Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sexual harassment in public spaces at a critical level

By Selina Jervis

"I worry about my sister, who told me: ‘If I don’t get commented or honked at on the way to school, I’ll feel really ugly that day.’"

As I sat down write this, my sister arrived home and said a man tried to pull her into a car. She was walking home from the bus stop in broad daylight and a man cruised the curb for a while, trying to talk to her before getting out and grabbing her arm, pulling her towards the car. She pulled away, firmly said no and walked on. She is 17. This might sound unnerving, but as she breezed in, she told the story like a bit of gossip and went straight onto MSN.

I can trace it back to around the age of 14, when men start to catcall and comment in the street. Suddenly as you cross the road their eyes will follow you as they drive round the corner. When you walk past a pub the smokers will croon “hello gorgeous”. There are random encounters with men who may follow you off the bus to “ask you the time”, then ask your name and where you’re going. Women are exposed to harassment all the time, but, as a young woman, it’s worrying to think of the lengths it can reach.

In the past it may have been polite to say a good morning to a woman, so why is it OK now to beep a horn, call a rude name and ask questions. I am 19. In the last few months, men, none younger than 30, have followed me down the road I live on, approached me at bus stops and generally leered from cars as I wait to cross the street. That’s only in the past few months. Since living in a student-dominated part of Manchester for the past year, this summer I noticed the difference at home in inner-city Birmingham and don’t want to take it anymore.

My mum was shocked, and warned my sister again of the dangers of getting into cars and talking to strangers, but she shrugged and said she knew that and brushed it aside. I don’t think parents know that their daughters could receive ‘the look’ as my friends and I call it, on practically a daily basis. It is the stare where a man’s eyes will bore into you and look you up and down before leering or moaning.

This afternoon, for example, I walked through town, down an empty side street, and a man behind me, around 40-years-old, said: “Excuse me love, can I ask you something and you promise you won’t slap me in my face?” As the years have gone by, I realise I’ve developed a variety of reactions, as the number of encounters like this has increased. Sometimes it’s easier to walk on ignoring the person when there are not many people around, so you can survey the area and hurry to a busier place, or say a polite but firm, “No thank you” or “I’m sorry, I’m in a rush.” Today I said: “If you have to ask that, then you shouldn’t say anything.” He said: “I just wanted to ask if your man treats you right?” His suggestive face may have had other connotations, but taking his statement at face value, I said “yes he does”, and walked on. I argue with myself over whether it is extremely inappropriate for a much older man to approach young girls like this – believe me, I look around 16 – or whether this is day-to-day banter in society?

There are different kinds of behaviour that could be deemed acceptable. If a man walked past me and said, “I just had to say, you look lovely today”, I would be flattered. I can say that this never happens. If a group of men honked at me from a van I would laugh it off. Maybe I’ve got used to it, or maybe it’s more acceptable as I’m not a child anymore. I am insulted and creeped out when a man will lick his lips or actually make a move when they could be older than my dad, though. I used to have a range of false names which I would give out and for a time would loudly shout, “I’m 15! Walk on!” I am thankful to all the women and men who have approached me and sincerely asked if I was OK, if a strange man sat next to me on a train and tried to strike up an inquisitive conversation or someone shouted something lewd from a car.

I can understand that a man has a natural reaction when they see a woman or girl they are attracted to, but he doesn’t have to act on it by staring or shouting something. Maybe due to shyness or politeness, a man younger than about 25 has never behaved like this in front of me. But it’s scary that men react this way when they are old enough to have, and possibly already do have, children of their own. How would they like it if someone shouted “oy sexy” at their 14-year-old daughter?

A lot of these men seem strange and sinister. Since winning an award for my blog and appearing in a few local newspapers over a year ago, there have been many times when random men have approached me asking about it. I mentioned to my mum that I was worried about a man who lives on our road who would constantly stare, goggle-eyed at me, and a few weeks ago he approached me in a shop and said: “How’s the website?” This brings up other issues about putting your life on the internet and who has access to it.

Media influences and popular culture may contribute to the uninhibited attitude towards calling out to women. There is constant discussion of kids growing up too fast, with teenage girls applying make-up, straightening hair and using sun beds. There is no reason why this would necessarily be encouragement for attraction; if a woman takes time over her appearance it does not mean she wants to attract men, much like the ‘encouraged rape’ argument. But to men it may be seen as a signal that a 13-year-old can be treated as a woman if she dresses like one, and so it’s OK to perv on children.

Maybe the media representing teenagers as all sexually active, with teenage pregnancy and STIs constant headlines, makes the men believe that girls can be treated as women, therefore it’s acceptable for him to show his attraction and make a move despite being much older.

Is it the rich men with trophy wives or being able to pay to get close to a lap dancer that gives some men the impression that they might actually have a chance with a teenager that they are approaching? A man followed my sister home a few months ago and said age is only a number. Fifty and 17 are very different numbers.

I would not consider myself a provocative dresser or particularly attractive. I do not wear low-cut tops or high heels in the daytime. I don’t dress typically, but tend to favour vintage dresses. I have curly red hair too, which I am told most do not favour, so judging by the amount of men that leer at me, a lot of girls must be in my situation or worse. When talking to friends about this, we all discussed our worst encounters and the commonalities were that we were walking alone and approached in cars or on quiet streets. A man followed my friend around a mile home and when she told him he looked around 50, he said: “Age is only a number, I want to take you out, yes?” I once rang a friend when she was on the way to my house and could hear a man riding along the pavement offering her a lift in the background.

Do these men honestly think a young woman would be interested in them? Can they not help themselves? Whatever happened to politeness and the decency not to startle a girl or woman alone minding her own business? Do these men really believe they are flattering women or complimenting them?

This all connects up with other issues, such as men in unmarked cars sitting outside clubs with the taxis and offering ‘free lifts’ or a boss who makes suggestive remarks about your body.

I worry about my sister, who told me: “If I don’t get commented or honked at on the way to school, I’ll feel really ugly that day.” Thinking back to encounters where men have reached out and fondled my hair or sat next to me on a bus full of available double seats, you can’t always be on guard and prevent these things. I have the right to be able to wear whatever I want and look however I please and not be shouted at or leered at by a man who happens to walk past. It’s abusive and scary. It should not be common behaviour.

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