Harmless Fun? Women Share What It Really Feels Like To Be Harassed On The Street


by Anna Brech |

Women have shared their stories of everyday sexual harassment in a frank and eye-opening conversation on Reddit.

The thread, titled "Women of Reddit, what it is like to be cat-called at?", has drawn thousands of responses in the past five days.

Wolf-whistling and other forms of unwanted attention are dismissed by some as harmless fun or even flattery.

But for those on the other end of such "banter", it can be a terrifying and isolating experience - and one which often escalates.

Anger, fear and dread were a common theme among women discussing their feelings on the matter.

"It's pretty uncomfortable," says one woman. "Especially when it's a situation where there aren't many other people around. It's easy to ignore when it's a public place and there are lots of people around. But sometimes it's a situation where the cat calling turns into them sort of following you or continue to talk and when you're alone and not many people out and about, it can definitely be scary."

"So many times I've been told to ignore it, but when I have, I get hostile reactions," says another. "I've also been touched by guys after ignoring them (they pull me by the hand to get me to sit at their table, put their arm around me whispering me questions in my ear) that is when pure anger starts oozing out of me. But it's a lose lose situation: if I slap him I can get arrested for assault, if I don't get away from him fast enough he will do worse."

One post that that stood out for being particularly unpalatable was written by a woman who is deaf.

"I was walking through downtown Kansas City when a car stopped next to me and cat called at me," she recalls. "I didn't hear it because all I can artificially hear is the construction around me. The guy drove his car in front of me and blocked my path. That's what got my attention. He says 'I'm trying to compliment you but you're ignoring me. I don't tolerate getting ignored.' I told him 'I'm deaf.' His reaction showed some remorse since he realized he's being creepy to a young deaf woman possibly 10 years younger than him. I turned around and started walking in the other direction. He didn't follow me."

A lot of women also commented on how young they were when street harassment became an issue for them.

"I can remember the first time it ever happened to me," says one person. "I was 11 years old walking home from a friends house after school and I still had my backpack on. I was walking down the street about to come up to an intersection when two men in a car rolled down their window and started shouting at me and wolf whistling. They just kept going while waiting for the light to change and I had no idea what I should do, so I didn't do anything I just stood there and acted like I wasn't terrified of what those grown men might do. I had never even had my first kiss and then I was dealing with this."

85% of younger women in the UK have been sexually harassment in public places ©Getty

The group talked about how a reluctance to respond to harassment is often misunderstood by its perpetrators.

"A couple of months ago I was waiting in line in a 711 just trying to purchase a drink and I happened to be behind two guys," recalls a Reddit responder. "I noticed one of them kept looking at me but didn't really think too much of it. When I went outside he and his friend were waiting for me in their car and stopped me as I tried to cross the parking lot. He just kept telling me how beautiful I am and how he'd love to take me out and that he needed my phone number but then they wouldn't let me pass them, even after I said no as politely as I could so I wouldn't upset them they still wouldn't let me pass. The guy kept going and started telling me how much he loved that I was being so shy, that it was a turn on. What he was seeing wasn't me being shy, that was me being terrified."

As well as feeling terrified, other women described how angry cat-callers made them - prompting discussion around a more combative approach.

"I just go batshit insane and start screaming at them...," says one poster. "I realize that I do this at great personal risk, most likely, but I've found it's more successful than muttering 'thanks' or pretending not to notice honestly. To be fair I am now also a very competent martial artist and reasonably good at assessing when a situation is about to get real. I'm sick of letting them have their fun and terrifying me."

"When you're alone and not many people are out and about, it can definitely be scary" ©Getty

Bystander apathy was another notion that came up in the conversation: "Last time I didn't acknowledge it a guy masturbated at me on the bus and then just fucking smiled at me," comments a Reddit user. "Everyone on the bus pretended not to see anything. I was so pissed. I went to the front of the bus and told the driver and he didn't do shit. Reported him to the police but there wasn't really anything they could do."

Men also got involved in the thread.

"I'm a dude. I used to walk to and from school with a girl who lived near to me. Same year at school," he says. "One day on the way home when we were about 13, a couple of middle-aged builders in a white van rolled past slowly, catcalling her. Comments about the shortness of her skirt, the size of her breasts.

"... Guys that will catcall women and girls don't just have some fucked up ideas about women. They're just all round scumbags, in all parts of their life."

The UK's first national study on street harassment last year found that 64% of women of all ages have experienced sexual harassment in public areas.

For women aged between 18-24, this figure jumped to 85%. A further 45% of women in this category had experienced unwanted sexual touching.

Only 11% of women said anyone had intervened when they were harassed, though 81% said they wished someone had.

In terms of how best to tackle the problem, those questioned said that they supported more police (53%), better street lighting (38%), more transport staff (38%) and public awareness campaigns encouraging others to intervene (35%).

Campaigns such as Everyday Sexism and Hollaback have worked to raise awareness of the widespread impact of street harassment, and give voice to women affected by it.

"This is one of the things I think some men don't understand, the men who ask you what the big deal is about street harassment, say they'd love it if it happened to them, or suggest you just 'take it as a compliment,'" writes Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism, in the Guardian.

"It's not a simple, one-moment experience. It's a horribly drawn-out affair. The process of scanning the street as you walk; the constant alert tension; the moment of revelation and the sinking feeling as you realise what is going to happen. Countless women have written to me about the defence mechanisms they put in place – walking with keys between their knuckles just to feel safe – wearing their earphones so they can keep their head down and ignore it. The whole process of going out, particularly at night, can become fraught and difficult."

If you've been affected by sexual harassment, get information and help on Victim Support.

READ MORE: The Hashtag Exposing Everyday Harassment

READ MORE: Joining Up The Dots Between Street Harassment And Rape

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