May 1st, 2020, 07:48 AM

Travelling Street Harassment

By Bucky Fuchs
Woman Wearing Green Jacket in Pedestrian Lane During Daytime
Woman Wearing Green Jacket in Pedestrian Lane During Daytime, Image Credit: Christopher Byrne,
American Women and European Harassment

My first day in Paris, my friend McKenney and I were followed by a man on the street. 

McKenney Leavell, CIEE Learning, Paris, France

Image credit: Bucky Fuchs

“I was in Paris for study abroad in early January. We had our little sandwiches for dinner, and we were about to walk past a corner where we saw this one guy that was yelling at this man passing by. He saw us walking by and started following us and yelling, which I couldn’t understand, luckily. McKenney doesn’t speak French, but I do. I didn’t want to translate what our harasser was saying at the time, but I did later tell her one of the things he said, while laughing, was “elles ont peur”--they’re afraid.

“I thought he’d get tired of us not responding and stop following us. But we even went into a store to avoid him, and he followed us in. We were there for a little bit, like ‘uh, don’t know what we should do!’ Eventually he left, before we had to go tell the cashier.”

How did the experience make you feel?

“Definitely afraid. I had only been catcalled before. It knocked my confidence, especially just getting into a new city. I was already aware of risks, but I was a lot more cautious after this. You never know when someone’s gonna do more than just follow you.”

Do you think this is a common thing in Paris?

“For sure.”

What do you think causes street harassment?

“Gender. That’s why most victims are women. It’s men who don’t have regard for women as people. It’s a power thing, for sure. They know they can have power and control over women by instigating fear.

“It’s just people trying to show they have power over someone or the situation. It’s not a compliment, they just think they can do whatever they want. With catcalling, it’s not about what they’re saying, it’s about the implication that they feel entitled to do it. While a lot of situations are not necessarily dangerous, it always puts victims at risk. It makes people feel afraid. Maybe they’re just trying to have some sort of control in their life, and knowing that they can make women afraid gives them that.”



A Culture of Harassment

A 2014 survey of six hundred French women found that 100% of them have been sexually harassed or assaulted while using public transportation at some point in their lives. 

I wish I could say this was a unique experience, and that Paris is an outlier. But I can’t. In every city I’ve lived in in America (Nashville, Boston, Portland), I’ve been publicly harassed. In the majority of countries I’ve travelled to (Canada, Portugal, Scotland, Germany, Poland), I’ve been harassed. 

Most women or feminine-presenting people have experienced street harassment at some point in their life. A 2018 NPR study found that 66% of American women have been sexually harassed in a public place. Not insignificantly, 25% of American men report the same.

The culture of street harassment changes behavior, even when women haven't directly experienced it.


Maya Misra, Oxford University, Oxford, England

Image credit: Bucky Fuchs

“I don’t walk around past ten. I’m with people. I haven’t been in any situations where I think someone would feel comfortable harassing me. But I feel like [the culture of harassment] is less the case here in England than the US. I’ve been catcalled in Nashville, but not here. I’ve been in London out very late, and there were creepy dudes on the Subway, but they kept their distance. They still glare at you, and you know what they’re thinking, but they keep their distance.

“I might have been followed back home once, but it’s hard to tell because it was a short walk, and I locked the gate so they couldn’t follow me into the building. For whatever reason harassment is less aggressive here. You may have someone follow you home but you probably won’t get catcalled.”

Why do you think Oxford is safer than places you’ve been in the US?

“Oxford overall is a safe city, mostly because it’s a student city. You do get student assault, just as you would get in any university, but I would say that happens inside the walls of the university, not out on the street. I think because it’s an academic setting. 

“If you’re walking down High Street in Oxford, even with all female friends, and you come across a group of guys, you won’t be harassed. There’s so many other people on the street with you and the student body is really disapproving of that sort of behavior, so there’s social pressure not to catcall.”

What do you think causes street harassment?

“In terms of catcalling, which is usually a group of boys, it’s them trying to prove among themselves that they can be masculine, and that includes aggression. It’s a social thing. If it’s a creepy guy following a woman home, it’s a fucked up person who doesn’t see women as people.  There’s a lot of factors to why people harass--it could be control, desperation, expectation if you’re in a group--there’s definitely something wrong with your psychology if you’re doing that.”


What harassment looks like

The types of harassment can range from ‘harmless’ catcalling, to following or groping, to much worse--as Caroline experienced. Sometimes harassment escalates.


