“Let’s have a drink – at my place of course, not a café. Or a hotel, in a bed”. This is just one of the hundreds of comments made to Sofie Peeters by complete strangers in her short documentary film, Femme de la Rue.
Sofie moved to Brussels to do a film degree and was taken aback by the frequency of sexual harassment in the streets in the working-class suburb she was living in. So she decided to secretly record her harassers and to interview the men who took part in this behaviour and other women who had experienced it.
The result is a shocking portrayal of the difficult and often scary daily experiences of women, not just in Belgium, but around the world. The limited research that has been done shows that street harassment takes place in all social groups and to similar extents everywhere from Mumbai to New York. Between 85% and 95% of women report having experienced street harassment at some point – this is much more common, for example, than sexual harassment by someone known to the woman.
There is often an assumption that this sort of sexual harassment does not have much of an effect. Many people think that catcalling, wolf-whistling, sexually explicit language or gestures and aggressive leers are ‘harmless’ or that ‘men will be men’.
But studies have shown that sexual harassment by strangers has a significant impact. It makes women feel less safe walking home alone at night and using public transport. Many women change their daily behaviour as a result – choosing different routes, pretending to be on their phone when they walk past groups of men, or changing the kind of clothes they wear.
Often in the back of women’s minds is a fear that words and looks could turn into sexual assault or rape, or that the way they respond might escalate the situation. And this fear is not completely unjustified. In Sofie’s film the men often get more agitated and aggressive when they don’t get a positive response – whether she says she is not interested, or just ignores them. In 1998, 16-year-old Adilah Gaither was shot and killed at a bus stop in the US for refusing to give her number to a man when he asked for it.
So it is unsurprising that an increasing number of young women are angry about street harassment. For many, this day-to-day struggle will be one of their first experiences of inequality. Disturbingly, many women report that the harassment was worse when they were teenagers, often while in school uniform. There are now several websites dedicated to the issue. Most allow women to pinpoint on a map where they have been harassed. Thousands are involved in these campaigns in one way or another. Women understandably feel a sense of relief to speak out and know that they are not alone. But very few of these websites put forward any real action proposals or explain why street harassment occurs.
Like rape and other forms of sexual violence, street harassment has little to do with sex and a lot to do with power. Kathrin Zippel, associate professor of sociology at North Eastern University, Boston, USA, said: “Often times it’s not really about the women, it’s just about the men performing masculine acts for each other and establishing a pecking order amongst themselves”.
One factor behind this type of behaviour is a quest for ‘masculinity’ in an era of chronic unemployment and the changing nature of employment. In the past many men felt that their main role in the family unit was to provide financially. When people have no stake in society and much of their life is out of their hands, looking to have control over something can manifest itself in destructive ways.
However, it is clearly not the case that women are irrelevant in the situation. Street harassment is one of many ways that sexism presents itself. Capitalism conditions people to see women as subordinate to men. This, combined with pornography being so easily available via the internet and in ‘lads mags’, encourages the objectification of women, their bodies and their sexualities. In Femme de la Rue, one of the men recognises the effect of sexist advertising and women’s bodies being used to sell huge numbers of products. To fully end the problem in a permanent way, we need to fight for a socialist world where society isn’t organised around the production of commodities for profit and a new culture of cooperation, with everyone having a real say in how society is run, opens up the possibility of genuine equality in personal relationships.
But recognising the cause of street harassment and the oppression of women in general does not mean that we take no action and wait for a socialist society to solve women’s problems. All forms of sexism are unacceptable. Sofie Peeters’ film ends with her neighbour moving house because of the daily harassment. It is not OK that so many women feel scared walking down the street, or change their behaviour to avoid being harassed. And there is action that can be taken to improve things.
As a first step, we have to fight to stop all cuts, many of which will make women feel even less safe. About half of all councils in Britain, for example, have turned street lights off completely or for part of the night to save money. Cuts to public transport will also have a major effect. One survey showed that 41% of young women in London had been harassed on the street in the previous year and one third on public transport. Union leader Bob Crow, said: “The reassurance of having a human staff presence on a station late at night is key to showing safety and security are a priority and those who want a faceless transport system in the name of cuts and profit should study this important piece of work”.
Both Brazil and Japan have introduced women only train carriages – before this two thirds of young women had been groped while using public transport in Tokyo. But, while some women may feel safer with this service being available, it is not a long-term solution. In fact, where it has been trialled there are now fewer women in the mixed carriages and so more harassment there. A few countries have introduced laws against sexual harassment, most recently France. But laws alone do not solve the problem either. Just after the law was passed in France, the housing minister was whistled and jeered at in parliament by right-wing MPs because she wore a dress.
We need practical measures to make women feel safer. One in seven women students have experienced serious physical or sexual assault while at university or college and two thirds have experienced some kind of harassment. As a response some universities have issued female students with rape alarms. Similar measures to enhance women’s feeling of security such as free phones, self-defence classes and night buses, can help and should be campaigned for.
But in the longer term, tackling street harassment requires a change in culture. It needs to no longer be socially acceptable for men to behave in this way. Action taken by the women’s and labour movements can achieve that. We need education in schools, workplaces, trade unions and student unions about street harassment and its effects.
The early Reclaim the Night movement in the 1970s was an attempt to make the streets safer and more pleasant for women – although calls sometimes made for ‘curfews for men’ undermined the possibilities for a united campaign. We need such a campaign today. In the past, trade unions have done important campaign work against sexual harassment in the workplace and helped significantly change this culture. But the role of the trade unions does not stop at the door of the factory or office. They have to play an active role in campaigning against street harassment and all manifestations of sexism.
By Sarah Wrack