My body is not your property: Street harassment and the culture of victim blaming
A few years ago whilst on holiday, I was caught in a crowded tram in Istanbul. It was summer, and bodies were pressed together in the confined space. The odour was stifling. There was the uncomfortable intimacy of body contact with strangers, being able to feel sweat dripping down arms, the stickiness of skin, the scratchiness of body hair.
I had to contort and crouch in the corner to prevent myself being caught in the stampede flowing in and out the tram.
I stared out the window, watching the swirling masses of people in the city centre, and the strange mix of the familiar corporate slogans against the traditional architecture. Mosques and McDonalds.
I don’t know when I became aware of the hand on my crotch.
It must be an accident. I’ll just try and move and the person will realize their mistake. They’ll probably be really embarrassed. It’ll be fine.
The hand did not move.
I began to feel acutely aware of my clothes. I was wearing a blue dress, which only that morning I had put on with excitement whilst planning the itinerary for sight seeing. It was a new purchase, and I had felt so invulnerable and confident wearing it. Now, I felt strangely exposed and obscene, aware of how low cut it was, and the thinness of the fabric .
The grip tightened.
I began to panic. I continued to turn my head sideways, on the pretext of looking out the window.
The rancid smell of sweat combined with fear made me nauseous.
The hand continued tightened its grip. I thought about the hand as this disconnected entity, it’s every movement was accompanied by a wave of shock and panic. My muscles contracted. I wanted to vomit.
I looked down.
The memory is hyper real. A middle aged, well manicured hand. I stared at the details on the watch strap, the second hand ticking, slowly inching forward. A ring with a dark stone. Creases, crevices, criss crossing veins. Age spots.
I was disconnected from my body, a spectator watching a scene play out in a movie.
I looked up.
We were face to face. He smiled. I couldn’t believe he could look at me so directly, so confidently. His face has become a blur, but I can remember the contours of his hand in horrifying detail.
I had the vague idea that I needed to do something, but I felt incapacitated.
I should scream, I should alert everyone in the tram, my family isn’t far away, they can’t see me, but they’ll be able to hear me. Can’t someone stop him? Can’t someone see what he’s doing?
Fear and guilt clogged my throat.
Why is this happening?
The tram finally came to a stop. A press of bodies began moving and jostling, and I felt myself being pushed forward, expelled onto the crumbling pavement. I looked back at the tram. I couldn’t see him.
I sat down in the late afternoon sun. I don’t know how long I was sitting there.
Eventually I felt a tap on the shoulder, and saw my parents.
Why did you get off at the wrong stop? We were worried.
Oh, it’s nothing, I guess I just read the map wrong.
For a long time, reflecting back on that day in the tram dredged up feelings of shame. Even the fact that I had begun to question my choice of outfit on the day is representative of how much my sixteen year old self had internalized the culture of victim blaming.
His was an act of power and intimidation. I can vocalize that now, but at the time, I was numbed with terror and couldn’t find the words to describe what happened.
These stories are everywhere. Recently I had a dinner conversation with a group of friends about street harassment. It never ceases to amaze me how many people I know who have had similar experiences. Feeling unsafe and vulnerable in public spaces a disconcerting reality, particularly for women. The incident on the tram is the worst experience I’ve faced, but there are many different forms of street harassment (I’ve written about cat calling in detail on this blog).
The thing that makes me sick and angry was the sense of entitlement that anonymous harasser felt to my body. The right to appraise it, to analyse it, to violate it, and in doing to, attempt to take away my own autonomy and right to feel safe in on public transport.
I remember telling a friend about it, and she responded with, ‘why didn’t you do something? Why did you let it happen?’
That is total bullshit.
Nobody should have to confront their harassers. I felt frozen with shock at the time, and was afraid of the real risk that confrontation could lead to an escalation of violence. Instead of telling people not to ‘put themselves in that situation’ or telling them how to react, we should focus on preventing harassment from happening in the first place, and addressing the insidious problem of victim blaming.