Street Harassment

First, read this article about street harassment.

I was posting it on Facebook and then realised I had a little more to say about the article.

I don’t have an experience of street harassment like this woman does, in terms of expecting it on a daily basis. I have lived in a tiny hamlet, in a rural city, in Melbourne, Canberra, and I recently spent time in Nhulunbuy, a mining town in remote NT. Nhulunbuy is where the men would stare at me as they drove past, threatening a traffic accident. And I have had my fair share of strange men wanting to talk to me in public. But in none of these places have I considered dealing with street harassment a daily routine.

But what she writes about the constant decision-making rang true. I recently went for a walk one evening with my fiance, The Pilot, at his suggestion. He said he likes walking around at night. First of all, that he would consider that a recreational activity is foreign to me. Walking at night is what you do when you have to get home and you don’t have another option. Then he started to lead us through a park. “A park?? At night?? Are you kidding?” No, he was not. It had never occurred to him not to walk through a park at night. Then as we were heading back home, a car pulled up and just stopped, right near where we were. My heart-rate quickened and I had a massive hit of dread and adrenaline, started walking really fast.

“What’s going on?” The Pilot asked.

“What are they doing?” I pointed at the car.

“Probably just lost.”

“Let’s keep going!”

We made it home incident-free, but just being there with a man made me see the contrast between his decision-making and mine. I remember one time I was walking through a park while talking on the phone to my Dad, and he got so mad at me for doing that. And with the car stopping, well, I knew it probably wasn’t someone with sinister intentions, but how could I be sure?

The constant decision-making that is required to serve self-protection makes me angry. The writer is right — what could we achieve if we had all that extra mental bandwidth to ourselves, for our own purposes??

I recently had a debate with The Pilot about the merits of telling women not to walk out at night, as opposed to telling men not to attack women at night. He was referencing a Q and A episode where someone said, “Yes, we should be telling men not to attack women, but in the meantime it’s still unsafe for women, so we should ALSO be telling women not to go out at night”. The Pilot saw the merit in this argument.

It took me a couple of months to process what was wrong with this statement*, but the other day I finally came up with it. I explained it to The Pilot and he agreed. The problem is that when you make a Public Service Announcement to women or girls that they shouldn’t walk out at night, men and boys also hear this message. And this announcement further reinforces the idea that women and girls are responsible for their own safely, for avoiding being attacked. So the implicit message to boys and men is that they can continue in their behaviour. Any women or girls who are out at night are held accountable to what happens to them, NOT the boys or men who are also out. So they are justified in doing what they like.

The last few paragraphs of the article are really important, so if you didn’t make it that far I encourage you to go back. If you are a man, or even if you don’t understand what the writer is going on about, please move beyond the “not all men” reaction. What can you do to support someone who is going through something, other than not contribute to the problem? You can do the most radical thing, and listen to her/them. And believe what you are hearing. And take the side of your friend, not of a random stranger in the street.

*The best relationships (romantic and otherwise) are ones where you are in a long, ongoing conversation and can bring up a topic of conversation from anywhere in the past year, or more, and just continue it.


2 thoughts on “Street Harassment

  1. Hi Emmeline,

    I find this whole “scenario” really disheartening. While I don’t pretend to understand what a woman feels when she is out walking alone, especially at night, I find it unacceptable that you are made to feel like this all the time.

    As a gay man, I have found myself at night in areas I have felt uncomfortable, and having to be overly vigilant, keys in hand ready if needed. It just never occurred to me that this is the feeling that women feel all the time. I suppose for me I have always felt that as long as I was cautious, I could handle anything that came my way. Maybe that is the male perspective. But the idea that women do not feel comfortable walking alone, day or night, is totally unacceptable. There is a walking track in my home town that I use, and I often pass solo women, who look anxious or furtive. I always try to catch their eye, and smile and say hello, but often they won’t look at me and I get no response. I find this so sad, that a simple pleasure like going for a walk, has become something to be fearful of.

    Is there anything we can do? Or do we just accept that this is the way things are?


    • Hi Scott! Thankyou for your kind and supportive words. This website should help you know where to start in changing things:

      As for women not responding on the walking track, I can understand that, as they can’t know the intent of someone saying hello, and sometimes ignoring it feels safer. I would probably go with just smiling.

      There may not be anything you can do in the immediate situation of walking along the track to help the women who are looking anxious. But in a broader sense, things like challenging sexist jokes goes a long way towards making spaces safer towards women.

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