Sexism and the City: Is Street Harassment a Problem in Portsmouth?

Last year a YouGov poll commissioned by the End Violence Against Women coalition found that 64% of all women surveyed experienced unwanted sexual attention in public spaces. Rates for younger women were even higher. University of Portsmouth student and S&C contributor Laura Mitchell reports on street harassment experienced by women in Portsmouth.

I’m walking to university. It’s a cold and gloomy November day, the wind nips at the tip of my nose and pinches my cheeks. I turn the corner from my quiet street onto a busier Portsmouth road lined with shops, cafes and filled with a constant stream of traffic. A violent gust of winter breeze pulls at the edges of my coat and whips it open. I fumble, quickly trying to pull it back.

The chill is not the only reason for my urgency. A group of lads stand on the corner of the road opposite, hoods up to shield them from the cold. I can feel their eyes on me, lingering on my legs and my breasts. A hot burst of shame runs through me. Finally, I pull my disobedient coat back under control and zip it up as far as it will go. I hear a burst of jeering from across the road.

‘Oi, don’t do that!’

‘Yeah, undo it again! Let’s have a look!’

‘Blondie! Talkin’ to you!’’

Grabbing for the volume button on my phone, I drown out their laughter and carry on walking, not daring to let them know I heard. My cheeks flush red, my ears burn and I wish I were invisible.

The ‘End Violence Against Women Coalition’ commissioned a YouGov poll in 2016 to discover the extent of street harassment, or ‘catcalling’. They found 64% of women of all ages had experienced unwanted sexual attention in public. This increased to 85% for women aged 18-24 years. In a mission to find out more, I created a questionnaire to be circulated on social media accounts to see what my friends and family had experienced, both men and women.

40 people answered my survey, 13 men and 27 women.

Through my questionnaire, I found that 100% of the women who answered had received catcalls at some point in their lives. Of these women 87% said they found the experience intimidating, an opinion I share. I find the frequent catcalling and street harassment I receive on my way to university has had a gradual but obvious affect on me. I, for example, will mask myself in a sea of baggy jumpers in an attempt to avoid attention. I won’t wear bright colours if I’m alone. I’ve changed the routes I walk and I refuse to leave the house without headphones in an attempt to mute catcalls.

According to my survey, 48% of the women said they had changed some aspects of their behaviour to avoid or as a consequence of, catcalling. 20% have changed the way they dress, 16% have altered their routes to school, university, or work and 12% said they had changed other aspects of their behaviour. For example some women said they take more defensive measures.

‘I hold my key between my fingers to defend myself if I feel uncomfortable after someone catcalls.’ one woman told me.

I met with Jo Arslett, a twenty-one year old student at Portsmouth University. She told me she receives catcalls ‘most journeys to and from uni, whether it’s a wolf-whistle out of a car or sexual comments as you walk past somebody, or a tooting of a horn’. She described one particular spot on her walk to university that she struggles with.

‘There are a few guys in one particular shop that I don’t like; they sit outside the shop on the corner of the street. I don’t like walking past because I always feel a bit intimidated. I usually cross the road a bit earlier so I’m on the other side and turn my music up so I can’t hear them, but the way I’d walked a few days ago meant I had to go past. There was a girl in front of me, she only looked about twelve or thirteen. She walked past and they were shouting things to her. They wolf-whistled and made comments. Then as I walked past, again I could hear them making sexual comments towards me.’

Jo was not completely shocked at the harassment of the young girl she had witnessed, she told me the first time she experienced any form of catcalling she was just seven years old. She was running across a park near her house, ‘when a guy pulled up in his car and tooted his horn and shouted a few comments’. This is something I can identify with, as I’m certain many women can.

The first time I remember being catcalled was on my way home from school in my uniform skirt and polo, shirt aged thirteen. Three men in a van shouted about my boobs as they zoomed past. The volume of it frightened me and their words made me want to burst into tears. I ran home, the weight of my backpack bashing against the base of my spine.

It came as a surprise to me that only 69% of the women I had questioned considered catcalling a form of sexual harassment despite all having experienced it and an overwhelming majority saying they found it intimidating.

I spoke with Josie Rea Allan, a twenty year old student, who said she didn’t always consider catcalling sexual harassment, instead finding it flattering.

‘The feminist in me wants to get annoyed at it because I’m not an object and blah blah blah, but I do walk away and think, yeah my arse does look good in these jeans.’

Yet Josie accepts that catcalling could be related to wider issues of sexual harassment.

‘I think the whole situation with sexually objectifying women does come from little things like catcalling. It’s on a little level so you think it’s okay, but people are going to see how far they can push it.’

It seemed the majority of those who participated in my questionnaire agreed, with 74% of all participants, both men and women, feeling catcalling was part of a wider issue of sexual harassment.

Ellie Stone, secretary for the University of Portsmouth Feminist Society, said she regards catcalling as harassment, ‘the type of things that people say when they catcall are often vulgar, over-stepping boundaries and unwanted, and therefore leads to the victim feeling uncomfortable. To me, this kind of structure is what harassment is. I don’t think that catcalling is really taken as seriously as it should be; it is often brushed off as something that just happens. It seems to have been integrated into society that this is the norm, this is not how it should be approached.’

The overwhelming response seems to be that catcalling is prolific, chronic, and unwanted, in the eyes of both men and women. Why then, is it such a common occurrence?

Is it just a general attitude towards women in society that allows this smaller scale harassment to continue, the sense of entitlement that people feel over the female body? The right to stare, to possess, to touch. Regardless of whether it’s wanted or not. We’re hooted and shouted at, a regular reminder that we should be aware; women are here to be looked at.

What I find intimidating is the lack of shame from catcallers, the smirk that lingers on the lips that shaped the smutty comments directed at me. It rouses such a deep embarrassment from those targeted, that the men who shout brazenly without a hint of unease seem to find funny. It’s so normal, and so expected that every day women leave their homes and prepare themselves ‘just in case’, disguising their bodies in a soft armour of coats and jumpers, keys close at hand, an alternative route at the ready.

With Hollywood centre stage of an investigation into sexual assault, is it time society became self-reflective? Is small scale street harassment legitimising wider sexual harassment and assault? Shouting to women walking down the street about what parts of them you’d like to grab, what things you’d like to do to them, and actually doing them is quite a leap, but even saying it aloud normalises it. Words have so much power, they settle on the skin, branding women with ‘you can do what you want to me’.

It is crushingly frustrating that catcalling is something not taken seriously. Personally, I don’t find it a compliment. Neither, does it appear, do the majority of women. We need to stop kidding ourselves that it’s ‘harmless fun’; it has a serious affect on the way our young women view themselves and their bodies and on how our young men view women and their bodies.

No, that doesn’t mean compliments are banned.

Everyone loves to be complimented, to be told they’re attractive, flirted with, but that’s a world away from dehumanising declarations about body parts from strangers. It’s an action rooted in power and violence, not flattery. I know many women bravely confront catcallers. Others, like me, would be too embarrassed or afraid, not knowing whether it is safe to respond.

The point is we shouldn’t have to.