Street harassment: Feeling intimidated familiar for women

Men need to call out unacceptable behaviour by their friends, writes Una Mullally

The threat that hangs in the air at night when a woman is walking past a group of men is not made up, it is not fantasy or an unfounded fear. Photograph: Thinkstock

The threat that hangs in the air at night when a woman is walking past a group of men is not made up, it is not fantasy or an unfounded fear. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

It’s not that myself and my housemate Vickey Curtis are always talking about street harassment or violence against women, or unwanted male interventions, but it is something that comes up quite a bit. Earlier this year, I ended up walking home crying from an attempted jog by the canal when I was rounded on by a group of young men on bikes. I felt small and intimidated and powerless, a familiar feeling for many women who encounter random attacks.

While I was in Berlin at the weekend, Vickey texted me to say she had been gaybashed on Camden Street, the street where we live. Both of us and most of our LGBT friends have been victims of homophobic violence and harassment, but this felt extra shocking in the context of the celebratory year we had last year after the marriage referendum, where it felt like gay people were finally at the end of good will not bad will. On the taxi out to the airport last Friday, myself and my girlfriend merrily chatted away to the driver about the referendum, marriage, and how he wouldn’t care what gender a partner was who came home with his young daughter one day. It sent us through the doors of departures with grins on our faces.

Vickey was walking home with two female friends when a man in his late twenties or early thirties started shouting sexist abuse at them. He was accompanied by two women who said nothing. The abuse escalated and turned homophobic, culminating in the man punching Vickey four times in the face. She eventually went into the foetal position on the ground using a wall to protect her head. Admonishing the two women he was with for doing nothing, they responded by saying they had just met him that evening, their American accents revealing that they were tourists.

When Vickey got home, the gardaí came around and handled everything, according to her, amazingly. She wondered that if she hadn’t been beaten up, what would have happened to the two American tourists who were hanging out with this Irish lad for the night. When I got home, I saw her two black eyes and bruised face and head, and felt so angry and disgusted.

It’s hard to know whether things are getting better or worse on the street for women. But one thing is for sure, more women are speaking up and sharing their stories. More women are shouting back and standing their ground. More women are saying that it’s not acceptable to be felt up by a stranger in a pub, or have something shouted at you when you’re on your way to work, or have to deal with a man’s unwanted and persistent attention on a night out. It’s not ok.

On social media, stories of street attacks get retweeted and shared. But frequently, these actions are undermined by people saying that women’s fears and experiences are overplayed. There is almost a backlash to the backlash. Every time someone writes about violence against women from a personal perspective or a general one, the comment sections fill up with either more hatred, a tone of “you were asking for it”, or “just take a compliment”. Women are not making their experiences up. But even after they experience them, they have to deal with them being undercut.

As women speak up more and call out harassment and violence as simply unacceptable, men need to get involved too. Men need to call out unacceptable behaviour by their friends. They need to stand up for women. They need to know that being drunk isn’t an excuse to act like a thug. They need to realise that women live in a world where the violence perpetrated against them is very often gendered, a violence and harassment that emerges from a culture of misogyny and a desire - however subconscious - to keep women in their place and to exert a sort of power over them that reminds them of who rules.

The threat that hangs in the air at night when a woman is walking past a group of men is not made up, it is not fantasy or an unfounded fear. The sense of threat is real because the outcome of that sense is often very real too. It’s not ok, it’s never ok, and we all have a duty to stand up against it and end it.

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