Street Harassment: How it Hurts Women

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The day a man gets locked up for ‘sooting’ a woman, heads will roll, and I’m not being dramatic. There’s this little-known piece of legislation – the 2005 Offences Against the Person (Amendment) (Harassment) Act – which makes it a criminal offence to harass a person, and yes, the ‘pssst’ Trini men (and women) are famous for falls under this banner.
Will we ever see anyone in Trinidad and Tobago charged for ‘sooting’? Highly unlikely, I think. After all, we’d pass off a “psssssssst… sexxxxxyyyy”, as a cultural thing. However, when I discovered this piece of legislation over the weekend, on the newly formed WomenSpeakProject’s Facebook page (a local group aimed at highlighting victimisation towards women), and started chatting with other women, it became obvious that street harassment was a topic worth discussing – especially since it was the second time for the week that it had crossed my path.
Earlier in the week, while chatting to my BFF who was walking through Arima, she said, “Karel you know what a man just tell me? How I look like varnish. I good fuh wood. They disrespectful eh?”
Now, I will admit I buss out a scandalous laugh, but let’s get serious for a minute. Many women experience this sort of harassment on a daily basis, when they just want to be left alone.
According to Hollaback! – an international movement to end street harassment – street harassment is “an interaction in a public space that makes you feel sexualized, intimidated, embarrassed, objectified, violated, attacked, or unsafe”, and “an interaction in a public space that restricts your movement or makes you modify your behaviour in an attempt to avoid the possibility of being verbally and/or physically harassed”.
It usually goes like this. Let’s say some men are liming by the corner or working on a construction site. They see you. Sometimes, their remarks are innocent with a pleasant “Good morning famlee”, if you’re lucky. If your hair is natural, they’ll call you empress or sistren. Then there’s the lewd, “aye gyul, dat c&nt looking nice and fat” or the “yuh like varnish, good for wood” comment my friend got.
Sometimes, what started out as an innocent “hey sexy, can I talk to you for a minute” can turn into abusive comments being hurled at you, especially if you ignore them. This is when the catcalls get worse. You might even collect a cuss. That’s just the verbal abuse.
Some of us who haven’t had terrible experiences will simply call street harassers disgusting and say, “That’s probably why they doh have a woman!” For others, it’s something more serious.
Street harassment can also range from leering and unwelcomed advances to groping, and assault, and while some try to brush it off as harmless flirting or disgusting men being just that, disgusting, many women would tell you this sort of objectification and degradation is disturbing and traumatizing. Actually, it can be downright scary, and, for some women, an experience they find hard to shake off.
Take Cintra*, for example. Now in her 30s, and married with children, she clearly remembers sexual advances made to her as a schoolgirl in west Trinidad. Here’s her story:
“I have had a man shove his hand between my legs to grab my crotch while in uniform walking down the road with my brother to get a taxi home after school. He never broke stride and most people around never knew what happened. My bro was behind me and I dared not tell him what happened because a lil CIC boy against a grown nastiness who could do something like that was probably not going to end well.
I have had another taxi driver – middle-aged, very fatherly, and gentle-looking man, glasses and all, fondle my breasts, again while in uniform and taxiing to school. Because I was alone in the car and very aware of potential to be whisked off somewhere remote, I stayed very quiet. When the car slowed down a bit near an intersection I opened the car door. He didn’t have to stop but I was prepared to throw myself out if he didn’t. He did stop though and I got out, walked against the traffic, and never looked back.
Worse. When sitting with a group of girls in Form 6 at school, we were talking about how disgusting men can be, and as people began to recount their experiences, I would say in a group of ten, eight had been touched inappropriately, many by people they know who should have known better. That has always remained a scary statistic to me – eight out of ten. That’s 80% of our girl children. And 100% never told a soul. Even me, I never told a soul until I had graduated from college.
