We must do away with the “ignore and it’ll go away” myth
Catcalls, whistles, groping: the everyday picture of sexual harassment in London (from the Independent)
Yesterday (Friday) it was reported in the Independent newspaper in London, and discussed on the Vanessa Feltz show on BBC London (and to a lesser extent, on the same station’s breakfast show), that a survey had shown that four in ten young women (under 34) had experienced sexual harassment of some sort on the streets of London. Vicki Simister of the Anti Street Harassment Campaign did an interview with the station, in which she described an incident which escalated from a group of men shouting at her from a car to them pinning her to a wall inside a Tube station, and when bystanders intervened and the police arrived, they blamed her and told her that the assault was her fault for reacting to their initial verbal harassment from the car. There are two other opinion pieces from the paper here and here, and you can listen to the Vanessa Feltz show here until next Friday morning and to the breakfast show here (same time limit).
Two things were particularly striking about the debate. The first was that the male callers very often had no idea that this behaviour was harassment and often made remarks about the dress and behaviour of the victims, suggesting that they dressed revealingly for attention and were getting it, that the remarks were compliments and so on. Meanwhile, the female callers (and the presenter) were telling stories of comments that were often obscene rather than complimentary, often suggesting lewd sex acts that the woman might like to participate in right there as she walks to work or home, and that the clothes they were wearing at the time were sometimes simply work clothes or otherwise not (at least intentionally) sexy. Feltz herself revealed that she had been propositioned by a man in his 20s as she drove her open-top car in north London; the man persistently suggested to her that she should go round the corner and have sex with him. Nobody who was seriously trying to build a relationship with a woman would do it so crudely, and very few men are that lacking in social skills and it would be quite obvious.
The second was the suggestion (which I recall Simister saying the police had given to her after her assault) that women should “just ignore it”, which prompted me to write an email to the show (which Feltz read out), because the police have said the same thing to people suffering from the anti-social behaviour of local yobs and to people with disabilities who are being harassed by yobs or haters. It’s a fallacy particularly beloved of teachers as well, who will say the same to a child who complains of being teased in the playground (even if the “teasing” is not just verbal or if it is stopping them going about their business): “ignore it and it will go away”. The problem is that it just is not true: if you ignore a harasser who is trying to get a reaction, they will escalate their behaviour to physical intrusions and assaults, as has been noted to happen in the playground and the classroom and in cases of sexual harassment, until they get what they want. The only way of dealing with them is for them to be fought off, or for someone in authority to come between the persecutor and the victim.
The “ignore it and it goes away” myth is an example of the “just world” fallacy, in which people defend their belief in a “just world” by pretending that someone who is continually suffering must deserve it somehow. It also enables people to get out of taking responsibility for wrong they see happening. In this case, there is an “obvious answer” to the problem which the victim can easily make work for him- or herself by just ignoring the harassment for long enough, or to put it another way, just putting up with it. It gives the teacher or police officer an easy way of responding to a situation rather than tackle the difficult job of making the harassment stop, as is their duty, and blame the victim (and brand them a nuisance) if the behaviour continues. (Another variant of the same fallacy that teachers are fond of is “if everyone’s picking on you, you must be doing something that makes them do that”.)
People, children or adults, and particularly those who are vulnerable, have a right to go about their business without being harassed in this way and without being made to fear for their safety. We know that it does not go away: it escalates. People with learning disabilities have been murdered or suffered heart attacks, while incidents of sexual harassment in the streets have been known to progress to full-on sexual assaults. Of course, the response may be appropriate when the complaint is just about a little bit of teasing, but there is a line between that and persistent harassment or physical assault of any kind, and this principle does not transfer to the streets. Of course, we need to educate young men that this kind of behaviour is something women find threatening and intrusive when carried out by strangers as they go about their normal business, but explaining that it hurts will not deter all of them. Some bullies want to hurt and they must know that there is a stick waiting for them as well. The police must stop shirking their duties and stop blaming victims.
Update: I was asked to read this post which explains to men that approaches from strange men in some circumstances carry a fear factor for women that they do not always understand because they have never personally experienced it. There is also this piece by Barbara Ellen in today’s Observer, which makes the point that the circumstances of the incidents of harassment and the language used do not leave open the possibility of the men not knowing they are doing wrong or intimidating someone:
Women aren’t being hysterical – they know that it’s not all men, just some men who do it all the time. But why? In truth, it’s a rare woman who goes actively “cruising” for sexual attention in public spaces or who would respond positively to advances. Men must know this: they must know that staring, leering, shouting, pressing, rubbing and the rest is, if anything, going to give them even less of a chance, so what’s in it for them? Intimidating, scaring, displaying their power to intimidate, their entitlement to scare?
There seems no point in addressing such creepy damaged characters, except perhaps with a taser. Other men might think about how much they interact with unfamiliar females and try to imagine a female they love (spouse, daughter, friend, family member) placed in a similar situation. Above all, accept that some of their fellow males aren’t “just being friendly”. At present, the problem is not just what’s happening to a lot of women in public spaces, it’s also the en masse denial that it is happening at all.
In reference to the “burqa” remark in the article, it is well-known that sexual harassment is rife in the Middle East where burqa-wearing is obviously much more common than here, and women who wear hijab or even niqaab (face-covering) are victims of it too (and this happens to women who wear hijab or niqaab in the West as well, and the harassment can be of a sexual or racist nature). The issue of what women wear is a red herring in this matter, as it is with rape, because (much as we might wish otherwise) the clothing that is deemed “provocative” has become normal, and the men who do this know it because their own sisters probably dress the same way, and they would not like it if their sisters were harassed or assaulted in this way. Men do not realise it happens because it rarely happens in front of them: the bullies harass women and girls who are alone, or with another female friend or two, and not accompanied by male friends or family.
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