliment. Why is that so hard do understand?

I wish they just wouldn’t. I know. That will never happen. In the meantime: headphones are my solution of choice. I lose myself in music when walking so I don’t even notice or hear the harassment.

  1. I’ve only been street harassed once this year. []
  2. Spoiler: I don’t wonder why. []


  1. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    I’ve always found it easy to deal with street harassment because I excel at ignoring people. So it’s never bothered me when strangers commented on any part of my face, hair, or body. I just walk away. But I know that just because I’m able to do this, other women are not so lucky. Other women are severely rattled by it. And I absolutely understand why. When a stranger engages you in a conversation, flirtation, or even compliment, they are entering your space, without your permission. Of course this can be scary, especially to women, who are taught from an earlier age–and for good reason–to be afraid of strange men. My ability to deal with street harassment is the result of the fact that I live in my head so much of the time, I am completely unaware of very real threats.

    Oh and I also lob the occasional compliment to strangers re: clothes, etc., but I always make sure it’s a no-strings fly-by situation. And I’ve always gotten an appreciative smile or thank you. Perhaps this is one of the advantages of being female. People on the receiving end of one of my fly-by compliments are very unlucky to feel threatened by me.

    • Justine on #

      How do you ignore physical contact? When I hit puberty at the young age of eleven I started getting physically accosted. I had creepy guys right in my face. Impossible to ignore. That early experience left me wary of walking along the street for decades. Some harassment literally can’t be ignored.

      I realise you’re not saying, “Oh just ignore it.” Just wanted to point out how varied the experience of street harassment is and how terrifying it is when you’re very little.

      • Lauren McLaughlin on #

        Yeah, I totally agree. I think for some people even verbal harassment is impossible to ignore. But physical harassment is a totally different animal. I’ve only experienced a little bit of the physical kind and, yes, it definitely freaked me out. To think you have a right to touch a person against their will is so outside my moral zone, it still freaks me out that people (men mostly) behave that way. It’s a testament to the power of culture that it can override what to me seems like such a basic tenet of human decency. But then patriarchy is nothing if not indecent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New here? Please read the blog rules, moderation policy, and spoiler policy. Thank you!