Somehow though, it seems to be acceptable and almost humorous to have no filter for your mouth as a man when talking to girls or women.”
Most women I spoke with have memories of harassment from their schoolgirl days. Personally, I’ve always remembered the time a tout on the Arima stand in Port of Spain told me I had rude lips, and then proceeded to tell me all the things he was going to do to them. For some females, the harassment has never ventured to level to which Cintra* was violated, and it has significantly decreased in their adult days. Take Thalia*, 26, for instance:
“I think I heard it all, more so when I was younger. I don’t know if I’m wrong, but I think it has toned down, well for me at least. Years ago I heard more crass things like what piece of KFC they liked and were comparing my body parts to and what they’d want to do to me. I got slapped on the toosh already.
Nowadays, it’s just “morning beautiful” and “yuh look good shorty”… stuff like that. That I could handle and I just reply by saying thank you and morning, ‘cause yuh know if yuh doh reply, some does get offended to the extent where they does wanna cuss! I’ve found when you reply with a simple thanks and no eye contact and yuh keep on movin’ normal, they don’t pursue.”
Experiences like these show that catcalls are not just a harmless form of flattery, especially when these memories forever impact how a woman feels, tensing up to prepare herself for some form of harassment, as she walks down a street by herself, past a group of men. For some women, street harassment heightens their fear of rape. For others, regular harassment has a direct impact on their preoccupation with physical appearance and body shame.
“It’s really a violation,” says Simona Lee, founder of WomenSpeakProject. “It causes stress. Women should be able to go the grocery store or walk down the street without fear. Sometimes the comments are so violent themselves, it’s like verbal rape.
“I doubt any women will go to the police because a man on the street told her ‘I want to suck yuh ……”, because the police officer will probably tell you ‘get over it’ or women themselves want to be nice, and not cause a fuss for the man. But, I think making this law public (Offences Against the Person), talking about it, and the possible consequences, particularly for the more serious offences such as stalking and touching, could make men assess their behaviours. Many men just grew up thinking this is the way to be. They think it’s ok. They don’t realise that it is a violation and how deeply it offends and hurts women.”
Most women take the harassment and keep on moving; and yes, crime is on the rise and you’re hesitant to retort, but sometimes you need to assess the situation and stand up for yourself. Older women may be better equipped to take the verbal jamming, but what about a schoolgirl who may be passing by after? As we’ve seen, many women remember the harassment they got in their younger years – maybe because they felt more helpless at this age.
So here are some tips to help defend yourself against street harassers:
* Establish boundaries: A pleasant ‘good morning’ exchange shouldn’t descend into you feeling uncomfortable, so if a simple flirtation starts making you feel uncomfortable, express that.
* Make the harasser accountable: Speak loudly enough, so people around you can hear and understand what took place.
* Be assertive: Be direct. Don’t say ‘sorry’, ‘please’, or ‘excuse me’.
* Use strong body language: Look the person directly in the eye. Don’t smile, use a firm voice, and maintain an upright posture.
* State your case: Feel free to tell the person to stop harassing women.
* Use your good judgment: If you feel unsafe, keep your distance, especially from harassers who seem violent.
* Choose an approach that’s best suited for you.
So let’s chat. Do you think street harassment is a culturally accepted ‘norm’ in Trinidad and Tobago? How do you feel about street harassment?
For more information about the WomenSpeakProject, connect with their Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/WomenSpeakProject/185807078106185 or follow them on Tumblir at http://womenspeak.tumblr.com.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
The day a man gets locked up for ‘sooting’ a woman, heads will roll, and I’m not being dramatic. There’s this little-known piece of legislation – the 2005 Offences Against the Person (Amendment) (Harassment) Act – which makes it a criminal offence to harass a person, and yes, the ‘pssst’ Trini men (and women) are famous for falls under this banner.

