Harassment Is: a Hollaback! site leader’s perspective

I’m Miranda – I’m a co-site leader for Hollaback! Oxford. Hollaback! is a global movement to end street harassment or sexual harassment in public spaces, and we launched the Oxford site in July this year to end the issue of street harassment in our local area.  

oxford_from_aboveI’ve lived in Oxford for two years, but I’ve experienced street harassment from the age of around 13 up until, well, yesterday, and I’ve not been outside yet today. I’m going to write in this blog about what harassment is to me personally. Last year Hollaback! launched a publication on this same topic, asking people to tweet and share stories about how their identities and oppressions overlap as they walk down the street. You can read those stories and find out more by searching #HarassmentIs.

I’m going to talk about my own experiences, so everything in this blog is from my individual perspective. Oxford Dictionaries defines harassment as “Aggressive pressure or intimidation.” Now, harassment certainly is aggressive, pressuring and intimidating in its many different forms, but some of the types of harassment I’ve experienced might not be viewed by wider society as aggressive, pressuring or intimidating. Sometimes they are even viewed as “compliments”, which of course they are not, or as someone just being friendly.

Someone close to me has responded to my stories of harassment by saying, “that’s not sexist, they were just being friendly” or “I don’t want to live in a world where people can’t say ‘Hi’”, and sure, neither do I. But unfortunately I live in a world where my physical and mental space is intruded upon on a regular basis, by folk who assume that, by being in a public space, I’m available for them to talk to, comment on, leer at, beep at, chant “get your tits out” at, digitally penetrate, tell me to smile, flash their genitalia, whistle at, shout at. These experiences have coloured how I move through the world, and regardless of someone’s friendly, seemingly innocuous intention when they say “smile”, this still rests on the assumption that in a public space, a woman is there to look nice (by smiling), be amenable, and is available to speak to.

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This is what harassment is to me; having your space, your person, intruded upon by another in a public space. It is not about being friendly or kind, it is about exerting one’s power over another, in a way that has been deemed acceptable within our society. It is, without doubt, a gendered violence, and it impacts on the decisions I make when I go outside.  

I think twice about how I might dress, or which route I might take. I put headphones in with no music playing so I can have a barrier between myself and others but still be aware of my surroundings. I clutch my keys or a debit card in my pocket to have a weapon if I’m scared, which of course also makes me feel slightly ridiculous, (could I defend myself with my bank card? Probably not).

These are things I should not have to do, and it’s because of the harassment that I’ve experienced that I feel the need to do them to feel safe, even though they can’t stop me from being harassed.

It’s the feeling of impotence that is most infuriating to me. I don’t have a choice or power over whether I get harassed or not. But I do have a choice about how I respond, and I do have a choice to say harassment is not okay; however innocuous the act might seem, it is never okay. And that’s why Hollaback! exists – to allow people to share their stories and stand up against street harassment.

This is just my story, but I know I am not the only person who has had these experiences. To stand up against street harassment and put a spotlight on this problem, we need many more people to share their experiences. So please, if you feel safe to, share your story, and stand up to end street harassment in Oxford.

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