Street harassment is not the same as offering compliments to strangers. It is an aggressive move to assert power over a woman in public space, to force her to interact with him, and to make her feel cowed and embarrassed. If confronted or rejected, street harassers often escalate their approach into a verbal assault on their victim’s attractiveness or sexuality.
Perhaps the worst part of street harassment is that our culture has internalised it to the point where women are accused of ‘overreacting’, being ‘humourless’ or ‘imagining it’ if they speak up about being harassed in public. Yet women who manage to escape harassment can feel ugly and unsexy, and that they ought to feel ‘grateful’ if it does happen to them.
Tonight, I was walking down Lygon Street in East Brunswick and a guy shouted at me from a passing car, “YOU’RE A BEAUTIFUL PERSON!”
It might sound comical – was the dude trying to evade feminist criticism by focusing on the beauty of my personality rather than my body? Yet how can this stranger possibly know what kind of person I am?
But at the same time, I wish I could communicate to you the tone of menace in this guy’s voice.
You’ve probably encountered the idea that online writing is flatter and less subtle than spoken communication, and thus more prone to misunderstanding and offence. Likewise, when women report being harassed or assaulted, and what is said between victim and perpetrator is brought up in official complaints and court cases, this tone of voice can be lost.
Sadly, I imagine many readers have experienced the aggression and venom that certain men are able to inject into words such as ‘slut’, ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. It’s a tone that can make the listener fear for her physical safety.
Even more innocuously expressed sentiments can sound far more intimidating to a victim than they might seem to a third party. Perhaps that’s why street harassment is often dismissed or belittled.