The link between street harassment and bullying

A picture of a large number of bunches of flowers left next to a bandstand. The pillars of the bandstand are a burgundy red, the metal structures atop them are a blue-green colour and the ceiling is beige; the sun is shining through a bare winter tree behind the bandstand. Among the flowers is a sign written in purple on black: "On the way home I want to feel free, not brave".
Flowers left at the Clapham Common bandstand in memory of Sarah Everard. (Photo: Rosianna Rojas)

Last week, in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard in London, for which a police officer has been charged and is in custody, a lot of women have been sharing stories about being harassed and threatened in public as adults and children and by adults they trusted as children, which cover the spectrum from annoying to seriously threatening. There have been a lot of lists such as this one, shared by a friend on Facebook, of “how men can help”, such things as not sitting too close to a woman on public transport or walking near her on the streets at night but also “calling out” one’s friends when they use sexist language or make unwanted approaches to women, which despite the article’s claims are nothing new. Some of the claims are quite reasonable while some are less so, seemingly based on an assumption that men have power over each other that we really do not. There has also been some hand-wringing over how boys are brought up or educated, and while I do believe the problem lies partly here, how boys regard or treat girls and women is only part of the problem.

I believe that harassment in general should be something we do not tolerate as a society and that it would be tolerated a lot less if it were dealt with firmly in school. When children complain of harassment by others — usually in the form of teasing or taunting that is persistent — they are often told to “just ignore it” and that adults will not always be there to “fight their battles for them”. Bullies see this and know that the child they are victimising will not be protected if they carry on. I would draw a distinction between the odd unkind remark and harassment that is in the child’s face, that stops them doing what they are doing such as reading or playing or making something and forces them to listen to taunting about their appearance, way of speaking, some slur on their family or race or something else. Teachers and parents will often tell them that if they ignore it, it will go away; my experience is that determined bullies will escalate to physical goading and then assaults if their victim does ignore it. Feminists often decry “victim blaming” in which (they allege) advice to women to avoid risky situations so as not to get raped implies that the responsibility lies with women rather than the men who rape; responses to bullying often explicitly blame the victim for being ‘mouthy’, holding themselves the wrong way, for getting upset, or not being tough enough. Teachers will sometimes say that if everyone is picking on one person, there must be something wrong with them, not the others.

Bullying carries on beyond the school gates and anyone seen as vulnerable could be a target. Disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities, are a common target and when they complain to the police, it has been known for them also to be told, “just ignore them”. This also does not always confine itself to merely annoying behaviour; it can escalate to threats of violence, damage to property, actual violence or murder. Our media and politicians also feed the climate of hostility by circulating stories that suggest that disabled people claim benefits they are not entitled to, are a drain on the public purse or exaggerate their condition; even when people are quite entitled to the funds and need it to maintain their independence and quality of life, the stories feed envy and resentment at someone getting “something for nothing” at their expense, when if they needed it, they would also be entitled.

As for the demand for men to “stand up” when women around them are being harassed in public, if a man did this and it led to a fight, he might be prosecuted if the law deemed the level of force used to be greater than reasonable, which means whatever is strictly necessary to prevent a crime being committed, not to teach the aggressor a lesson or make sure it doesn’t happen again. There is a story in a book called Yob Nation by Francis Gilbert of a man who saw a group of youths charging down a public street knocking people, including some elderly and disabled people, over. When they got to him, he made sure that the person who approached him was knocked down, and went on his way. He was subsequently summonsed to court, convicted of assault, bound over and as a result of the conviction, lost his job. When he asked what he should do if he saw such a thing happening again, they told him to walk on by. So while it may be some people’s instinct to intervene if people are being harassed, it may actually be illegal. Similarly, teachers’ advice to children being bullied to hit back at bullies could also be setting them up for trouble with the law.

In short, we simply do not have a culture in which people are seen to have a right to go about their business without being harassed, obstructed or threatened; it is a right in theory, but society does not deliver it wherever it would require effort or expense. We do not teach children that it is not OK to bully others; if we do, it is only deemed to be bullying when it involves stereotypical physical assaults rather than harassment which affects someone’s life and their ability to study and go about their business. They must be taught not just by words but by action: the bully punished and the victim protected. I accept that people cannot be protected from unkind words and that people cannot expect others to tiptoe around their sensitivities, but there is a big difference between the odd nasty word and repeated harassment that will not stop unless the victim gives their tormentors the reaction they are looking for. It is no wonder that children who bully and are given licence to do so grow into adults who harass others in the streets — men who harass women, men and women who harass disabled people, those who look or sound odd, members of ethnic minorities, newcomers, refugees. Ending street harassment of women is important but the issue does not exist in isolation.

(I wrote an earlier blog post on these two issues when it came up on local radio in London in 2012.)

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