Carolin Sjoven, American University of Paris, Lisbon, Portugal

Image credit: Bucky Fuchs

“I had just gotten off the subway in the middle of the city, from the airport. I had my backpack and a big suitcase with me. I’m usually better at looking like a local, because I know if you look like a tourist you’re more likely to be a target for pickpocketing or street harassment. But it had been a long day, so I hadn’t really been paying attention. So, I had my suitcase with me, I was looking at my phone and trying to orient myself because I was lost. And I heard people talking but I wasn’t really paying attention because I didn’t think they were talking to me. I looked up and there was a group of four or five guys hovering near me. I looked around and the area I was in was kinda sketchy, but I knew I was close to my Airbnb, so I had just assumed the area was touristy.

“It didn’t feel right. The street was busy, but there was no one really paying attention. The guys came up closer to me, and started talking to me, first in Portuguese and then in English. I was trying not to react, and I started walking in a direction. I didn’t know which way I was going, I just wanted to leave. I started walking, then realized on my map I was going the wrong way.

“I doubled back, and had to walk by the men again. It was around two minutes later.  While I walked past the men again, one of them pushed into me, and another one opened the door to a car near them. 

“I wasn’t fully processing what was going on. I was gripping really tight to my backpack, that’s what I was worried about, because it had my passport. Without thinking, I rolled my suitcase over the feet of the guy that pushed me, and I started walking really fast away. I changed my whole demeanor, to make it really clear I wasn’t interested.

“I don’t think I really knew what was happening while it was happening. Once I was away, I realized the five guys were all staring at me, and the car door was still open with no one going in or out. The whole thing really scared me.

“I was really freaked out. I had already had a long day of travel, so I was exhausted, and now on top of feeling uncomfortable I felt really unsafe. I was in a new city, I was alone, and it didn’t feel safe.”

How did you feel the rest of the time you were in Lisbon?

“When I was with someone else, I felt fine, but Europe overall has a lot more street harassment, like catcalling, than the US, and I’d say Lisbon even had more than France or other places I’ve been. The men there are very direct and very loud. It happened a lot, often. Most of the time I didn’t feel unsafe, because I was with someone, but it made me really uncomfortable. It changed how I was behaving, I was paying a lot of attention to what I wore, and how I presented myself, and it made the whole trip more uncomfortable.”


Further Action?

It seems like there’s an easy solution to ending street harassment: stop harassing people. But while there’s a growing interest in researching the victims of public harassment, I have been unable to find any study that even attempts to estimate how many men are harassers. And how many are serial harassers? Do they understand what they are doing to their victims?

France passed a law in 2018 that made street harassment a finable offense. But it’s hard to prove. It happens so frequently. Actions like taking out your phone to take a picture of the man harassing you can endanger you. Harassment is emotionally draining, and a lot of us just want to forget it ever happened, not go through the pain of reliving it in front of disbelieving strangers.

To end harassment, we need to make victims comfortable to come forward, legal action easier, and to spread awareness. In the meantime, the women I spoke with have some advice.


How should you respond to harassment?

McKenney: “Not confronting the person, being around other people, and being in a place of business. Don’t put yourself at risk by engaging. I think most people being harassed aren’t in a place to defend themselves. If I saw it happening to someone else, I could take a video or call the police. In some situations you can pretend you know the person, for safety in numbers.”

Caroline: “In a perfect world, there’d be a zero tolerance policy. You could say ‘hey, this is not okay, you cannot say this about me.’ But understanding the way men can be violent, especially in big cities, I’m very careful to have my head down, feet stomp, look like I know where I’m going, I don’t want anyone to mess with me, and I usually don’t get harassed. I want to be able to call them out, but for safety, getting away from the situation as fast as possible is the most practical decision. 

“Bystander intervention is important. As long as they’re not in danger, they have a responsibility to intervene on your behalf if the situation is unsafe. If a girl is getting harassed on the side of the street by a group of guys, and I see it, I might go join her and walk with her if she’s okay with that. Being alone in that situation is much more difficult. Having someone just walking next to you can make you feel so much safer, and it can deter that behavior from men.”

Maya: “I’m gonna be practical and say look after your own safety. It feels good to call them out, but you don’t know who is harassing you. If you’re with people who could support you if you call them out, that’s okay, but most of the time that isn’t an option. It makes me mad, but you can’t call people out. I really wish it weren’t like that. 

“For bystanders, it’s hard because ideally it’s about protecting the person, like saying ‘hey do you want me to walk you home?’ and it’s easier to do that if you’re a woman, because you won’t trust a guy who goes up to you and says that. It depends on who the bystander is, because a female bystander would feel less safe confronting the harasser, and a male would feel less incentive to act. It’s frustrating.”