Why Street Harassment is Terrorism

One night, early on in my time of living in Amsterdam, I was walking with my then boyfriend in the park near our flat, and we had a one of those inconsequential disagreements that somehow blows up into a massive argument. It got so heated that I stormed off to go home, and he didn't come after me. I was flabbergasted. I'd assumed that he would understand that the storming off was a symbolic gesture and that the correct response was to let me go but follow me at a suitably chastened distance to make sure that I wouldn't get raped or murdered on the way home. Instead, he wandered off in the other direction to get some space and cool off. After he got home, I said that the fact that we'd had a minor if melodramatic disagreement shouldn't override his underlying concern for my safety. He said that the chances of me getting raped and murdered in the ten minutes that it was going to take for me to walk home were infinitesimally small, he wasn't worried about me at all, and besides, I was the one who chose to storm off. Who was right? Well, him. But me. But also him. But mainly me.

It was interesting living in Amsterdam, from a street harassment perspective. It was something that barely happened there. I say barely. Obviously not never. I am still female after all. There was the drunk guy who grabbed me at Central Station when I was waiting for a tram one night, and the guy on a bike who slapped my arse as he cycled past me on a busy shopping street in broad daylight. Still, relative to London I felt safe. This was partly because instead of walking, I cycled everywhere, which made me feel invincible. As I saw it - possibly inaccurately - my only moments of vulnerability were when I was unchaining or locking up my bike. Other than that, how were men going to get to me? By throwing a boomerang? I cycled alone through the park late at night with absolute impunity and I loved the feeling of being outside, after dark, on my own. But even that aside, it seems to me that Dutch men don't go in for street harassment with quite the same enthusiasm that British men do. Or maybe it's just because I've got older and am therefore of less interest. Anyhow, I had such a long stretch of not feeling vulnerable that eventually, I came around to my boyfriend's point of view. I stopped being frightened of being out by myself, because there was nobody trying to make me feel afraid. It was wonderful.

Let us call street harassment what it is. It is terrorism. The definition of terrorism is the use or threat of action designed to intimidate the public for the purpose of an ideological cause. To repeat: the use or the threat of action. Phoning in a bomb threat when there is no bomb is an act of terrorism. In the wake of the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard, we have been told by the police that these crimes are extremely rare. Which is true. However, every act of street harassment is designed to remind you that it could happen to you at any time. Every catcall, every jeer, every time a man slows down his car to say something obscene - none of this actually does you any physical harm, but it's aimed at frightening you, at telling you that you are not safe, that the only reason that you are not being raped or murdered right now is that the man in question has decided not to hurt you this time, but that he could just as easily decide otherwise. It is the threat of action designed to intimidate the public. And the ideological cause? The repression of women. To keep us at home, to keep us afraid, to maintain men's power over us.

My fear of these men has been replaced by fury. When I read about the tactics women take to feel safe, tucking their ponytails into their coats, switching off their music, holding their keys as a weapon, I am livid. We should not have to live with this. Not only with the fear, but the disrespect - the decision certain men have taken that the outdoors belongs to them and that they have the right to police our behaviour, where we go, what time of night, what we are wearing, whether we are alone. The decision they have taken to let us know that they object to us in general, no matter what we are doing, that we have infringed on their comfort simply by existing. The decision they have taken to make themselves feel big by making us feel small, to take all of their disagreeable feelings, their shame and their inadequacy, and put them into us, so that we have to carry their shit in our bodies. The decision they have taken to prey on and amplify our fears, so that even if they personally would never physically hurt us, they are more than willing to take advantage of the fact that there are men who would and who do. They may not be rapists, but they are the rapists' accomplices, they are the beneficiaries of rape.

Most women are safe in the street most of the time, even at night. So we should be able to enjoy our lives and our freedom and feel unafraid. But it is not irrational to be afraid of men. One in five women will be raped in our lifetime. Most of the men who would harm us are not in the streets, but in our offices and in our circles of friends and in our homes and in our beds. Ninety percent of people know the person who raped them. But that still means that ten percent don't. Most of the time the strangers who harass us don't go on to do anything worse. Some of the time they do. Every so often the terrorist detonates a bomb. The terrorist thrives on creating a climate of fear, but it only works because there is something to be afraid of.

That’s what makes these aggressions so destabilising. The men who harass us, even in small ways, will never let us forget the worst that can happen. That's why this army of street harassers, this barrage of intimidation, makes me so angry. I want those men to stop, I want women to feel safe, but much more than that I want us to actually be safe. But every so often one of us gets taken, and I remember why, even if he wasn't worried about me at all, my boyfriend should have followed me home through the park, at a suitably chastened distance.