Street Harassment in five simple myths!

(Bydd fersiwn Gymraeg o’r dudalen hon ar gael yn fuan iawn.)

These are adapted from our sister sites in Houston and Ottawa, many thanks to their inspiration.

Myth #1: Street harassment is just freedom of speech! And anyway, it’s a cultural thing. (You know what I mean.)

It might not be illegal, but that doesn’t make it right. 99% of women and over 70% of people with disabilities suffer street harassment- and the key to understanding harassment is that it’s unwanted. It’s not a compliment, it’s not a conversation or even an interaction that most people who are on the receiving end would choose to enter into. It’s a form of forced social contact that is often really hurtful and offensive. It makes people feel unsafe in their own communities. Even more than that, if you wouldn’t say it, do it, or tolerate it at work, then why do the rules change in public? Or at bars, parties, or in other public spaces? Just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it is right!

Street harassment happens everywhere and isn’t specific to a particular culture or type of person- however most street harassment is directed at women or people who are in some way marginalised, whether it’s their sexuality or gender presentation, race, or disability. Often (but definitely not always) there IS a global phenomenon at work- whether it’s sexism, racism, transphobia, or ableism. There’s nothing to know beyond the fact that harassment goes hand in hand with inequality, and we all have a responsibility to put a stop to it.

And whose culture is it anyway? In every country, every language, and every culture in the world, women and minorities experience unparalleled levels of harassment. All people privately observe things about those around us; whether it’s toilet roll stuck to someone’s shoe, or we wonder why they’re doing something, or that they are really, really attractive. But there’s no need to voice most of those observations- the world is full of all kinds of different people, so why single out strangers who are just going about their business? A lot of people don’t appreciate being told to smile, to more attractively display their body parts, or being touched without permission, no matter the reason. And that’s as true of people in Bangor as it is of people elsewhere.


Myth #2: It’s only a harmless compliment!

From Ottawa Hollaback!:

If it’s a compliment, it’s not harassment.

But we understand some of you nice guys may want some more guidance so as not to offend. So here we go:  if a man approaches a woman in public politely, strikes up a conversation with her, receives a clear rejection and respects her wishes, that’s not harassment. Street harassment happens when words and actions are obviously unwanted and non-consensual. It’s forceful. It’s dehumanizing. It’s propelled by a sense of entitlement and profound disrespect for others.  Perpetrators don’t want to give compliments or forge mutually beneficial connections; they want to intimidate and bully others. They resort to insults, stalking, threats or acts of violence when told to leave.

If you want to tell someone they look nice, then consider the following: if people did this to you everyday, people who you didn’t know, people who sometimes whistled, clapped, BARKED, licked their lips, and interrupted you going about your business, then even if someone did it nicely, keeping in mind the advice above… it might not make you feel so great. That one truly-friendly or well-meant thing might seem like just another threatening, weird, creepy behaviour on the part of a stranger. Keep in mind that telling women to “smile” as they walk past you, in thought, or frowning, or even just expressionless, isn’t polite. It’s rude, and it’s weird. People who have visible disabilities don’t need reminding of the fact- they’re probably really aware of it, and didn’t get up this morning wondering what happened overnight to require the use of mobility (or other) aids.

You can avoid being accused of harassment by being aware. Be aware of the cultural attitudes that LGBTQ people face; a lot of us don’t want to have our appearances, or the fact that we’re holding hands in public,  remarked on. Especially not when we’re just popping to the shop to get ibuprofen and a bacon butty at 11am on a Saturday. There’s never a good time to tell a woman you don’t know to “get her tits out”. There’s never a good time to pat a stranger in a wheelchair on the head (or give them a “helpful” push) while you wander the shop aisles. So just don’t do it.


Myth # 3: But secretly, people enjoy street harassment. Because it REALLY IS intended as a compliment.

Well… if they’re calling harassment, then they aren’t enjoying it. Period. SOME people do enjoy being catcalled, or feel positive about receiving sexual attention from strangers. But you can’t possibly know what that person is thinking until after it’s too late. And if you see someone looking uncomfortable with behaviour that might be harassment, it’s always okay to ask if they’re okay. We live in a culture that assumes a lot of things about a lot of people: we assume that women like to be complimented on their appearance (or criticised for it when they refuse come-ons).

Maybe don’t assume- or assume conservatively. Assume most women can have an excellent day without being told what nice body parts they have, how nice their skirt length is, how much their top could benefit from being lower cut, and how much nicer the world would be if they would smile. Assume most people can get by without your unexpected feedback on these things, and assume that a genuine and friendly smile will be met with more of the same from the people you meet.

From Ottawa Hollaback! again:

If we enjoy it, it’s not harassment. Duh.

Holly Kearl’s surveys noted that women took no issue with gender-neutral greetings, compliments, sentiments and smiles. Once things started veering into discussions of physical attributes, however, many saw these comments as reductionist, if not outright threatening.  For those who experience harassment often or who have histories of sexual assault, street harassment can feel like ripping a scab off.

And since that’s the case, remember that it isn’t YOUR job (or anyone else’s) to “toughen them up” or rip that scab off on their behalf.


Myth #4: Street harassment only happens to young, hot cis women (who dress nicely). And the only people who complain are just bitter old feminist hags.

WRONG! Our friends in Ottawa have it again, so we’ll let them speak:

Like we said before, street harassment isn’t about sex. It’s about power.  If street harassment was about getting dates it would be what author Marty Langlan calls a “spectacularly unsuccessful strategy.”  Instead, street harassment is about “putting people in their place.”  Sometimes it’s sexual, sometimes it’s racial, sometimes it’s homophobic, and sometimes it’s all of the above.  If you’ve been harassed, submit your story.

And on the latter point, well..

People who experience street harassment hail from a diverse variety of nations, races, religions, political views, relationship statuses, education backgrounds, sizes, sexual orientations, gender identities, ages, abilities, socioeconomic brackets – and so on and so forth. Truth be told, just about the one thing we all have in common is a distaste of street harassment in its many ugly forms. We want to see a safer, more equitable global society. We want to live our lives without succumbing to fear. Don’t you want that too?

We would only add that bitter old feminist hags come in all kinds of packages- and that there is no such thing as a bitter old feminist hag, anyway. You can’t tell a book – or a feminist- by its cover.


Myth #5: As long as it’s not violent, it’s not hurtful.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but… (fill it in, go on). We all know this isn’t true. Street harassment is a form of bullying, plain and simple. It works so well because of the assumptions it operates on- namely, that no one will protest, and it can be disguised as a compliment. We here at Hollaback! Gwynedd like to think most people are keen enough to understand that words are a form of action. When words are used as a form of harassment, it’s just as bad, and just as upsetting, as any other form of bullying. It doesn’t matter if you hug someone while you’re insulting or hurting them horribly with your words. Similarly it doesn’t matter if everyone on the High Street ignores it when, from under the awning outside the pub, someone croaks out a sexual comment at every passing woman. Most people ignore bullying in school (if they aren’t being bullied or doing the bullying) but regardless of whether we ignore it or not, it continues to do great harm- often escalating to physical harm or even self harm- to those who are on the receiving end of it. The way to fight it is to unite against it. The same goes for street harassment.