Will we ever see anyone in Trinidad and Tobago charged for ‘sooting’? Highly unlikely, I think. After all, we’d pass off a “psssssssst… sexxxxxyyyy”, as a cultural thing.

However, when I discovered this piece of legislation over the weekend, on the newly formed WomenSpeakProject’s Facebook page (a local group aimed at highlighting victimisation towards women), and started chatting with other women, it became obvious that street harassment was a topic worth discussing – especially since it was the second time for the week that it had crossed my path.

Earlier in the week, while chatting to my BFF who was walking through Arima, she said, “Karel you know what a man just tell me? How I look like varnish. I good fuh wood. They disrespectful eh?”

 Now, I will admit I buss out a scandalous laugh, but let’s get serious for a minute. Many women experience this sort of harassment on a daily basis, when they just want to be left alone.

According to Hollaback! – an international movement to end street harassment – street harassment is “an interaction in a public space that makes you feel sexualized, intimidated, embarrassed, objectified, violated, attacked, or unsafe”, and “an interaction in a public space that restricts your movement or makes you modify your behaviour in an attempt to avoid the possibility of being verbally and/or physically harassed”.

“Street harassment… an interaction in a public space that makes you feel sexualized, intimidated, embarrassed, objectified, violated, attacked, or unsafe.”

It usually goes like this. Let’s say some men are liming by the corner or working on a construction site. They see you. Sometimes, their remarks are innocent with a pleasant “Good morning famlee”, if you’re lucky. If your hair is natural, they’ll call you empress or sistren. Then there’s the lewd, “aye gyul, dat c&nt looking nice and fat” or the “yuh like varnish, good for wood” comment my friend got.

Sometimes, what started out as an innocent “hey sexy, can I talk to you for a minute” can turn into abusive comments being hurled at you, especially if you ignore them. This is when the catcalls get worse. You might even collect a cuss. That’s just the verbal abuse.

Some of us who haven’t had terrible experiences will simply call street harassers disgusting and say, “That’s probably why they doh have a woman!” For others, it’s something more serious.

Street harassment can also range from leering and unwelcomed advances to groping, and assault, and while some try to brush it off as harmless flirting or disgusting men being just that, disgusting, many women would tell you this sort of objectification and degradation is disturbing and traumatizing. Actually, it can be downright scary, and, for some women, an experience they find hard to shake off.

“Most women… have memories of harassment from their schoolgirl days.”

Take Cintra*, for example. Now in her 30s, and married with children, she clearly remembers sexual advances made to her as a schoolgirl in west Trinidad. Here’s her story:

“I have had a man shove his hand between my legs to grab my crotch while in uniform walking down the road with my brother to get a taxi home after school. He never broke stride and most people around never knew what happened. My bro was behind me and I dared not tell him what happened because a lil CIC boy against a grown nastiness who could do something like that was probably not going to end well.

I have had another taxi driver – middle-aged, very fatherly, and gentle-looking man, glasses and all, fondle my breasts, again while in uniform and taxiing to school. Because I was alone in the car and very aware of potential to be whisked off somewhere remote, I stayed very quiet. When the car slowed down a bit near an intersection I opened the car door. He didn’t have to stop but I was prepared to throw myself out if he didn’t. He did stop though and I got out, walked against the traffic, and never looked back.

Worse. When sitting with a group of girls in Form 6 at school, we were talking about how disgusting men can be, and as people began to recount their experiences, I would say in a group of ten, eight had been touched inappropriately, many by people they know who should have known better. That has always remained a scary statistic to me – eight out of ten. That’s 80% of our girl children. And 100% never told a soul. Even me, I never told a soul until I had graduated from college.

Somehow though, it seems to be acceptable and almost humorous to have no filter for your mouth as a man when talking to girls or women.”

Most women I spoke with have memories of harassment from their schoolgirl days. Personally, I’ve always remembered the time a tout on the Arima stand in Port of Spain told me I had rude lips, and then proceeded to tell me all the things he was going to do to them. For some females, the harassment has never ventured to the level to which Cintra* was violated, and it has significantly decreased in their adult days. Take Thalia*, 26, for instance:

“Years ago I heard more crass things like what piece of KFC they liked and were comparing my body parts to.”

“I think I heard it all, more so when I was younger. I don’t know if I’m wrong, but I think it has toned down, well for me at least. Years ago I heard more crass things like what piece of KFC they liked and were comparing my body parts to and what they’d want to do to me. I got slapped on the toosh already.

Nowadays, it’s just “morning beautiful” and “yuh look good shorty”… stuff like that. That I could handle and I just reply by saying thank you and morning, ‘cause yuh know if yuh doh reply, some does get offended to the extent where they does wanna cuss! I’ve found when you reply with a simple thanks and no eye contact and yuh keep on movin’ normal, they don’t pursue.”

