This week is International Anti Street Harassment Week, a week that I would never known had existed had it not been for the wonderful Leena over at @justkissmyfrog, whose first two videos on the subject you can find here and here.
Like Leena, I had no idea this week was something that took place but the more I have read up on it and the more coverage that has been publicised surrounding the issue, the more I have been encouraged to speak up about it, by providing a link between the impact of street harassment on our mental health.
So what is street harassment? A few examples include catcalls, groping, stalking, assault, sexist comments and public masturbation. More importantly, street harassment is a form of gender violence and occurs across the world to at least 80% of women. It degrades females to an undeniably large degree and enhances women's levels of insecurity and the ways in which they perceive themselves.
My first notable experience of street harassment occurred when I was at least 13 years old (I can't remember my exact age, but I was very early on in secondary school), and I was walking home from school with a girl that I knew well and a boy which she knew from the year above, but who I didn't know so well.
I remember at one point of the journey her taking a separate direction to make her way home and this boy and I being left alone to walk the remainder of the journey. At one point, in an alleyway behind my old primary school and in-between some flats he groped my arse and I remember backing away, asking him what he was doing. I can't remember what happened after that but I remember reaching the end of the alleyway, him having to make his way home and as soon as he was out of sight I remember vividly rushing as fast as I could down to the next alleyway to get home.
The worst part about all of this is at the time, I didn't think much of it and I thought it was a normal thing to just happen to a thirteen year old girl. Anti-Street Harassment Week has opened my eyes to the multitude of reasons why I struggle with severe anxiety regarding leaving my house, especially without the presence of my boyfriend. I am not by any means suggesting that this event as a teenager prompted or caused my anxiety, not at all, but the fact that over the years preceding this the extreme levels of bibbing and catcalling I receive from cars and strangers as I'm just simply attempting to get to my own house may serve as a slight reason for my constant preference to remain inside within the comfort of my own home. I don't go nightclubbing anymore or even just out in general without the presence of my boyfriend because I'm terrified of other men seeing me, alone, as an object, to touch and grope as and when they please (which has happened to me in nightclubs and bars before) and being emotionally too vulnerable and anxious to not run from the situation, worried that I would then be followed, thereby causing more attraction to myself.
I count myself very lucky to never have experienced any serious forms of assault, be it sexual or non, have never been made to witness public masturbation and have never been stalked, but I am very aware that this happens everyday across the world and be it minor or major incidents, I am sure I would find it very difficult to find a woman who hasn't experienced this kind of sexist public humiliation.
A week ago I decided to take a different route home from University and go instead to a train station which is a 20 minute walk from my house as opposed to the one I usually go to which is a tiny bit further away. I also fancied a change of scenery and a different walk home, learning in DBT recently to challenge my anxiety and to be mindful of my present situation. Upon leaving the train station, I have to walk down a long main road behind my house, next to a reservoir. During this walk home I was catcalled once and bibbed three times from men in their cars.
I remember each time feeling a pounding sensation in my heart where this walk wasn't refreshing anymore and I just wanted to get home. Each time, the pounding got worse. I walked as quickly as I could until my legs began to ache and only felt safe once I had reached the comfort of my house and had locked the door securely behind me. All because I was a woman, alone, walking down a main road.
Although I experience a large amount of body image hang ups still, well after the years of my eating disorder, I sometimes wonder if 50% of my body image issues are to do with the way I view myself and the extra 50% is to do with the fear of comments from men as I walk down the street. Last summer I attempted to steer clear from wearing jeans and black tights with my skirts if it was a nice day and just step out in a crop top and shorts if I wanted to or a dress with natural tights, or better still a dress with no tights at all. But by doing so it felt wrong, and the main point of my argument is that it shouldn't feel wrong. I should be able to wear what I like and feel comfortable in my own skin without experiencing jeers and leering from men. It affects the way I perceive myself, my actions, the way that I walk along my street, the way that I look and the way I must look to men.
Interestingly enough, my mother asked me the other day whether I'd be prepared to go running outside in preparation for my Race for Life 5k run this year and instead of being ultimately up for the challenge, I responded by saying it was a ludicrous idea, telling her to think of all the attention and crap we'd attract from passing vehicles. (I live on a main road and consequently am surrounded by main roads). Yet my Dad goes jogging at least three times a week, with no issues whatsoever, because he's male. I just know how impossible that would be for me, as a woman living in London, to do. I shouldn't have to feel that way.
This week is already opening up my eyes to street harassment, what it is, and how common it is across the world. I am more than just an object and I am more than the size and shape of my legs, boobs, waist, and bum. I deserve respect by choosing to take a simple stroll to my local shops, not an entity of abuse. I've been brought up to just expecting and accepting that men like to ogle, stare, and yell obscenities at myself and my friends and that is really not okay. I deserve my own space, not just as a woman but as a human being. Street harassment ultimately violates my rights as a human.
It's difficult to say what we can do to fight against the power that street harassment has upon young girls and women. Speaking out about it, you may argue will not change the situation, but it will raise awareness and highlight the message that this issue is wrong and one to be taken seriously, not just one that a bunch of feminists got together to start complaining about (of course, because we're women, right?!)
We can also educate ourselves and be aware of what to do in the event of experiencing street harassment, and I will hereby redirect you to some excellent articles on how to deal with street harassers on the International Stop Street Harassers Website here, as well as what to do before or after experiencing street harassment here.
I'd also really encourage you to follow @EverydaySexism on Twitter, which is used to document the public's experiences of sexism and harassment on a daily basis, highlighting the severity of the issue.