Content warning: The below includes mentions of sexual violence and assault.
In July 2018, a news story about a French woman who’d been assaulted as she walked down a busy street in Paris caught my eye, and possibly yours too. Twenty-two year old architecture student Marie Laguerre was walking home on a sunny summer evening when a man making obscene comments and sexually charged noises approached her. Irritated, she responded, “Ta guele” (which loosely translates to shut up). What happened next shocked not just the Parisians in a nearby café who then rushed to her defense, but seemingly an entire nation, with the French population subsequently erupting in a display of national outrage.
In CCTV footage of the incident that has since been widely circulated, you watch as Laguerre’s assailant first throws a heavy ashtray in her direction — only narrowly missing her — before proceeding to punch her with such force that her hair thrashes wildly around her as his fist connects with her face. Watching the video a few days after the story first broke, the only thing that shocked me more than the sheer violence and unexpectedness of its conclusion was the number of times I myself have been harassed in public and responded as Laguerre did, if not more bitingly. Thankfully, I’ve so far escaped similar situations without further consequence, but I found watching the video of Laguerre’s attack profoundly unsettling, as it dawned on me just how differently things could have played out in any of my numerous previous experiences with street harassment.
There was the time when, while walking home alone in the early hours, I overtook two men on a deserted street who began calling out sexual comments in my wake. Sensing they were too drunk to be of any real danger but furious at their heartlessness — surely they must have recognized how vulnerable women feel in that specific situation — I turned around to admonish them, somewhat surprisingly eliciting an apology from the less drunk of the two. Or there’s the time I was harassed by four different men as I walked the length of a train station platform one evening. By the third attempt my patience was wearing thin, and as soon as my fourth harasser began to make his move, I snapped at him to “fuck off,” prompting him to begin shouting and aggressively squaring up to me. Luckily at that moment, my train pulled into the station, and I was bundled onto it by two sweet women who’d seen what was happening and intervened.
Even though I know that clapping back at catcallers is almost pointlessly reckless, I’ve always gone on instinct, carrying out a split second calculation of each situation before choosing how to respond (if at all). But in reality, it’s impossible to accurately gauge male intent in these scenarios. Assuming I’m safe in flipping the bird at a passing van full of leering men doesn’t stop them from potentially hopping out at the next traffic light and…well, who knows what? Watching the Laguerre video, I felt a delayed sense of anxiety as I contemplated what might have happened had the man who’d squared up to me on that station platform been harboring the same level of aggression as her attacker. Could I have ended up with a black eye? Shoved under a train? Dead? It’s happened before.
Last year a Michigan woman was maced and beaten unconscious after declining to hug a stranger who followed her off a bus. In 2014, mother-of-three Mary Spears was shot and killed at a nightclub in Detroit after refusing to give a man her phone number. A 2014 study by nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of women in the United States had experienced some form of street harassment in their lifetimes. Given that I don’t have a single female friend who hasn’t experienced street harassment, I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual figures are higher than the official ones, as is sometimes the case with self-reported studies. The situation is even worse for transgender women or gender non-conforming people, who face heightened levels of verbal and physical harassment when in public. In a heartbreaking July 2015 Facebook post that quickly went viral, gender non-conforming writer and performing artist Alok Vaid-Menon documented the extent of the problem, writing, “Every morning when I wake up and look at my closet I ask myself, ‘How much do I want to be street harassed today?’”
Though stories like these sadly aren’t particularly unusual, my latent awareness of the potential danger these kinds of situations harbor feels newly heightened. A spate of acid attacks in my hometown of London last year, frequently aimed at disfiguring women as revenge for perceived slights, has also made me conscious of how easily low-level misogyny can tip over into outright aggression. And of course, there is the current political climate, where the air seems to shimmer with hidden danger and barely concealed aggression toward women, the news cycle dominated by misogynistic men. The political suddenly feels uncomfortably personal, and I have belatedly begun considering how risky retaliation might be in a climate where men are emboldened by political figures who see no harm in grabbing women by the pussy.
A few months ago, I tweeted triumphantly about my response to a man who’d grabbed my bum at a bar, eviscerating him in front of a crowd of onlookers before having him kicked out. Unsurprisingly, my anecdote was met with a gratifying chorus of encouraging responses, yet a day later — feeling worried that another woman might be emboldened by my story and end up in a situation that didn’t end as favorably — I tweeted a retraction of sorts, suggesting the best thing to do in those sorts of situations might actually be nothing at all.
In search of answers of how best to respond in those sorts of situations, I logged onto Hollaback!, a platform created with the aim of ending street harassment globally. Though they make clear under the section of their website advising women on how best to respond to harassment that how each individual woman chooses to respond is entirely up to her, I was slightly surprised to find that they don’t explicitly recommend what I’m calling “the walk-away,” either. Instead, they offer a three-step guide to responding to harassment that (in my view) doesn’t make clear enough that “no response” is also an option.
When I consulted Sophie Sandberg (creator of the Catcalls of NYC project, which aims to shine a light on individual women’s experiences of harassment), she advised that women should “do what feels safe,” before going on to tell me that 95 percent of the time, she herself simply ignores cat-callers. “I don’t have the energy to gauge if the situation is safe and I’m always afraid of potential retaliation.”
“Always afraid.” It feels so unfair. Why do women have to be always afraid?
Her words bring to mind a Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” I am so often consumed by frustration at being unable to conduct my day-to-day life without being approached by strange men, at constantly having to adjust my behavior and wardrobe to minimize the likelihood of being subject to harassment — and still having to deal with it anyway. It feels like the ultimate indignity to both be catcalled and to let the perpetrators get away with it, but in recent months my rage has been, if not replaced, then certainly supplemented with fear. And yet silence in the face of such aggression — and that is what catcalling is, no matter how low-level it may be — feels so deeply unsatisfying.
Perhaps though, the fight isn’t out on the streets, but rather in the playgrounds where children are first exposed to the he’s-only-mean-because-he-likes-you school of thought, or in courtrooms where lawyers are too quick to ask what a woman was wearing when verbal harassment escalates into something more sinister. I was shocked to discover that in the U.K., sexual harassment outside of the workplace isn’t even a specific criminal offence; in the U.S., it is treated as a civil wrong but is not in itself a crime under state or federal law (though in both countries, certain acts that constitute sexual harassment are classed as criminal behavior). Grim as that discovery was, in it I found something of a solution to my feeling of helplessness. For the first time ever, I picked up a pen and decided to write a letter to my local government representative asking them to criminalize sexual harassment outright. I encourage you to do the same.
If you’d like to write to your senator, visit the Senate website for a comprehensive list of all senators and their contact details.
If you’re based in the U.K. and would like to write to your local MP, visit WriteToThem, a charity created to make it easy to write to the politicians who represent you — even if you don’t know who they are.
Collage by Emily Zirimis.