“I don’t know if I’m wrong, but I think it has toned down, well for me at least.”

Experiences like these show that catcalls are not just a harmless form of flattery, especially when these memories forever impact how a woman feels, tensing up to prepare herself for some form of harassment, as she walks down a street by herself, past a group of men. For some women, street harassment heightens their fear of rape. For others, regular harassment has a direct impact on their preoccupation with physical appearance and body shame.

“It’s really a violation,” says Simone Leid, founder of WomenSpeakProject. “It causes stress. Women should be able to go the grocery store or walk down the street without fear. Sometimes the comments are so violent themselves, it’s like verbal rape.

“I doubt any women will go to the police because a man on the street told her ‘I want to suck yuh ……”, because the police officer will probably tell you ‘get over it’ or women themselves want to be nice, and not cause a fuss for the man. But, I think making this law public (Offences Against the Person), talking about it, and the possible consequences, particularly for the more serious offences such as stalking and touching, could make men assess their behaviours. Many men just grew up thinking this is the way to be. They think it’s ok. They don’t realise that it is a violation and how deeply it offends and hurts women.”

Most women take the harassment and keep on moving; and yes, crime is on the rise and you’re hesitant to retort, but sometimes you need to assess the situation and stand up for yourself. Older women may be better equipped to take the verbal jamming, but what about a schoolgirl who may be passing by after? As we’ve seen, many women remember the harassment they got in their younger years – maybe because they felt more helpless at this age.

So here are some tips to help defend yourself against street harassers:

  • Establish boundaries: A pleasant ‘good morning’ exchange shouldn’t descend into you feeling uncomfortable, so if a simple flirtation starts making you feel uncomfortable, express that.
  • Make the harasser accountable: Speak loudly enough, so people around you can hear and understand what took place.
  • Be assertive: Be direct. Don’t say ‘sorry’, ‘please’, or ‘excuse me’.
  • Use strong body language: Look the person directly in the eye. Don’t smile, use a firm voice, and maintain an upright posture.
  • State your case: Feel free to tell the person to stop harassing women.
  • Use your good judgment: If you feel unsafe, keep your distance, especially from harassers who seem violent.
  • Choose an approach that’s best suited for you.

So let’s chat. Do you think street harassment is a culturally accepted ‘norm’ in Trinidad and Tobago? How do you feel about street harassment?

For more information about the WomenSpeakProject, connect with their Facebook page, or follow them on Tumblr at womenspeak.tumblr.com.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

 

Karel Mc Intosh

Karel Mc Intosh is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Outlish Magazine. She's also the Lead Communications Trainer at Livewired Group, where she conducts workshops in business writing, social media, and other communications areas. A real online junkie, when she isn't surfing the Internet, she's thinking about surfing the Internet. Find out more about her here or tweet her @outlishmagazine.

3 Comments

  1. Danielle

    February 7, 2011 at 3:05 am

    This is such a great article. I hate to sound harsh but I feel like Trinidad is almost uncivilised with some of our ‘cultural’ habits. You mentioned not just verbal assault, but sexual assault as well. It’s disgusting how these grown men act towards GIRLS yet as a society nothing is done. I too remember being verbally assaulted as a schoolgirl in my uniform.
    And Trinis wonder why people leave to the US/Canada and never look back. It’s the sum of these life experiences. (For the record, yes there are peverts in Canada, however I have never seen a GROWN MAN’ try to ‘holla’ at a school girl. Unless he has a jail wish.)

  2. Michelle

    February 8, 2011 at 9:37 am

    When I was in school, even primary school, i used to get harassed. It was the worst. Sometimes I think it contributed to me still trying to not ‘upset’ men so they don’t embarrass me. It was a really horrible experience and no child, no female should be made to feel so uncomfortable. The first time I went abroad, and realized not every man does ‘soot’ it was such a relief! I could wear what I want, without hearing comments about it or getting ‘looks’ from nasty men. Even the nasty old men in it too.

  3. Erik K.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:57 am

    For more ideas on how to deal with street harassment, please visit the 3A’s of Street Harassment Disruption blog.
    http://streetharassmentdisruption.blogspot.com/

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