Is there any point in standing up to street harassment?

A friend of mine was on a train in Sydney this week when she noticed a man staring at her from the next carriage.

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She looked down and looked up again. The man was still staring at her, and by then his friend was too.

Annoyed, she glowered at them, hoping to shame their stares away.

But it didn’t work.

In fact, much to her horror, another man sitting near her began to stare too.

She pulled out her phone and took a photo of them in protest, but they kept right on staring.

After getting off the train she sent an email to a group of female friends describing what had happened and how frustrated it had made her.

The email ended with a plea: “Tips for dealing in the moment with sticky eyes, please? I’m coming up with hands bare.”

Responses came in thick and fast, and everyone had her fair share of war stories.

But what no one had was a concrete solution for how to deal with it, which got me wondering – is there one?

Keeping it light 

For a lot of people, this type of thing is a bit of fun and basically innocent, as one friend, Harriet*, pointed out in her reply:

“These guys, with their smiling stares, seem pretty benign,” she wrote. “But at the heart of this is a deliberate and all-too-familiar act – harassment masquerading as harmlessness.

“These subtler ones are the hardest to negotiate.”

She then listed some ways of dealing with it:

1. A passive-assertive option: Get out of the situation. Change train compartments.

2. A more directive-assertive option: Go up to them and talk to them about how their staring is making you uncomfortable.

An awkward moment

Part of the problem is that women often don’t feel comfortable standing up for ourselves when we’re being harassed.

Whether that’s because we fear being attacked, or even raped, or just because we feel we need to act in a way that women are expected to – warm, friendly, gentle – is up for debate. Maybe we just don’t want to seem like killjoys. Maybe we actually like the attention. Or maybe it just doesn’t bother us. Whatever the reason, most women I know say they usually do nothing in situations like the one on the train.

Another friend, Gemma, thought that doing nothing wasn’t good.

“Going up to them and actually asking why they’re staring at you throws the whole situation out of their favour,” she wrote.

“Rather than it being a dominant gaze on a passive one-dimensional object of desire, you’re taking the power back and making them consider you as a complex human being, with a right to feel safe on a train.

But here’s another question: Is it really fair that men who approach women or smile at them get labelled “creeps”, while a woman can approach another woman and compliment her hair or clothes and that is acceptable, even welcome?

“I stare at people on the train all the time,” Gemma wrote. “But I think women are just non-threatening by default, and so we get away with it.

“We feel much more threatened by men almost without them trying to be threatening.”

Public debate

Only this week a video showing two Indian women physically assaulting a group of men who had been harassing them on a bus went viral online, with many people commending them for taking such a strong stand.

Before that, a video showing a woman getting catcalled relentlessly as she walked around the streets of New York clocked up more than 35 million views on YouTube, triggering a fierce debate.

Many criticised the video as racist because most of the men seen harassing the woman – who is white – were black or Latino.

Others complained in posts under the video that the message behind it was overly precious:

“This video is so stupid. End harassment? What harassment? It was guys saying hi! Sure in some parts it was harassment but 90%-95% were compliments. What is with women thinking all ugly guys are weird and rapists and good looking guys are amazing, nice, the love-of-your-life kind of guy?”

And maybe he has a point. By overplaying the issue is there a risk that good men will be unnecessarily labelled predators and bear the brunt of undue hostility or suspicion?

“We feel much more threatened by men almost without them trying to be threatening.”

There’s also the risk the debate will reinforce the idea of women as victims and men as big bad wolves.

On the other hand, to downplay it is to say that daily harassment of women of all ages and backgrounds is okay, regardless of how diminished or scared it makes us feel.

On a recent walk home along Sydney’s Victoria Street, I was approached by a man who put his hand up my skirt as he passed me, holding on to my bum cheek for a split second and blowing cigarette smoke in my face. It was 4pm.

Afterwards I looked around in bewilderment and caught the eye of a woman passing with her baby. She quickly dropped her eyes to the ground.

Of the many things that shocked me about that brief moment – others’ inaction, my own powerlessness, the audacity of the man – what shocked me the most was the sense of embarrassment I felt. I think it’s that embarrassment that certain men play on, and many probably like causing.

The verdict

After a couple of days of mulling over my friend’s email, another friend, Paige, replied that she thought there was no point putting too much energy into trying to change the attitudes of men on the street.

“Reserve your precious energy and channel it into your work, your community, raising awareness about inequality, all the things,” she wrote.

“You’ll feel better for it than telling some f—ing idiot to f–k off because he’ll probably just laugh in your face.”

I figured she was probably right.

“But, it can also be pretty satisfying to tell a creep to get f—ed; go f–k yourself; what the f–k are you staring at?

“Because they won’t be expecting it.”

*All names have been changed