My opinion on street harassment has changed. The first time I can remember getting catcalled was when I was seventeen. I was walking through Brighton, my hometown, and a large, middle aged man passed me and mumbled something onto my bare shoulder. I really can’t recall exactly what he said, apart from a slurred ‘baby’, but I remember that I’d been anticipating the heckle. Even at seventeen, I was practiced at looking for the warning signs of a man who was angering even himself. As this one wandered towards me, eyes low and groping, I’d loaded myself up like a spring, so that as soon as the words fell from his mouth, my head snapped around to him and my retort lashed out.
When I swore at him, quickly and loudly, the man’s demeanour changed. The expression that had been smirking and suggestive was now furrowed and reddening. I kept walking, my chest puffed out despite my heart racing below my rib cage, while he stopped where he was to scream insults at me. Refusing to look back, I thrust my middle finger into the air, hearing the adult behind me roar in outrage as I continued to increase the distance between us.
I was confused. The man clearly believed, most likely under the pretence of free speech, that he held the right to mutter lusty things towards a young girl on the street. Had he not considered that the young girl would also hold the sacred right to tell him to f*ck off? Because they’re always angry, aren’t they? They never bow their heads, understanding that, because they made their interest explicit, the rejection might be explicit in return. It seems fair to me, but they never react how I wish they would.
At twenty-two, when I get the honour of being beeped at, or breathed on, or stopped in the street, I tend not to snap back with the same ferocity as I did in my younger years. I do, sometimes, if the offender says something particularly crude or aggravating, but I don’t have the instinctual, knee-jerk reaction for it that I used to. It is not because the anger I feel has changed. In fact, the anger has only been whittled down to a focused needle-point of white-hot frustration and fatigue. I don’t shout back at catcallers because I’m tired, I’m scared, and I’m no longer surprised.
It was a point of honour, for me, at seventeen, to never let street harassment go unpunished. I would not stand idly by, I told myself. I refused to let these men think that it was acceptable to speak to me in a way that would make their mothers recoil. I shouted back at teenage boys. I gave groups of builders the finger. I grimaced at sweaty men in white vans. It was my duty, my job, to place an even larger target than there already was onto my back. If I didn’t show them my disgust, how would they learn?
What I have come to accept is that it is not my job, or any woman’s job, to show grown men that it is inappropriate to tell someone on the street, in explicit detail, about the sex acts you would like to do with them. It often feels that we must put ourselves in direct danger in order to call on change, but now I am not so sure that the imagined positives outweigh the negatives. I hate to say it, but if a man is already accustomed to catcalling, I find it unlikely that he’ll suddenly change his mind about being a street harasser because a woman he targets shows him her discomfort.
There is no correct way to respond to a stranger sexualising you in public. It is an absurd event, and I am not under any delusions that I have any authority to tell people how they should react. I do, however, care and worry, with almost no relief, for my female friends’ safety. I cringe when I think of them acting the way I did in my teenage-hood. Once, on a night out in London, a man threatened to stab me because I told him to leave me alone. I have realised that the world does not tend to react positively to loud, rude women, especially when the woman in question is screaming at a man twice her size.
I used to pride myself on standing up to street harassment, and encouraged others to do the same. I thought I was untouchable, but since being seventeen, I have been touched, and I have learned. All it takes is saying the wrong thing to the wrong man at the wrong time, and the trajectory of your life is no longer in your control. It is simply not worth it.