Originally published on The Women’s Blog
Walking down a quiet street at around 7pm a few nights ago I noticed, without thinking anything of it, that there were two men coming towards me in the opposite direction. It being dark but for the street lamps, it wasn’t until they came quite a lot closer that I started to notice the tell-tale signs. As they neared, the men were overtly looking me up and down, eyes lingering on my breasts and legs, before turning back to one another, saying something I couldn’t hear, and sniggering. My heartbeat quickened, the hair rose on my arms, and I felt the usual emotions flood through me. Fear. Anxiety. Impotence. Anger. Frustration. Misplaced embarrassment and shame.
This is one of the things I think some men don’t understand, the men who ask you what the big deal is about street harassment, say they’d love it if it happened to them, or suggest you just “take it as a compliment”. It’s not a simple, one-moment experience. It’s a horribly drawn-out affair. The process of scanning the street as you walk; the constant alert tension; the moment of revelation and the sinking feeling as you realise what is going to happen. Countless women have written to me about the defence mechanisms they put in place – walking with keys between their knuckles just to feel safe – wearing their earphones so they can keep their head down and ignore it. The whole process of going out, particularly at night, can become fraught and difficult.
Why don’t you just take it as a compliment?
Too late to cross the street, I braced myself for the moment of passing, muscles tensed, cold fists involuntarily clenched. I understand that this must sound like an overreaction. But it isn’t. Because the way we think and behave is shaped by our previous experiences. Too many times, in my own experience, this situation has turned from leering to aggressive sexual advances, from polite rebuttal to angry shouts of ‘slag’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’. Once, I was chased down the street. Once, I was trapped against a wall. Once, my crotch was grabbed suddenly, shockingly, in vitriolic entitlement. So yes, my muscles contracted and I drew into myself as they passed.
For a moment, they paused, and one glanced at my breasts before turning nonchalantly to the other. I was expecting the usual. “Look at the tits on that”, or “I wouldn’t say no”. But what he actually said took my breath away:
“I’d hold a knife to that.”
The other man laughed, and they walked away without giving me a second glance.
And that, in a nutshell, is why I don’t take it as a compliment. Because it’s not a compliment. It’s a statement of power. It’s a way of letting me know that a man has the right to my body, a right to discuss it, analyse it, appraise it, and let me or anybody else in the vicinity know his verdict, whether I like it or not. It’s a power that is used to intimidate and dehumanise members of the LGBTQIA community, who suffer disproportionate levels of street harassment. It’s a “right” that extends even to the bodies of the 11- and 12-year–old girls who have written to the Everyday Sexism Project in their hundreds, describing shouted comments about their breasts and developing bodies as they walk in their uniform to school. Street harassment is no more about compliments than rape is about sex. Both are about power, violence and control. That’s why, when women have the temerity to reject the advances of street harassers, they so often turn, in a moment, to angry outbursts of abuse. Because that rejection disrupts their entitlement to our bodies, which society has allowed them to believe is their inherent right.
This doesn’t mean the end of compliments. It doesn’t mean you can’t flirt, or be attracted to a stranger, or make a polite approach and strike up a conversation. Those are all completely different things from commentary about your body that is directed at you, not to you, the dehumanised discussion of your parts by a group of passers-by, not caring that you can hear, or a scream of “sexy” or “slut” or “pussy”. Those aren’t compliments. They’re something else. I believe that the vast majority of people know the difference. If you’re really not sure, err on the side of caution.
This is not to suggest that every woman is a cowering victim, or that we’re all too scared to go about our business on a daily basis. Just that it would be nice if those people who think street harassment is “just a compliment” recognised the very real and enormous impact it has on victim’s lives – not just in the moment, but day-in, day-out. A compliment doesn’t make you rethink your route the next time you walk down the street. Many women, including Doris Chen, who grabbed hold of a man on the underground after he ejaculated on her, have bravely confronted their harassers. But the point is that they shouldn’t have to. Nobody knows how they will react in that situation until it happens. Often, victims report feeling frozen with shock. Sometimes it isn’t safe to respond. Instead of telling victims how to react, we should focus on preventing it from happening in the first place. And we can start by debunking the myth that street harassment is just a bit of harmless fun. So stop telling women to “just take it as a compliment”.