Let’s create a scenario here: you’ve been hanging out with friends. It’s about two in the morning, and it’s time for you to go home. You didn’t plan on driving home, and there’s a short walk between the place that you’ve been staying and the bus stop. It’s late, dark, and none of your friends are planning on accompanying you to the bus stop because it’s only about five minutes away and no one else is heading in that direction.
So, you head out. As you’re walking, you become aware of how empty the streets are, so late at night. At some point, however, you become aware of movement behind you. You look behind, and there’s a man following you. No, not following you; walking behind you. He’s just another human being, on his way home like you are. You continue walking, but the knowledge of that figure behind you has not left the back of your mind.
You turn a corner, and just out of curiosity, you glance over your shoulder. The man turns the same corner, still walking behind you.
Your mind flees off to the stories you have heard before, of the girl who got off of work late at night, pulled into an alleyway and beaten. Of the man who was stabbed on his way home from the bar, and had to drag himself, bloodied and weak, to get help.
You become aware again of the fact that, if this man were to do something to you, help would be a long way away right now.
But, of course, something like that won’t happen to you. He’s just walking behind you. There’s no proof that he wants to hurt you.
Still, just to be safe, you reach into your jacket pocket and slip your house key between your middle and pointer finger. Just to be safe.
The man is getting closer. Your chest tightens. But nothing is going to happen. You’re going to be fine.
He’s getting closer.
He’s beside you now. Your breath catches, but he keeps on walking, going on with his business. You release your breath and, in your pocket, your house key.
Now, this man could be literally anybody. Maybe he was just walking home. Maybe he has a wife, a daughter, an elderly parent who he’s caring for. He could be a student, an off-duty cop, an activist who campaigns for the rights of the homeless. So, if that’s the case, were you wrong to be afraid of him in this scenario? Were you judgemental? Cruel? Should you have acted differently?
This is a question that I’ve seen asked from time to time, particularly in discussions around street harassment and feminism. I mean, I didn’t give a gender to the ‘you’ in the scenario, but many women, in the wake of the recent “Me Too” campaign, have come forward admitting that they do not feel safe in the streets. Heck, the scenario that I have just described has happened to me on multiple occasions, partly because of stories that I have heard, regarding horrors that have have happened to other women, and partly because I have had men yell at me in the streets, harass me, or make unwelcome comments, and the possibility that all it takes is one man to take it too far remains at the back of my mind every time I walk alone at night.
But in response to these women coming forward, there have been some men (or, at least, I’ve mostly heard men making these comments), who ask, “well, what are we supposed to do about it? Can’t you understand how bad it makes me feel, to see women afraid of me when I’m not going to hurt them?”
Every time I have heard these comments made, the intention behind them seems to be less, “what can we do to make you women feel safer in the streets?” and more, “don’t you realize that not all men attack women? You shouldn’t be so afraid of us; we’re not all going to attack you”. And, on the one hand, yes, not all men attack women in the streets. That is a fact. No one is saying otherwise. There are men who are genuinely good men, who actually do wish that women could feel safe in their presence and on the streets.
But there are also men who do attack and harass women in the streets.
According to a survey from 2014, 65 percent of women in the United States report being harassed in the street. Twenty-three percent report being sexually touched, twenty percent report being followed and nine percent report being forced to do something sexual. This is compared to twenty-five percent of men who report being harassed in the street, the majority of which are LGBT men facing homophobic or transphobic slurs. The organization that conducted this survey, however – known as Stop Street Harassment – admits that street harassment is an under-researched topic, so exact statistics are difficult to discern for certain.
And all that I know from my own empirical evidence is that I have been cat-called, insulted, followed, and screamed at by multiple men, simply because I happened to be in public at the same time as they were.
But then, this poses another question: although the majority of women are harassed in the street, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of men are harassing. I mean, we don’t even know the statistics of how many men engage in this behaviour, and who would admit to it for the purpose of a survey anyway? Perhaps the majority of men in the street are perfectly innocent, and if that’s the case, is it fair to punish the innocent because we’re so afraid of the guilty?
Well, in my personal opinion, in this scenario, we have to think about what, exactly, is meant by ‘punish’. How are the innocent punished by women who fear being harassed? In the majority of cases, they are punished by women refusing to speak to them, looking away, reacting rather generally with fear.
And why do women react this way? Because, when you’re on the street and interacting with strangers, it’s difficult to tell for sure who is going to harass you and who isn’t. Maybe the man walking behind you is perfectly innocent. Maybe he isn’t. End of day, you don’t want to take the risk, because if you do engage with him, then you run the risk of him thinking that you’re ‘inviting’ his inappropriate behaviour, or fixating on you more than he might have otherwise.
And, I mean, yes, it is a shame that women cannot be open and friendly with every single man on the street, but statistics and empirical evidence give a very convincing reason for why we shouldn’t. And men should not be angry at women for reacting this way; they should be angry at the society that forces them to react.
So let’s go back to the original question: “well, what are we supposed to do about it?”
If we want women to feel safer in the streets, then there are actually things that we can do, believe it or not.
We can not react with anger or offence when a woman does something to protect herself, even if she is doing it completely without immediate reason.
We can respect boundaries, not touch people who have not given us reason or invitation to touch them, and treat them like our equals.
And if we are already doing all of this, then we can keep an eye out for the people who aren’t. When our friends decide to make loud and unwelcome comments about a woman’s body, we can tell them to stop. When we see a man groping a girl in the subway (and she isn’t making any indication that she knows the guy, or she obviously isn’t into it), we can ask her if she needs help. We can walk with women who look like they are being followed, we can offer ourselves as company to make them feel just a little bit safer. The majority of the time, women who are feeling vulnerable and threatened will be grateful for your help. Even something as seemingly insignificant as watching out for a girl who is being yelled at, or walking up to her and striking up small talk can make a world of difference.
The problem is not women’s reactions to harassment. The problem is the harassment itself, and in an ideal world, when women stop having reason to be afraid on the street, they will stop being afraid. So this is what we need to focus on.