The underbelly of Dunedin streets
Note: This article contains potentially upsetting graphic comments.
"I was walking down George Street with my boyfriend one night when a group of guys walking behind me kept talking aloud between themselves saying things like, ‘She’d get it’ and ‘She looks like she could take a dick.’ It made me sad not only that they were saying things like that to me, but that my boyfriend didn’t really know how to respond at all. I guess if he had stopped and said something to the guys they would have gotten aggressive, so it was a situation that neither of us could have fixed, really. Later he said to me, ‘I guess girls just get used to it,’ and he didn’t really understand my response: ‘Why should we?’”
It is interesting and saddening how normalised street harassment is. It is something that we rarely talk about, and yet, when the subject is raised, most people have a story to tell about how they have personally experienced street harassment, or at the very least, the fear of it. It is also important to recognise that, while this article outlines the gendered nature of street harassment incidents, other groups experience public harassment directed towards them, too. The 2013 European Union LGBT survey highlights that street harassment is also a major concern for LGBT people. 50 per cent of the 93,079 respondents of this survey (aged 18 years or over who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) claimed that they avoided certain places or locations for fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed because of being LGBT. Racially motivated street harassment is also an issue that has been raised in the international student community in Dunedin.
Gendered street harassment is unwanted and unwelcome attention in a public space, often of a sexual nature and usually directed at women. Wolf-whistles, excessive staring, graphic sexually violent comments, groping, stalking and public masturbation – most women experience at least some of these throughout their lives from strangers in public spaces. For many women, their regular occurrence prompts us to be conscious of the “safe” routes to our destination, spurs our crossing the street to avoid groups of chads or construction sites, and for some of us, causes constant anxiety in public spaces. International research indicates that over 70 per cent of women, and an unknown percentage of men, experience street harassment.
Even more troubling is that in most of these studies half of the women reported these experiences having a detrimental impact on their lives, resulting in many of them feeling unsafe in their neighbourhoods. The consequences of experiencing gendered street harassment on a regular basis, as is life for many women in Dunedin, are huge. The feelings of fear, anxiety, objectification and disgust do not fade easily, and they inform future decisions that women make when deciding where they can be in public, when and with whom. Self-esteem and self-worth may also be affected for women who are subjected to these experiences. While there is little research available for the New Zealand context, just talking to women will elicit numerous stories of experiences of a wide range of threatening behaviour in public.
While most women will understand the frequent occurrence and level of gendered abuse and intimidation directed at women in public, many men may not know – or believe – how bad it can be. This is not simply an international problem that occurs in far-flung places. Street harassment takes place daily on George Street, on Castle Street, in the Octagon, at any time of the day or night. It’s probably happened outside your flat. The culture of street harassment in Dunedin is not okay, and sharing our stories and shining light on the dirty underbelly of street harassment is a way to tackle it head-on. Make no mistake; we are not talking about genuine compliments from socially awkward, misunderstood guys. Street harassers make their remarks with full disregard and disrespect to the woman targeted, as these quotes illustrate:
“I was browsing in St. Vincent de Pauls when a lone, tattooed, white male, about 30 years old, strode past, sized me up and announced loudly: ‘Tall enough, but you got an ugly face, girl.’ Then he stood and looked at me with a smug grin on his face. I was shaking with anger but was too intimidated to say anything, for fear of being followed. No-one else in the shop said anything to him and it took me months to work up the courage to return to browse again.”
“I have lost count of the revolting comments I have received from men of all ages walking past me while I am minding my own business in the day-time. The most memorable include: ‘That girl looks like she needs a cock up her arse’ (said by a 16-year-old boy in school uniform with his 10 other mates); ‘That one looks like a good pussy’ (said casually in earshot by two young men walking down George Street, middle of the day); and ‘Give us a go!’ (Shouted by a middle-aged man out of his car).”
“I was walking home from Uni when guys in a car yelled, ‘I’m gonna fuck your pussy,’ then they sped off. Not only is this language yuck but it frustrates me that I wasn’t given the opportunity to respond.”
“I was waiting to cross the lights at Albany Street after walking home from the gym and a car full of guys stopped beside me. One of them politely said, ‘excuse me,’ so I turned around. I was then asked, ‘Do you squat?’ I responded by saying, ‘You don’t have the right to look at my body and make a comment about it.’ I was shaking and so intimidated. It had taken years of receiving gross comments from guys to actually say anything. While I’m glad I said something to them it took a huge amount of courage and I was actually really scared responding.”
“I was walking down the street with my mum when these guys drove past us. They lifted their shirts and pressed their chests against the car window, screaming at me. I was only 14 at the time and it made me feel so uncomfortable.”
“Walking down Moray Place on a weeknight I have experienced a group of five or so men standing across the road – all of them continuously wolf-whistled at me the entire time I was in their line of sight – for over a block. That level of scrutiny and invasion still makes me feel on edge whenever I hear someone wolf-whistle, wherever I am.”
