Something happened to me last week which reinforced how far South African men and women have to go in their interactions with each other. Allow me.
Every morning I walk into the complex where my offices are based and every morning the security guard downstairs says something lecherous to me. He whispers in a low voice, gets graphic and then laughs. It feels like being molested, every morning. Normally I ignore him as I try not to engage people like him. One day his constant comments pushed me and I had a moment where I shouted, swore at him and told him to stop disrespecting me. I also told him I would get him fired if he continued. He was shocked into silence and didn’t say anything. I assumed it was over. A week later he stands next to another security guard and starts again. This time I calmly ask him why he is continuing despite our earlier conversation. He laughs. The security guard next to him keeps quiet and watches.
I have seen this so many times. A shop manager being inappropriate with a cashier who simply looks down, silent. Women at taxi ranks groped and pulled by men. The women giggle nervously and try squirm away. Not too hard see, you don’t want to offend someone who is stronger than you. I was reading an article which included a quote by Margaret Atwood which said “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” There seems to be an underlying current of fear in these interactions, so no matter how angry you are, you don’t want to offend the person wronging you, you don’t know what they will do.
It feels as though women are constantly assaulted. Not in the big dramatic way we see in campaigns of women with black eyes and broken bones, rather it is in day to day interactions that demean us and do not allow us to speak back. These tiny assaults are often played down as “it’s a guy thing” or “you know how they are” if you discuss them with people.
If I think about it I guess I would not mind a random dude off the street approaching me, greeting and trying his luck. I do mind someone telling me they’d like to fuck me without a hello or a excuse me. It feels rude. Maybe that’s me. A blogger on Hello Giggles summed it up beautifuly by saying “The thing about street harassment is that it is not meant to be a compliment, but, in fact, an aggressive assertion of male dominance by dehumanizing and hypersexualizing someone.”
The psychology behind street harassment eerily reminds me of the reasons men rape and commit other sexual offenses.
Back to the security guard at my office. I sometimes work late, leaving the office when it is dark and quiet. After my outburst I started worrying about whether he would do anything more severe to me as I had reacted to him. Those type of men and dislike of women who talk back.
I decided to go his work and have a chat with his managers about the harassment and my unease. Explaining the situation, how uncomfortable and unsafe I felt because of what had been happening the lady seemed curious and half amused that I would complain about it. He was hovering in the background. She spotted him and asked me if I would like to go somewhere and speak to him. Deflated I declined. It felt as though because he had not physically attacked me it wasn’t important or serious.
After my incident I decided to look up responses to street harassment.
Here are some suggestions, verbatim, from Stop the harassment:
1. Use strong body language. Look the harasser in the eyes; speak in a strong, clear voice. Using your voice, facial expressions, and body language together, without mixed signals, show assertiveness and strength.
2. Project confidence and calm. Even if you do not feel that way, it is important to appear calm, serious, and confident.
3. Do not apologize, make an excuse, or ask a question. You do not need to say sorry for how you feel or what you want. Be firm.
4. You do not need to respond to diversions, questions, threats, blaming, or guilt-tripping. Stay on your own agenda. Stick to your point. Repeat your statement or leave.
5. Do not swear or lose your temper: This type of reaction is the most likely to make the harasser respond with anger and violence.
6. Decide when you’re done. Success is how you define it. If you said what you needed to say and you’re ready to leave, do so.
Suggestions of what to say to a harasser from the same site:
-Name the behavior and state that it is wrong. For example say, “Do not whistle at me, that is harassment,” or “Do not touch my butt, that is sexual harassment.”
-Tell them exactly what you want. Say, for example, “move away from me,” “stop touching me,” or “go stand over there.”
-Ask them if they would want their mother, sister, daughter, girl friend, wife treated like they are treating you.
-Use an A-B-C statement (and be very concrete about A and C): Tell the harasser what the problem is; State the effect; and What you want. Here is an example: “When you make kissing noises at me it makes me feel uncomfortable. I want you to say, ‘Hello, ma’am,’ from now on if you want to talk to me.”
-Attack the behavior, not the person. Tell them what they are doing that you do not like (“You are standing too close”) rather than blaming them as a person (“You are such a jerk”).
Try and take a self defense class offered at your university or a dojo near you, it will empower you and teach you the basics of defending yourself.
As I am writing this I hope it helps but I also know that in a country like ours you will struggle or get responses that are negative if you try implement them but Aluta Continua. Let me know your suggestions of how to deal with this or if it has happened to you in the comments section.