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The one thing everyone gets wrong about street harassment

This is our #YesAllWomen moment.


Anne Thériault

Internet Culture

Posted on Apr 22, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 12:24 am CDT

A recent survey of 600 French women living in two outer suburbs of Paris found that 100 percent of them had experienced sexual harassment on the subway. I believe the scientific term for numbers like that is “mind-boggling,” not in terms of their believability but because of the sheer scale of it. How do we tackle such a huge, widespread problem? Where do we even start?

I want you to take a minute and seriously consider the results of this survey. I want you to think about the fact that every single woman interviewed by France’s High Council for Equality between Men and Women had, at some point in her life, been humiliated, degraded, or intimidated while on public transit. These are women who were just trying to go to work. were rushing to daycare to pick up their kids, or maybe struggling to stay awake on the long ride home, and each one of them at some point had to face unwanted sexual attention from men on the train. All because they happened to exist as women in a public space.

How do we tackle such a huge, widespread problem? Where do we even start?

It might seem like a bit of a leap to assume that the results of this survey apply to the entire female population of Paris—600 is, after all, only a tiny fraction of the number of women living there—but I’m willing to bet that the 100 percent figure holds up across the board. 

Know why? Because pretty much every woman I’ve ever talked to anywhere has experienced the same thing while riding public transit. The subway is especially bad when it comes to sexual harassment; crowds of bodies pressed together makes it easy for men to cop a feel, and the fact that you’re hurtling through an underground tunnel with several minutes between stops means that predators have something of a captive audience. It’s brutal, but for some reason, it’s rarely discussed.

Over the last year, the primary focus on the Internet has dealt with street harassment, with websites like Stop Telling Women to Smile and Hollaback focusing on the everyday sexism women face simply while walking down the sidewalk. Outside the Web, feminist groups recently launched a “guerrilla campaign” in New York to put up anti-harassment signs that read “No Catcalling Anytime” around the city.

These efforts to #EndStreetHarassment are great and crucial in regards to raising awareness, but for some reason, people seem to have this bizarre belief that street harassment only happens on the sidewalk. There’s been very little talk about the other places that public harassment happens, which is a little bit baffling because why would anyone think that kind of behavior ends the minute you cross the threshold into a store or duck down into the nearest subway stop? I’ve been harassed everywhere, several times while literally just sitting in a coffee shop reading a book. I wish that was an exaggeration, but it’s not.

The subway is especially bad when it comes to sexual harassment.

I’ve been harassed everywhere, several times while literally just sitting in a coffee shop reading a book.

If there are any women out there who feel that they haven’t experienced this kind of harassment, I would theorize that this is because it’s so common that they don’t even think to call it what it is. We recognize the more shocking behaviors as harassment—the unseen ass grab from behind or the hand that reaches around to quickly cup a breast before disappearing into the crowd—but the subtler stuff is harder to parse. What about the man who calls you princess and asks for your number? Or the guy who sits uncomfortably close to you and obviously stares down your shirt the whole time? Or the dude you’ve never met before who just wants to tell you how much he likes your hair?

All of those things are harassment, but at the same time, all of them happen so frequently to women that eventually they become unremarkable.

There’s a scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn where Francie gets felt up by a strange man on the train. When she tells her family about it, her favorite aunt reacts by telling her that being groped means she’s “getting a good shape, and there are some men who can’t resist a woman’s shape.” The aunt then goes all misty-eyed about the fact that she never gets assaulted on public transit now that she’s older. “It’s been years since anybody pinched me on the El,” she says, “There was a time when I couldn’t ride in a crowd without coming home black and blue.”

I wish I could tell you that attitudes about sexual harassment have changed in the century or so since that scene took place, but they haven’t. We still hold this awful attitude that any male attention, no matter what form it takes, is flattering. We still believe that as terrible as it is for a strange man to rub his dick on you while you’re just trying to endure a crowded, sweaty subway ride, it’s still somehow an affirmation of your attractiveness as a woman.

Even Ernestine Ronai, the co-president of the High Council for Equality between Men and Women’s Gender Violence board, was quick to point out that while the results of this study are pretty egregious, it’s still fine for men to use the subway as a “cruising spot.” She told the French newspaper 20 Minutes, “We say yes to seduction, but no to touching buttocks.” Which leads me to the very important question of who the fuck ever wants to be seduced on a subway?

All of them happen so frequently to women that eventually they become unremarkable.

Street harassment (and subway harassment, and coffee shop harassment, and any kind of unwanted sexual attention) is never about flattering women. It’s never about dudes just wanting women to feel confident or good about themselves. It’s not even really about lonely guys who just want a date. If that’s actually a thing you believe, I’d like you to ask yourself if you’ve ever heard of any relationship starting with a man cat-calling a woman.

Street harassment is actually about control. The plain truth is that the ability to make a woman feel uncomfortable and frightened makes men feel powerful. It’s a common abuse tactic and is often paired with gaslighting (“I was just trying to compliment you, you’re overreacting!”) in order to make women more vulnerable to predatory behavior. Unfortunately, this type of harassment is so deeply enmeshed in our understanding of how men and women interact in public that we often don’t notice it for what it is.

I hope that France treats this survey as the #YesAllWomen moment that it is. I also hope that people in other countries don’t just roll their eyes and make jokes about horny Frenchmen—because I guarantee that no matter where you live, women experience similar harassment on a regular basis. It’s also the reality women live with every day.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Let’s hope that surveys like this bring enough awareness to the reality of sexual harassment that we actually begin to see some kind of change. Because seriously I would like to just be able to ride the goddamn subway in peace.

Photo via GU/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 22, 2015, 5:21 pm CDT