Moreover, some at-first seemingly harmless harassers become aggressive when their comments go ignored or are confronted. Victims of gendered street harassment are often targeted when they are by themselves, and often by a group of harassers. This adds another level of fear for the victim as they are instantly at a disadvantage, and may feel powerless to either verbally or physically protect themselves. Dunedin women have shared scary experiences of men objectifying them, treating them as property and escalating the abuse when challenged; suggesting that they have a sense of entitlement to women’s attention and
bodies, as these experiences highlight:
“A friend and I were walking home past The Cook at night and a drunk guy was outside. He called out ‘Hello, ladies’ and we kept walking, engrossed in our conversation, so he aggressively spat on the ground and yelled out ‘SLUTS!’”
“I was walking home and some dude yells from a car, ‘you going to town?’ I ignored them and as they drove off he yelled, ‘I’ll shove my cock up your ass.’”
“I’ve had a dude physically stop me on the street before when I wouldn’t pay attention to his cat-calling and I actually thought I was gonna be attacked. It’s fucking scary.”
These are the experiences of women from our local community and they occurred in public places that you have probably frequented before. These stories represent the tip of the iceberg; and are only a few examples of the countless incidences women experience on a regular basis. People that you know probably have many more stories of their own that they could share. The striking prevalence and normalisation of harassment is why we felt compelled to write this article. So why does it happen? Is it just individual assholes? Then why is the aggressive language so similar? The above quotes from different women illustrate similar sexually violent language that these men used to frighten women – much of the language invokes the threat of rape to gain a sense of control over them in public. There may be a variety of motivations; some harassers band together in groups to show off to their mates, while others are alone and have no-one to impress. Regardless of their individual motivations or character flaws, these stories are indicative of a minority of men’s assumed right to appraise women’s bodies, degrade them and assert authority over them. The feminist project of gender equality is still a much-needed and attainable goal. For example, this from a Dunedin women,
“I was in town with my friend, and as we were walking past a bar, a man grabbed me and refused to let me go. When I managed to forcefully pull away, he began shouting at me saying things like ‘Fuck you! You’re MY property,’” exemplifies the gendered power dynamic that exists in these instances of street harassment. As long as there are some men who believe they have the right to act this way because they are men and towards women because they are women, then we need to see this as a gendered issue and not just a case of individuals being assholes. It is attributable to a broader social set of gender relations that this behaviour is a regular, normalised occurrence. All people should be able to freely move around public spaces without fear of harassment and the negative emotional consequences that can arise from this harassment. The fact that this is not possible for all women demands our calls for action.
There are a plethora of things that each of us can do to tackle this culture of street harassment in Dunedin.
First, we need to acknowledge that gendered street harassment is NOT a compliment, nor is it the victim’s fault. Street harassment is unwanted and makes the victim feel uncomfortable, scared, intimidated or embarrassed and shares no common ground with a compliment. By dismissing street harassment as a compliment, it dismisses the experience of the victim, and the way it made them feel.
Secondly, we need to start standing up for people who are harassed. This can be done in a variety of ways and is one way that men can really help lower occurrences of street harassment.
Bystander intervention is one such strategy. Created as a rape prevention strategy, it is most associated with the work of Vicki Banyard and her colleagues at the University of New Hampshire. The bystander approach works from two key premises: First, that sexual violence is a social and structural issue rather than the problem of individuals. Second, it works from an understanding of sexual violence as a continuum of behaviours ranging from healthy, age-appropriate, respectful, and safe behaviours to sexual abuse, rape, and violent behaviours. Between these two points are other behaviours – where street harassment is situated – that begin to feel inappropriate, coercive, and harassing.
In order for this strategy to be effective, individuals need to notice that something is happening, recognise the event as a behaviour along the sexual violence continuum, take responsibility for providing help, know how to intervene and choose to intervene safely. From this perspective, people may intervene in situations at one end of the continuum, such as stopping a friend from making sexually harassing comments to someone in the street. The value of this approach is that it means each person can be engaged in preventing sexual violence by taking small and straightforward actions in less extreme situations. When you hear someone harassing someone else, call them out on it. Tell them it’s not okay. Coming from a friend or a peer, being told that harassing behaviour is not okay is an effective way to tackle street harassment.
Third, we can share our stories of harassment in Dunedin with each other and support people who have been a victim of street harassment. This can be done by providing a sensitive and caring place to talk through what has happened, rather than dismissing the harassment as a compliment, joke or not important. Not only does this legitimise the feelings that victims of street harassment experience, but it also makes clear how normalised and invisible this culture of harassment is and may spur the community to acknowledge the problem, and harassers to examine
The global mobilisation of feminists and their allies raising awareness about street harassment has spurred the development of online websites, smart-phone applications to record incidences and map harassment “hot spots,” regular news articles highlighting the problem and a variety of poster campaigns aimed at problematising this behaviour. ihollaback.org is one such website which states that it is “powered by local activists in 71 cities and 24 countries.” It provides a platform for people to share their experiences and receive support from others. At the local level, the OUSA feminist club has created a tumblr page and is inviting people to share their street harassment diaries. This space gives people an opportunity to detail their experiences within a length of time – depending on how regular street harassment is for them. You can submit your experiences here: mystreetharassmentdiary.tumblr.com. We will also be holding events throughout the year, so watch this space. The more we speak out about this issue and its prevalence, the more support we can mobilise to change this culture of abuse.