Fiona Dunken confronts Street harassment within Irish society

“There was a phase where we’d be walking into college and get terrible abuse from guys driving by in cars, purchase in broad daylight, salve sometimes quite early in the morning. They’d beep the horn, search just generally shout at us, one awful one was in the morning I think and the two of us were just walking along, they shouted out the window something along the lines of “We can smell ye from here”. There was another day where two guys tried to get the two of us to come over to them, they were like standing down the dodgy side of the canal and they just kept pestering us…”
“Walking through the snow last winter at about 4 pm in Balbriggan and out of no where a middle aged man (sober) by himself walked past me and grabbed my upper thigh, saying ‘hello’, I was totally shocked and could just about muster a ‘fuck you, pervert’ but he just stood there and stared at me so I ended up just rushing off.”
“I had a fifty something man walk up to me on O’Connell street, leer at me and shout out ‘Nice tits’…I can honestly say it was absolutely mortifying. I was by myself, which made the whole thing worse. Apart from being mortified, I felt quite disgusted. I just kept thinking that he shouldn’t have been able to do that. Why could he just walk up, have a stare and say that to me?”

Why was he able to just walk up to Leanne and say that? Why did he feel he had the right to grab Aoife’s thigh? Why did they feel it was perfectly okay, in broad daylight, to deliver those obscene words to those two girls walking to college? Is street harassment something we, as a society, simply ignore, or accept? Is it something we, as a society, should actually care about?

Street harassment affects 80 – 90% of women in other Western countries, young and old. Though no national statistics currently exist, it is an Irish problem too. If you’re a female reader, you will know this all too well. If you’re a male reader, ask your girlfriend, ask your sister, ask the girl sitting beside you in the lecture hall. Perhaps it’s something that, whether male or female, we choose to laugh off with our friends. Perhaps it’s something that we barely even notice because we’re just so accustomed to it. But it is something we need to deconstruct and examine; what is wrong with it, and where exactly does it come from?

Contrary to the belief of some, a sly mutter of ‘alright babes’ actually does not often possess the propensity to envelope women in a fuzzy feeling of sexual empowerment. It is not a compliment -it is intimidation. Nobody wishes to embody a constant state of sexual availability. Saying no to street harassment is not a prudish issue. Rather, the issue is the playing out of an engendered struggle of power on our streets. The issue is that street harassment occurs because women are generally expected to just scurry meekly along; mouth shut, eyes ahead.  No woman is fond of that old familiar descent of tension as they skirt past a group of men on the footpath. No woman wishes to be constantly reminded of the blatant objectification of their bodies as they stand at the bus stop. Furthermore, and this is something so easily forgotten, no woman wishes to be starkly reminded of a previous violent sexual encounter as they bend down to tie their shoelace. In fact, reports place the odds of this happening at 1 in 3. Now, some may claim street harassment to be ‘something that comes with the job’ of being a woman. Being yelled at in a crowded place is merely a component of the privilege associated with the ‘fairer sex’, and is something us men-hating, bra-burning feminists need to come to accept, or even be grateful for. But hang on a second. Ask yourself this. Do you have to constantly monitor how many inches of your flesh are bare before you leave the house? Do you have to frantically pull down your skirt to make it longer or adjust your top to cover your skin before approaching an individual or group of the opposite sex? Does your body consists of a collection of sexual objects you must struggle to store away as you step out into public spaces? If you have answered ‘yes’ to the above questions, you are, I am sorry to admit, most likely, a woman, feminist or otherwise. Of course, street harassment often has nothing to do with what we are wearing – but from puberty onwards we are presented with two options: chose chasteness or choose chastisement. No matter how high the hemline, women do not, implicitly or otherwise, ask for their bodies to be treated as mere visual delights, and thus, any notion of a need for appreciation can be deemed to be devoid of gravitas.

Now, before any members of ‘feminazi’ opposition party come wading in, let it be asserted that societal pressures are indeed a universal phenomenon. Indeed, refusing to accept street harassment has nothing to do with hating the opposite sex –  but it has everything to do with a rejection of certain elements of dominant forms of masculinity. Yes, if for argument’s sake, we accept gender as a component of identity, it can be remarked that thankfully, other, rather less troublesome ways of appropriating maleness are evolving. Nonetheless, the requirements of constant reaffirmation of heterosexuality and of aggression that form part of ‘being a man’ still prevail, and are oppressive to members of the entire stratum of gender. The fact remains that there lies an intrinsic connection between a form of hegemonic masculinity that accepts and promotes domination and intimidation of women; from the work place, to the bedroom, to the streets.

The fight to end street harassment is thus something that can and should concern everyone, regardless of their gender. More comprehensive research into the real psychological and social effects of street harassment of women, as well as a concerted attempt to devalue harmful aspects of hegemonic masculinity could prove instrumental to the promotion of a new culture. A culture in which a woman can walk home at night without being called a ‘slut’. A culture in which a man can walk home at night without being called a ‘faggot’. And a culture in which a trans woman can walk down the street without being called a ‘man in a dress’. However, if we consider current judicial attitudes to sexism as reflected in recent rape sentencing, the long-term solution may ultimately lie in the altering of attitudes. This is where The Y Factor steps in. On February 1st, a new NWCI (National Women’s Council of Ireland) initiative targeted towards the promotion of issues of gender equality among 16-25 year olds in Ireland was launched. It is hoped that this can be achieved through school and youth group educationals provided by the NWCI, as well as the establishment of a substantial social media presence. Where better to lay the foundation for gender equality than with our young people? As well as the efforts of The Y Factor, the Dublin section of international site Hollaback, founded in New York in 2005, is also providing a forum for discussion, encouraging girls and women to share their experiences of street harassment.

Aoife Campbell, member of the steering committee of The Y Factor, shares a view of street harassment as a societal issue, and one that merits our attention; ‘Street harassment is one of the many manifestations of misogyny in society, the purpose of the act is for one gender to intimidate, humiliate and maintain sexual and physical domination over the other. When a guy yells or touches you in the street he knows he’s not getting a date/relationship or respect from you, he is just reminding you of the gender power balance and how frightened and helpless it can make you as a women, feel. If we shake street harassment off as something minor and unimportant, then we are accepting this skewed power balance and the devastating impacts it has more widely in society for both men and women.’

This article is a rant, let’s make no bones about it. But if street harassment is something that negatively affects women on a day to day basis, and if it is something which serves to reinforce unequal gender relations in Irish society, then it is something we need to stand up and begin to rant about. Let’s not laugh it off any longer. This said, street harassment is not something one girl on a street is going to be able to combat. No matter how much we want to fire expletives in the face of yet another comment or sexual advance, the fact remains that the fear of ridicule, or even of opening ourselves to greater danger on the streets, dominates our list of everyday priorities. But this isn’t a one-woman fight. It is the fight of us all: men, women, and everyone in between, to speak out and educate others of the injustice that is street harassment, so that one day we may be able to walk down the street in the shortest skirt we like and be treated like human beings.