It had been a long, incredibly stressful, and I could feel the onset of a tension headache creeping up my neck. I just wanted to get home, have a cup of tea, and forget the stressors that attacked me throughout the day. I wanted to pretend that there was not a new batch of stress waiting for me on my desk the following day. I wanted to be in the comfort and safety of my home. Unfortunately, I do not enjoy the privilege of owning a car, and have to make use of public transport. That day, as I walked towards the station, a bakkie filled with blue collar workers yelled indecent comments at me. I, being in no mood to be passive or polite, flipped my middle finger. “It was just a compliment!” I heard them yell in the distance along with other cuss words referencing my body. They stopped at the traffic light, and I felt a deep fear. I imagined the horror of having to pass them again, and one of them jumping out the vehicle to violently accost me. I slowed my walk and prayed the lights would quickly change to green. It did. I felt vulnerable and afraid, even though I was surrounded by numerous other pedestrians.
A deeply disturbing and worrying fact about street harassment, or catcalling, is that the perpetrator knows that their target will not turn around and collapse into their arms, begging to be bedded. The perpetrator does not harass you for sex. Someone who shouts “Nice legs!” from a moving vehicle is not trying to date you. Someone who wolf whistles at you as though you were Lassie, has no intention of getting to know you better. That person is trying to humiliate you and reinforce their dominance over you. Catcalling is an exercise of power. It is a way of communicating that “I can say and do whatever I want to you, no matter how inappropriate it is, or how uncomfortable it makes you feel.” Catcalling is not a compliment. It is a threat.
The culture of harassment
Street harassment is a part of a larger culture that normalises the idea that women (and other marginalised gender identities) exist solely for the sexual pleasure of men. It is a statement of power; it is a way of letting me, an oppressed gender identity, know that a man has a right to my body. He has a right to discuss it, scrutinise it, assess its value, and let me and everybody else in the vicinity know his verdict, whether I consent to it or not. It is a power that is used to intimidate and dehumanise other minority gender and sexual identities, notably the LGBTIQ+ community, who suffer significant levels of street harassment. It is a right that extends even to the bodies of 12-year old girls who have begun to show the first signs of puberty. I have walked hand-in-hand with a 12-year-old girl wearing her school uniform, and witnessed men whistle and yell obscenities at her.
Street harassment is no more about ‘appreciating beauty’ than rape is about sex.
Both are centred around power, control and violence. That is why when a recipient of street harassment dares to reject the advances of the perpetrator, the latter often reacts with violent vitriol and physical assault. The rejection disrupts the perpetrators sense of entitlement to another’s body; an entitlement that society has wrongfully led him to believe is his inherent right, by virtue of gender.
Street harassment turns moving through public spaces into a disturbingly redundant struggle for safety and solace. Public spaces become gendered and sexualised spaces. Paraphrasing Gardner, women are situationally disadvantaged in public places where they are constantly subject to the possibility of harassment by men. The consequence is further amplification of the artificial public/private spatial division between the genders. Renowned feminist philosopher, Frances Kissling, posited that street harassment is part of a larger strategy of social control through sexual terrorism; it is a system “…by which males frighten and, through fear, control and dominate females with fear of male crime, [thereby] keeping women from public places”. The subordination of women is socially institutionalised through systematic sexual harassment, with the fear of rape operating as a mechanism to control and dominate women, so as to maintain men’s position on top of the gender hierarchy.
Socially acceptable fear
Many women fear moving through public spaces alone as we have been socialised to always be on guard and anticipate the worst (narratives from our parents, media and films create and nurture this kind of agoraphobia). This socially conditioned fear of public places is sustained by public discourse and crime prevention tactics which, inadvertently or not, tends to focus on measures women can take to avoid becoming a victim- avoiding a certain place, dressing modestly, and carrying pepper spray- instead of placing responsibility on the perpetrators. Due to the very real and perceived ever-present threat of sexual violence, women limit and restrict their use of public space, ironically further perpetuating the gendered spatial inequalities.
The effects of street harassment on the psyche of an individual are similar the effects of other forms of violence against women and LGBTQI+ persons. However, street harassment is not considered as serious an offence as physical assault (even though it often escalates to that point), and recipients of this form of harassment often feel as though they are overreacting to their experiences, or that their overall discomfort and fears regarding harassment are unfounded. This can lead to a sense of self-doubt, low self-worth, anxiety, and in some cases, the triggering of depression.
The constant threat of violence against women hinders our efforts to take up and own public space. It negatively affects our ability to function healthily in society, and to realise our full humanity. It keeps us locked indoors. It changes the way we walk and the clothes we wear. We factor it into our travel route, avoiding those streets where we’ve been accosted before, or those spaces with few escape routes. A woman’s body is continually up for public consumption and objectification. But our silence only exacerbates this endless cycle of oppression. If you can, speak up and out against it. SA.