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Street Harassment Shouldn't be Part of the Female Experience

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I wasn't in the mood to get kidnapped. It was a balmy summer's day and I was desperate to get home, swap my crumpled suit for something more comfy and chill out in the garden.

I was on my way home from attending three job interviews in three days all over the country. I was exhausted.

So exhausted in fact I didn't even try to be polite when the man next to me on the DLR started asking personal questions. Pretending I was a lesbian didn't have the desired effect. I curtly told him to stop talking to me and we sat in awkward silence for a few minutes, punctuated by occasional blasts of tinny music from someone's mp3 player.

When we arrived at Canning Town he said very matter-of-factly, "This is my stop, you're coming with me," stood up and began yanking on my arm. I told him to stop touching me in a voice loud enough that people pulled their earphones out to listen to the commotion.

These sorts of incidents are background noise for many women and girls. Living in London, constant aggressive attention from men was an almost daily occurence. The sounds of the city: police sirens, pigeons cooing, garbled chatter, and a man shouting "how much for a shag?" from a passing car.

You get depressingly familiar with being solicited for sex, with hearing the words "bitch" or "slut" when men walk past you, with being catcalled when innocently cycling, jogging or walking your dog.

Inoffensive playful attention was incredibly rare and yes, the difference between that and offensive behaviour is clear. I can only remember two instances, including one where a young man wrote a poem about the 'rainbow in my hair' (it was various shades of pink), put his email address at the bottom and handed it to me before walking off. Not intimidating at all, and quite lovely in fact.

But I've lost count of the number of men who've tried to lure me away, intimidate and mock me in public when I've been alone.

I'm thankful I don't live in London anymore. Now I ride a grubby motorbike about instead of taking the bus (but still tuck my hair into my jacket to avoid unwanted attention). And perhaps at 29 I'm too old to attract that sort of attention, but I suspect the decrease in harassment in my life is more to do with the fact I just don't go out at night anymore.

But compared to some of the things I've been reading about on anti-street harassment blogs this week, all that is street harassment-lite.

The following comment alludes to how much worse it could've been, and deeply upset me. It's from a blog asking women to list their experiences of street harassment.

When on my way home from parties I now take the route through the back alleys and up the woods - deserted, very, very dark, and fucking terrifying - as opposed to walking past the pubs and clubs, because the level of harassment I get on a nightly basis is disgusting. I've had men say absolutely everything, I've had a group of drunken middle age men follow me home saying they are going to rape me, I've had men reach out and grab me as I walk past. All the time, every time I walk past. None of these incidents were once-offs, or even twice-offs.

So instead I now walk home through what would classically be considered a much unsafer route - because I know that if I do get attacked and raped when I walk home that way then at least it will be the classic 'stranger rape' and I've got what, a 20% better chance of conviction?

It is desperately sad that I have to think like this, but I honestly don't know a woman who doesn't in some degree. And I do have to think like this, because when I did get raped the police refused to believe me on the grounds I was a) seen talking to the men before and b) intoxicated ...

One of my female cousins was raped and brutally murdered by someone she knew in Iraq a few years ago. She was attacked with such ferocity that the police later found her nails, ripped out and torn during the struggle, embedded into the car's interior where she was attacked. Her murderer wasn't sure she was dead after he strangled her so he tied her head to the car and drove around until her skin, from neck to hip, was torn off. Then, just to be sure she was dead, he ran over her lifeless body.

Even still, victim-blaming rumours were spreading around town. She deserved it, it was her fault for getting into the car with him, she was leading him on by talking to him. The fact that the ordeal was less about the innocuous sounding "leading someone on", and more about unrelenting sexual violence and barbarity meant nothing to the rumour mill. Harassment seems to be a sneaky way of mitigating blame - if two people were seen "talking" beforehand, they were more likely to be thought of as friends (and as the myth goes, friends don't rape each other).

Of course none of this in any way invalidates the very terrifying male-on-male intimidation and violence that occurs on the very same streets. I learnt how scared men make each other feel when I shaved my head as a rebellious 21 year: I was so androgynous back then everyone thought I was a man. And it is equally as scary - there were no sexual tones to the aggression, but it was aggression all the same. Many of my male friends have been beaten to within an inch of their life, stabbed, chased by thugs with weapons, and assaulted by random drunken strangers whilst walking home alone at night.

But proving you've been raped, sexually assaulted or intimidated is fraught with difficulties - not least the fact that gathering evidence is not always as simple as spotting a knife sticking out of your ribs. So people get away with it. Again and again, until we can collectively make a stand face to face that women's bodies are not public property.

Street harassment, like any form of negative attention, will never completely vanish. But avoiding dealing with the problem because it can never be 100% eradicated is cowardly and unfair on the vulnerable children (girls as young as 11) who are sometimes targeted.

And it shouldn't stop at simply calling men out for their behaviour. Educating men and young boys is critical. After all, street harassment is not about women. It's about one thing only: impressing other men.

This week is International Anti-Street Harassment Week and this is my call to action:

Women (and men!) - let's start standing up for each other on the streets. What if it were your sister, mother or daughter being asked how much she charges for sex? This behaviour isn't below the radar anymore and will not be tolerated.

For practical tips for assertive responses for both men and women, victims and bystanders alike, visit the Stop Street Harassment website.

Around the Web

- Stop Street Harassment

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"Hey Baby:" Enduring Street Harassment

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Street Harassment is Simply Not OK

Who's Ending Street Harassment in Latin America and the Caribbean?

International Anti-Street Harassment Starts Next Week