It’s Sunday afternoon. It’s sunny, and I’m taking advantage of the warm weather by wearing shorts and high socks.
I’m walking down a main street in Melbourne’s CBD with one of my close friends. I hear a group of men, probably in their 20s, walking behind us. They’re muttering something, and the only word I can really make out is “legs”.
I roll my eyes and try to ignore it. They start calling out, “Hey, Legs!” My friend and I just walk faster.
Eventually the young men catch up to us, and one of them turns to me and says with a smirk, “Hey, Legs! You can’t walk around here with legs like that!”
This wasn’t the first time something like that has been said to me, and I know it won’t be the last. But when I told one of my friends about it, she responded, “Learn to take a compliment.”
Street harassment is a growing problem, with girls as young as 12 being called to out of cars and wolf whistled at on the street. But what’s worse is this frankly insulting idea that street harassment is something to be happy about.
Countless surveys, available from ihollaback.org, have been conducted all over the world. All of them seem to suggest that the vast majority of women, from 90 per cent to 99 per cent, have experienced street harassment. It’s an ongoing occurrence for most women that starts before puberty and continues for decades.
Many young women experience street harassment monthly, weekly, even daily. We’re all familiar with the kind of “compliments” called to us by men on the street, and we know they’re not compliments at all.
Stopviolenceagainstwomen.org defines street harassment as: “unwelcome or unwanted verbal, non-verbal, physical or visual conduct based on sex or of a sexual nature, which occurs with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person.” This includes comments about somebody’s appearance, vulgar gestures, sexual invitations, following, touching, barking, whistling and catcalling.
Anybody who calls these actions “compliments” is suggesting that women should be grateful for strangers objectifying them and making them feel unsafe.
I took to my Facebook and sent out a message asking people to send me stories of their experiences with street harassment. The amount of responses, just from my circle of friends was overwhelming. More than 30 people responded, some of whom I’d never spoken to before.
Here’s just a few:
—“I constantly get beeped at while I walk to school in the morning. I’ve even had some guys try and get me to go with them ‘for a good time’” (Rachael, 16)
—“A 30–40-year-old man asked me whether I was cold and when he replied I wasn’t he said, “Eh, not a bad view anyway,” looking at my legs. I felt so yuck and it was ages before I wore a skirt again” (Iolande, 15)
—“[He was staring at me while] his hands kept finding their way to his clearly raging boner” (Tammy, 14)
—“This 30 or 40-year-old guy was smiling at me. It was making really uncomfortable, so I moved carriages, but he followed me and then continued to follow me when I got off the train” (Helena, 18)
—“I was wearing a dress to train it to a friend’s house. And I got about four people yelling crap. And I actually went home and changed into pants because I just couldn’t be bothered feeling that uncomfortable” (Sarah, 19)
—“I was walking through the crowd and I got groped. I felt so f***ing violated and it ruined my night” (April, 16)
These young girls all told similar tales of feeling scared, harassed and violated. What about that is complimentary?
We live in a society where a woman cannot even walk down the street without experiencing sexual harassment. It happens so often that people dismiss it, saying “Boys will be boys!” and telling everyone to just learn to take the compliment. But I, for one, refuse to feel happy because some person I don’t know deems me appropriate to sexualise. I refuse to accept this disgusting part of our culture that promotes the idea that unwarranted comments on a woman’s body are okay.
Hollaback, an anti-street harassment campaign, says that the only way to stop street harassment is to “change the culture that made it acceptable to begin with”. They encourage women, when the situation is safe, to respond firmly to their harassers—to tell them what they’re doing is harassment and that it makes them uncomfortable.
They will not question their behaviour until somebody forces them to. Until they are forced to take a good, long, hard look at themselves, everybody will go on believing in these so called ‘compliments’.
That Sunday afternoon, when those men called out that I “couldn’t walk around with legs like that”, I just turned away. Because I’ve been taught by society that all I can do is ignore it. But my friend did not. He turned to the men and retorted, “She can do what she wants.”
A harmless comment, but the smirks were wiped off the faces of my harassers and they didn’t bother us again. After that, I decided that I would not stay silent. I will not be the out-dated female stereotype. I will not be quiet, I will not walk away, I will not sit down and wait my turn.
I will pursue my right to go outside without strangers taking it as an invitation to make comments on my body. Whether I am a victim or a bystander, I will not ignore street harassment any longer.
I would hope, circumstances permitting, that some of you might do the same.