Posted by: Andrea | November 12, 2008

The hazards of walking down the street

A few months ago I was reading some posts over at Shapely Prose, when one post caught my eye.  I peruse several fat acceptance blogs, mainly because I think the idea of body acceptance no matter what your size is something that should be embraced by many more people than it currently is.  I like Shapely Prose because it’s a good combination of acceptance and feminism.  Plus their writers are often much more eloquent than I could ever be.

One of their most active posts was one about harassment to women.  Obviously this can happen in any variety of ways, but this particular post was specifically about verbal harassment towards women when they are out in public.  This can range from wolf-whistles to ‘compliments’ to insults.  Based on a similar post at The F Word (UK), Kate Harding opened up the comments for people to document what harassment they have received.  This was primarily driven by several recent comments from one man saying he didn’t believe that ‘things were as bad’ as women say they are.  My initial reaction on considering whether I had ever experienced any harassment on the street myself was, to quote others, ‘Who hasn’t?’

I would find it a pretty tough challenge to find any woman at all who hasn’t been whistled or honked at, at least once in her life.  When trying to think of specific examples of actually having something called out to me, no specific event comes to mind, just a vague memory of a variety to phrases yelled while I was passing by.  It’s not even something I specifically remember, just because it tends to be so commonplace.  Now I’m not saying this happens to me everyday, far from it.  But over a lifetime, it has become common enough to stop being memorable.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised how much of that harassment I’d internalised.  Or, more accurately, how much of the expectation of harassment I’d internalised.  How when I walk down the street, to a certain extent I almost expect some sort of harassment.  I see a group of men and I tense up, regardless of whether or not they even notice me, much less say something.  But why should I do this?  And why should I spend my day to day life dreading walking by a group of men when I’m on my own?  And why have I never even stopped to think about that until just now?

I remember a specific incident as I was walking back to the office a few months ago.  I was walking along and I noticed a truck parked next to the sidewalk with a few construction workers inside.  They were obviously taking some sort of break and as I looked up, I saw them notice me.  I immediately cringed.  I had my ipod in my pocket but didn’t have it on.  It was too late to put the earbuds in as some sort of protection, as an excuse to ignore whatever they were going to say.  I was only ten feet away at this point and would be passing by the open truck window in a matter of seconds.  I steeled myself and kept walking, hoping they’d just ignore me but knowing it probably wouldn’t happen.  As I passed by the window, one of them, of course, whistled at me.  I gave them my most withering glare and rolled my eyes, hoping that my utter disdain was expressed.  But inside, my stomach clenched up and my heart started to race.  It upset me, even though nothing had even happened.  I’d just been walking along and minding my own business and in a split second I’d felt vulnerable and exposed.  All because of one whistle.  I don’t know if all women feel that way, but I did.  And I wonder if men would think that this sort of attention is really a ‘compliment’ if they knew how women felt when they did it.

I don’t want this to be some sort of male-bashing post because I think the vast, VAST majority of men don’t act this way.  I would suspect that some men who may have whistled at a woman when they were young teenagers now see the error of their ways.  I would hope so, at least.  I don’t even really have a point to all of this, just that it made me think about the daily experiences of women.  But all that thinking just made me sad and ultimately, very very tired.

I don’t want this sort of behaviour to continue.  I want women and men both to be able to go around their daily lives without having to worry about having to listen to comments made about their appearances.  I don’t want women to do what I do when I see a group of men when I’m on my own: tense up and brace themselves for the worst.  But how do we do this?  How to really get people to understand that yelling out a comment about someone, even a nice one, isn’t actually welcome?  That women don’t look nice in order to attract male attention.  I know this is a hard one to understand, but it’s true.  Sometimes we put on those nice shoes or that cute skirt because WE feel good in it, not because we want some man to see us and tell us so, in order to then validate the wearing of it.  But to get that across, to get everyone to truly understand where the other gender is coming from, just requires SO MUCH work.  And as much as I love reading Shapely Prose and The F Word and Jezebel, sometimes I read them and I end up just getting depressed.  We have such a long way to go.  Sometimes I just don’t even see how it can be done.

I know this has veered into negative territory and I didn’t mean it to become that.  There’s something about remembering scary moments of your life that tends to inspire it I guess.  I haven’t given up hope that we can all eventually understand each other better.  It’d be pretty sad to have given up hope before I even reach thirty.



  1. We all have insecurities. Male or female.

    I don’t know why you are giving up hope for better understanding between people. That would be boring. I hope men and woman never really understand each other. It keeps it exciting and interesting. It’s important to keep trying and at least get the basics right but it’s never going to happen.

    It would be good if we could all make room for some manners and respect.

    Anyway, in all this talk about understanding each other, why don’t you question why men are thinking the way they do instead of asking why men don’t understand women? I mean, when a woman in a cute skirt walks past can you understand why a man might think that she is doing it to attract male attention?

    P.S Hen nights are the worst thing in the world for a guy. Being robbed of all the change in your pockets then being forces to kiss a fat minging bride to be in a pretend police uniform. BOKE.

  2. I sympathize with the feelings described, though at the age of 56 I’ve become much more invisible than I used to be. That can be an advantage. At times in the past I longed to be invisible, especially when travelling in countries where lone females were not common on the streets. I think the problem is that we are dealing with a continuum rather than something black and white. A friendly smile is nice but a leer isn’t; where does one stop and the other one begin? Some women do dress provocatively, and it seems hypocritical for them to complain of attention. Other women dress stylishly and don’t particularly want that to be interpreted as “Please proposition me,” but again, sometimes the line is hard to define. One thing that I do feel strongly about–that as a woman I never want to be defined by victimhood, even if I have at times in fact been a victim (even physically assaulted a few times).

  3. I thought a lot about posting this, mainly because I felt like I didn’t really come to a satisfactory conclusion. I think there are so many things between men and women that will continue to be a mystery, and yes, as Adventure Friends says, that’s part of the excitement. I’m not giving up hope for understanding. I completely understand why men might think that a woman in a short skirt is looking for attention, some might even truly BE looking for attention. I think for me sometimes it just feels so overwhelming to try to understand where ALL women are coming from, because they aren’t all coming from the same place. The same with men.

    I realize that this post never really came to a suitable conclusion. I guess that’s just a part of blogging, sometimes it is just raw emotion and it doesn’t all come together in a nice package at the end. And yes, I agree, hen nights are HORRID. I’ve made all my friends promise never to subject me to anything of the sort, if or when I ever get married. There will be no awful pink cowboy hats here!

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