Sexual Harassment: Women’s Experiences with Men and Sexual Harassment on the Street

December 13, 2016

Fresno City College student Kat Campos was going about her day on campus as usual. Suddenly, someone grabbed her hand and kissed it. You would assume that this would-be romantic assailant was her significant other surprising her with this gesture.

Instead, however, the kiss was from a man she barely knew. The only interaction between her and this man was from a week before when she had complimented his hair. Neither of them even knew each other’s names at that point.

“He was just a guy I told that I liked his hair,” Campos recounts.

She posted the incident on Facebook with other women chiming in on how creepy and unwanted the move was. There was one man in the comments, though, defending the actions as “gentlemanly” or “sweet.”

Many men do not understand. From their point of view, the act of kissing a woman you barely know might seem “gentlemanly” or “sweet,” but from a woman’s point of view, it can be disgusting or unwarranted.

Women in public have to go through many other forms of sexual harassment, ranging from catcalls, unsolicited looks or advances. Often, men do not have a point of reference because it doesn’t often happen to them and do not understand how it makes women feel angry,m helpless and violated.

“[Men] don’t get it at all. A lot of times you tell people these stories and guys say, ‘nah that didn’t happen’ or ‘oh, you must have misinterpreted it,” Campos explains. “I say, ‘no I’m not exaggerating; this is exactly what happened.’”

What is Sexual Harassment and street harassment?

FCC instructor Karen H. Mosely, who teaches women’s studies and sociology of rape courses, outlines in her class the definition of sexual harassment:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
  • Sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome. Whether the person in fact welcomed a request for a date, sexually-oriented comment, or joke depends on all the circumstances.

Sexual harassment can occur anywhere with anyone, male or female, but on the streets in particular, the problem acutely affects women more often than men.

Street harassment is “unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived  sex, gender, gender expression or sexual orientation,” according to “Stop Street Harassment (SSH),” a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting and ending gender-based street harassment.

In a 2,000 person study commissioned by SSH, 65 percent of all women had experienced some form of street harassment. In contrast, only 25 percent of men have reported to have experienced street harassment and most are LGBT-identifying men.

Among women, 23 percent had been sexually touched, 20 percent followed and 9 percent forced to do something sexual.

Many of the different actions considered sexual harassment are leering, honking, whistling, sexist comments, vulgar gestures, being followed and at the worst – being grabbed or assaulted.

Incidents of sexual harassments are not uncommon on the FCC campus. Shayna Boyles, recounts one of her worst incidents when she was in a crowd at a concert leaning over a fence. A man came up behind her and put his hand at either side of the fence and said, “your hair smells nice.”

“It was really creepy and disturbing,” Boyles said, “I just can’t believe that happened.”

Harassment here, there and everywhere

Boyles and Campos cite that they have been harassed on campus. For Boyles, a majority of incidents have happened on campus.

“It actually stopped happening as often when I stopped having as many classes here,” Boyles said. “Most times it has been on campus or places around campus.”

Even though women are not in immediate danger of something more serious such as rape, the social setting of the campus lets harassment go on. Especially in populated areas such as the main fountain area and the cafeteria on campus, it is hard for women to object as the attention is now on them.

“One of the things we found out was that the cafeteria was one of the most exposed areas because people sit down and talk and somebody comes up and puts their arms around you,” Moseley explains. “It’s really hard to openly object to something because there’s so many people around. It’s centered on you all of a sudden.”

Women feel helpless in these situations. Oftentimes, harassment happens fast, like catcalls.

“It just catches you off guard,” Campos said. “You get wolf-whistled or people tell you ‘you have a pretty ass’ and they just keep walking. I mean, what are you supposed to do with that?”

Other times men try to be innocuous through “friendly” conversations that turn into harassment.

“There was this guy trying to get me to sign a petition and he started hitting on me,” Boyles recalled. “I shot him a dirty look and he said, ‘I like that look, I need that in the bedroom.’

“He asked me if I had a boyfriend and I told him that I did. He then said, ‘damn, are you planning on leaving him anytime soon?’” Boyles said, laughing about how ridiculous it was.

Most encounters are very outlandish and unbelievable in what men will do to attract women. Campos and Boyles admit that it is flattering at first but become unbearable.

“When it first started happening I was flattered,” Boyles said. “Because I thought that somebody actually thinks I’m attractive, but then it started getting old fast.”

Boyles noted that when she was growing up, she had poor self-esteem up until she was in college and so deterring harassers was harder.

