Might Never Happen
Information and Resources on men’s stranger intrusion on women in public
What do you mean by men’s stranger intrusions?
Commonly referred to as ‘street harassment’, men’s stranger intrusions refer to the range of unknown men’s practices in public space that intrude onto, and into, women’s space. This includes practices such as ordinary interruptions (wolf-whistles, sounds, car honking), verbal comments including sexualised comments and insults, and physical intrusions from claiming space (such as ‘manspreading’) to rape.
Intrusion is used here to refer to deliberate act of putting oneself into a place or situation where one is uninvited, with disruptive effect. Such an approach focuses on the actions of the perpetrator, rather than their intentions or the target’s response. There is no need to evidence a desire to harm or disrupt the target, something suggested by the term ‘harassment’ – the focus is on the deliberateness of the practice. This allows for a broader range of practices to be addressed; extending the range of contexts beyond the street (into public spaces such as transport, or online), as well as increasing the space for women’s emotional responses, which may range through complimented, insulted, harassed, intimidated, confused, annoyed and terrified – often moving across these states within the same encounter. This framing is drawn from the work of Fiona Vera-Gray.
Why is it a problem?
The experience of men’s intrusion on women in public space has a detrimental impact on women and girls’ experience of their embodied selfhood; that is on how they experience themselves as a person in the world. The research on which this production is based found that the experience of men’s stranger intrusions formed a significant factor in how women experienced their bodies, learning to live their bodies as something that is acted on rather than something that is acted through.
In public spaces many women are constantly evaluating their safety, and performing habitual safety work (such as taking particular routes or doing particular things such as wearing headphones, looking down). This work has an impact on women’s freedom. Women often have to reduce or limit their freedom (freedom of movement, freedom to wear what they want or behave as they choose) in order to increase a sense of their safety. As the experience of intrusion for many begins in childhood or early adolescence, often this safety work has adopted the appearance of normality ‘just the way things are.’ In this way the social becomes embedded in how women and girls live their bodies – the work becomes habitual and hidden, often performed without conscious awareness.
Aren’t men are sexually harassed too?
Whilst men may experience forms of street harassment, intrusion directed from unknown men and boys to women and girls has a particular impact given the prevalence of sexual violence and its gender disproportionately. ‘Safety concerns’ for women in this sense often refers to safety from rape. This is different from men’s fear of crime in public space which more commonly refers to physical rather than sexual violence, or property rather than interpersonal crime. This is not to suggest that there is no harm when the practices comprising intrusion are pointed in other directions. Debbie Epstein’s research has demonstrated the connections between the harassment of gay men and that of women, seeing both as a key means for the institutionalisation of heterosexuality. In current contexts this can be expanded to draw connections between the ways in which queer or transgender individuals experience intrusion on the street, and also to explore the overlaps where individuals occupy intersecting positions. ‘Men’s stranger intrusions on women’ is used to identify rather than privilege a particular dynamic. This naming and gendering of perpetrator and target becomes important when we are seeking to pull together the similarities and overlaps to other forms of men’s violence that women experience across their life course.
Is it really that common?
Yes, though empirical studies to measure prevalence meet with particular difficulties as there is no singular agreed upon definition and different definitions incorporate different practices. Survey research dominates but it is unable to tell the whole story. A recent poll by the End Violence Against Women Coalition showed that 85% of younger women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in public, and that almost half of all women conduct conscious safety work when in public. In similar contexts to England, a study taken of American adult women in 2000 found that almost 87 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 64 had experienced some form of harassment on the street by an unknown man at sometime in their life. Hollaback together with Cornell University conducted an international survey in 2014, finding for example that in Europe over 80% of women report experiencing street harassment prior to age 17. Canadian research analysing telephone interviews of a national sample of 12,300 women, aged 18 years and over, found a similar percentage, reporting that 85% of the women surveyed had experienced ‘male stranger harassment in public’ and those experiences had a significant and detrimental impact on perceived safety in public.
Is it the same for all women?
No. Though there are overlaps and commonalities, women can be targeted in different ways based on how social inequalities intersect and how perpetrators will use these. Black women, for example, experience harassment that is both sexist and racist. Imkaan’s young women’s project Purple Drum, together with the End Violence Against Women Coalition have recently released an excellent video highlighting this. Muslim women who wear the hijab or other religious coverings are often at the forefront of a particular form of harassment, fuelled by the intersection of Islamophobia and sexism. This means women may be targeted for abuse, both verbal and physical, as well as fetishized in particular ways, as shown by Jade Jackman’s recent documentary, Exploiting It.
Women with visible physical disabilities may be targeted for both their disability and for being women, and feelings of unsafety in public space can be heightened where a disability physically limits on a woman’s ‘space for action’. Lesbian and bisexual women are commonly targeted in ways where assumptions about their sexual practices are drawn into the harassment. Where heterosexual women may use their male partners (real or invoked) as a barrier to the intrusion of other men, lesbian and bisexual women may be unable or may feel unwilling to do this. Trans women experience a particular form of misogyny through the ways in which their gender identity forms a significant challenge to the gender order. As such a challenge threatens hegemonic masculinity at its core, the response to trans women can be notably sexually violent or aggressive.
Is it only a problem in England?
No. There is a global movement of individuals and organisations campaigning to increase the freedom and safety of women and girls in public space. The Why Loiter movement in India was inspired by the book of the same name, and encourages women and girls to ‘take up space’ in public. The Girls at Dhabas in Pakistan also encourages women to occupy public spaces, to feel free to enter traditionally male dominated spaces and to practice male dominated activities, such as cycling or cricket. In Egypt, Harassmap is a campaign to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt. Las Hijas de Violencia (The Daughters of Violence) is a performance art group based in Mexico City, combining punk rock and performance art to combat street harassment. Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has been conducting a public space art project, Stop Telling Women to Smile, challenging street harassment in America, as well as a recent installation in Mexico City. These are just a few examples – check out Holly Kearl’s book, Stop Global Street Harassment: Growing Activism Around the World, which gives an excellent overview of the work being done internationally.
What can I do about it?
You’ve already begun! Taking the time to learn more about the issue and the work being done around it is the first step. Helping to share that information with others is the next. Below is a list of activist organisations that have a wealth of information about how to get involved in the global movement. Read up, share your own stories, and help in raising awareness. In addition you can start to act in your own friendship circles by challenging friends who might think this kind of behaviour is harmless or funny. There is also a growing move towards Bystander Intervention, which seeks to give us all the tools to challenge the behaviour of strangers in a way that feels both productive and safe. Hollaback! have put together a great infographic about what to do if you witness harassment, and a much more detailed programme about bystander intervention across forms of violence against women is available for free from the Intervention Initiative at the University of Western England.
Get support / Get involved
Everyday Sexism: Project cataloguing women’s experiences of routine forms of sexism in England
Hollaback London: Campaign to share experiences and challenge street harassment in London
Imkaan & EVAW: Video and campaign highlighting the experiences of black women in London’s public spaces
Rape Crisis: Support for women and girls who have experienced any form of sexual violence
Stop Street Harassment: American based site with international resources and information