A protester is photographed #shoutingback against street violence in the US.
If you were to ask ten women you knew about their experience of street harassment, chances are you’d get, at the very least, ten separate stories of varying levels of unpleasantness.
But given the constancy with which women and girls are subjected to unwanted sexual attention, you’d more likely get at least ten stories from each of the ten women.
That’s something approaching the response that Everyday Sexism Project’s #shoutingback hashtag received when it hit Twitter in January, coined by ESP’s Laura Bates to allow women to share their own experiences of street harassment.
The tweets flew in in such a volume that the hashtag has now become a short film, #ShoutingBack, directed by Dan Reed, launched this month to coincide with the Chime For Change movement. In it, Bates leads dozens of other women in telling their own stories of street harassment:
It’s not, as some have suggested, little more than a parade of horrible anecdotes, or an effort to discredit the men of the world. Sheila Mburu, who appears in #ShoutingBack, summed up the importance of both the hashtag and the film in this piece: “Suddenly my story became part of the bigger picture. The bigger picture that women should never have to suffer fear, violence or abuse merely on the basis of their gender. The ripples of my drop spread further than I could’ve expected. As more women add their drop to the ocean, the ripples will spread far and wide and encourage others to add theirs.
What’s so stunning about hearing and reading women share their experiences on this topic is realising how much of women’s lives are taken up by dealing with harassment. As one blogger recalled, while sharing #ShoutingBack, “I’ve been sexually harassed by men ever since I was 12. [I was] sitting on the bus with my school bag over my knees when i was 13 and having a middle aged man slowly slide his hand on my thigh. I didn’t notice until it was right on my leg and lifted my bag and he took it off immediately and pretended nothing happened and I was too afraid to do or say anything because the bus was full of people and I didn’t want to make a scene.
Additionally, the film is a handy potted answer to anyone who dares suggest that street harassment “isn’t really that much of a problem”, or that women “should just take a compliment” when construction workers yell “Nice tits!” at them
(Indeed, as Mburu notes in both the film and her article, when she told a friend of her frightening experience, “I explained to him what had happened and waited for his response. He replied: ‘Oh maybe you were just looking sexy’. That confirmed it. It was my fault.”
I got a similar response from an acquaintance when I shared a recent experience of my own:
I was shadowed at the bus stop by a man who locked eyes on me while touching himself and doing slow-motion pelvic thrusts in my direction. I asked him to stop, twice, and moved away from him constantly, only to find him following me. It was 11am, broad daylight, five or so other people at the bus stop, and when my bus arrived, he did not get on board: this is one of the “good” stories. And yet, it left me feeling distinctly dirty, and freaked out enough not to leave the house for the rest of the day. And yet, the best response my “friend” could give was that I must have had a cute outfit on.
Discussion of street harassment is regularly silenced or derailed by people - too often men - who can’t see why street harassment is such a problem. Perhaps this is because in their minds, “street harassment” constitutes a few car honks or ‘well-meaning’ wolf whistles. As #ShoutingBack demonstrates, it is often so much more than that.
Hopefully it will also provide pause to those men who like to shut down discussions of this sort by bleating “But not all men are like that!!” No, not all men would masturbate on a woman while riding public transport, but given the evidence provided by #shoutingback, a good deal of men have given it a shot.
A far more helpful response from men would be something along the lines of what was, at the time of writing, the top comment on #ShoutingBack’s YouTube page: “The solution to this problem is so simple: we men just need to stop sexually harassing women. It is simple as that. We stop our sexual advances. We stop creeping them out. We keep our urges in our pants. That is all. I don't even know why people are arguing so much over an issue that requires a very easy solution from men's own responsibility.”