“If you have low self-esteem, of course you’re not gonna be like ‘get away from me’ when someone starts complimenting or hitting on you,” Boyles said.

Campos agrees that it is somewhat flattering but examines the implications of their intentions.

“It is flattering the first time, but then you start thinking about what it actually means,” Campos said. “They’re not just saying that you’re pretty, they are telling you that out of some form of ownership. They are imposing themselves on you.”

The more serious offenses such as rape and assault are often rooted in that form of ownership. Men often feel a sense of entitlement that leads them to think they can do this without much thought.

“They think they have a right,” Moseley said. “When it comes to sexual assault or rape, it’s about a sense of power, control and dominance. It’s the sense of entitlement that you can what you want to do and nobody’s going to respond.”

Of course, sexual harassment isn’t as severe as sexual assault and rape, but it is still rooted in the same sense of entitlement.

Why Men Do It

Societal expectations and upbringing often drive men to often ignore a woman’s perspective on subjects such as sexual harassment. The answer to the question of why these men do these aforementioned things is coated in many layers such as societal expectations, upbringing and many other factors. Moseley offered an explanation to one aspect of the problem.

“We’ve had centuries of gender differences and gender inequalities,” Moseley noted. “Men have been catcalling women for centuries. They’re still in this masculinity mode. When you watch [around the campus], it’s not a single male that does it. Usually, they are in groups of three or more and this status of masculinity inside this group.”

Boyles notes that this is one of the reasons that sometimes she does not want to completely turn down men, like she rightfully should. “I don’t want to embarrass them. Sometimes their friends are there and so I don’t want them to feel like I shut them down in front of their friends.

“I personally hate my reaction to it,” Boyles continued,. “I feel like I should be more like ‘get away from me.’ But I just don’t want to seem mean. I feel like I’m always too nice. I don’t say enough ‘I told you no already, please get away from me.’”

Social pressures and politeness often stops women from immediately reprimanding these men on the street, often just ignoring it or just waiting for it to end.

“You’re kind of taught to grin and bear it and hope they go away,” Campos said. “You’re really nice and polite and you try not to give them too much information.”

“I mean, I’m not a guy so I can’t exactly say what has imposed them to, but I do think they are taught not to empathize with women,” Campos continued. “So when they see a woman and [see her] as an object of their desire, ‘oh, I would like them to like me.’ It is ‘I want to attain that, I want to gain that’ and ‘I can do that by claiming it.’

Moseley notes that it is this culture that perpetuates the problem with women having this fear of possible harassment, assault or rape.

“The fear of rape and sexual assault is installed within women since the time they take their first breath,” Moseley said. “It’s not installed necessarily by their dads. That fear of rape and assault by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers. From the time a women is a very small child there is that possibility, and that’s not installed in men.”

“We have a culture that allows certain activities and certain events to occur and not see them as actual crimes. It is ingrained in our population and legal and social system.”

The Solution?

The short-term solution to this would be mostly what women already do to try and deter the attention of men. Ignore them, have headphones on, reply politely or tell them they have a boyfriend.

When asked what was the weirdest thing they had done to avoid harassment by men, it would sound ridiculous to men but to women it is perfectly normal.

“I regularly pretend to talk on my phone when I’m out by myself,” Campos said. “If I see somebody following me or they look at me a lot, I will pick up my phone and I can have a 20-minute pretend conversation with myself.”

Boyles notes that she does something similar, often texting someone she knows like her boyfriend, to call her immediately to have an excuse to exit an interaction with a man. She notes the hopelessness, that no matter what she does, it will continue to happen and she often doesn’t like doing what she does.

“It makes me feel shitty. I hate that literally anywhere, no matter how I look, no matter where I am, it can happen.”

Moseley’s solution is for both parties to communicate and try to have men own up to their inappropriate behavior and for women to question men and all the harassment on the street.

“Respond [to unwanted comments] in such a way that it’s positive,” Moseley said. “In a way that it’s not nasty but it requires them to answer your questions. Turn around and ask them ‘are you talking to me?’ or ‘did you say something to me?’”

Final Message to Men

If you are a male and the next time you think of coming up to women, just imagine from their perspective what that would feel like and how they would feel.

Of course, it is a huge generalization that all men do this. But it happens enough times that every woman experiences this. There are plenty of different social situations much more conducive if you want a legitimate relationship with a certain woman without offending them.

“If a woman is alone, just leave her alone. And if she says something like ‘I’m not comfortable giving you my number’ or say she has a boyfriend, just believe them,” Boyles said.

“There are certain cues that men need to pick up on that mean ‘no.’”

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